Live Music Is Back, But You Might Still Have To Wait On That Arena Show

May 28, 2021
Originally published on May 28, 2021 5:12 pm

The big re-opening of live music is truly upon us. Summer music festival season is nearly here. Artists are announcing tour dates. And fans are buying tickets! Or, in some cases, they're finally getting the chance to use tickets they bought a couple years ago. But it might be a while before your favorite arena-level act can set out on tour.

"We're in an interesting place that none of us have been before," said Gary Gersh in an interview with NPR. He's the president of global touring at AEG Presents, the massive live entertainment company behind such big acts as Elton John, Justin Bieber, The Weeknd and more. Gersh said that AEG acts are booking far out: past 2022, into 2023.

"Everyone, I think, was more cautious at the beginning of the year," said Gersh. But now, some acts that pushed their bookings far into the future out of precaution have tried to move back into 2021. "And it's complicated because there's traffic everywhere," Gersh explained.

AEG rival Live Nation is stuck in the same traffic jam – so many acts trying to play as soon as possible, but only so many rooms and weekends to play. "We have an incredible supply right now looking to go on tour," Live Nation CEO Michael Rapino said on a recent episode of the Vox podcast Recode Media.

"So you have a lot of these artists that are already looking and saying, I want to go out next fall, maybe next summer, but I know these four bands are going to go also looks a little crowded. We'll go out and fall or we'll go out in summer of [2022] or the fall of [2023]. So I think it's going to naturally spread over ... into [2024]."

Translated: If you're a country music star and you see that Kane Brown has an arena tour coming up, and then you see that Garth Brooks is selling out his tour to record numbers, and Dierks Bentley's also got his thing going, maybe it makes sense to wait a bit to announce your own tour.

There's also the lingering question of the coronavirus pandemic. Different states, sometimes adjacent, are in different stages of re-opening, which makes it hard to plan an efficient, well routed tour. And if you do plan a tour, but then a state goes back into lockdown, "you can throw the entire tour off," said Gersh.

Still, acts are eager to play, hoping things shake out. Starr Butler is the vice president of booking and events at Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, Wis. Butler says as soon as the arena started opening up to 25 and 50 percent capacity, she started getting calls. "We do have some days that have four to five holds," said Butler. She suspects that by the end of the month, she'll be scheduling events for 2025.

Both AEG Presents and Live Nation have said that the majority of people who had tickets to shows that were postponed or cancelled due to COVID-19 chose to keep them. And if you've already held on this long, why not wait a little longer? At least, that was the reaction My Chemical Romance fans had when the band's long awaited, already delayed comeback tour in was postponed a second time, to 2022.

"If we had done it later, a lot of the real estate would've been gone," said Matt Galle, a senior agent at Paradigm Talent Agency, which in addition to My Chemical Romance works with artists such as Shawn Mendes, Janet Jackson, and Jojo Siwa. Galle said that arenas are much more likely to work with you regarding their sports scheduling and holds from other live acts if "you're working further out." For MCR, it helped that they re-booked so far in advance.

But more goes into an arena tour than just the artist and the room. "Road crews are going to get stretched thin, bussing is going to get stretched thin," said AEG's Gary Gersh. "It's going to be complicated. We're all going to have to work together to make it really fit properly."

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Live music is undergoing a post-pandemic reawakening. Artists are eager to play, and new tours are being announced every week. But for acts who play arenas and stadiums, it may take a few years for the touring industry to catch up. NPR's Andrew Limbong has this on the arena touring traffic jam.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: Even in a normal year, it's hard to plan an arena tour. Add in states at different stages of reopening and vaccination rates changing rapidly, and it's like a puzzle that you don't have all the pieces for.

GARY GERSH: We're doing a lot of juggling. Everybody is doing a lot of juggling, and everybody is trying to work together to get these things settled.

LIMBONG: That's Gary Gersh, the president of global touring and talent at AEG Presents, one of the biggest live entertainment presenters in the world behind talents such as Elton John, The Weeknd and Justin Bieber. Among the first large-scale AEG Presents tours coming up is country star Kane Brown, starting in June...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT IFS")

KANE BROWN AND LAUREN ALAINA: (Singing) What if I was made for you and you were made for me?

LIMBONG: ...Which is probably going to be one of the first shows Gersh sees, though he's not too picky at the moment.

GERSH: I'll go see a cover band right now.

LIMBONG: Gersh says at the beginning of the year, artists were a little more cautious about booking shows. Some acts pushed their tours as far back as 2022, 2023. Then...

GERSH: Vaccinations kind of ramped up in a big way. People became a little more bullish. And it's complicated because there's traffic everywhere.

LIMBONG: AEG rival Live Nation similarly has reported a rush of acts wanting to play. Here's Live Nation CEO Michael Rapino on a recent episode of the Vox podcast "Recode Media."

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "RECODE MEDIA")

MICHAEL RAPINO: So you have a lot of these artists that are already looking and saying, I want to go out next fall, maybe next summer, but I know these four bands are going to go also. Looks a little crowded. We'll go out in fall, or we'll go out in summer of '23 or the fall of '23.

LIMBONG: For example, if you're a country star and you see Kane Brown's tour and you see Garth Brooks also going on tour, you might want to wait. Starr Butler is the vice president of booking and events at Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, where the Bucks play. She says she started getting calls to book shows as soon as the arena opened up to 25%, 50% capacity.

STARR BUTLER: We do have some days that have four and five holds.

LIMBONG: Which is when an act says, I think I want to play there on that Friday maybe. Can you pencil me in? Butler says it'll all even out eventually as bands look further into the future.

BUTLER: I expect it probably by the next month or two to probably be all the way out to, like, 2025.

(SOUNDBITE OF MY CHEMICAL ROMANCE SONG, "WELCOME TO THE BLACK PARADE")

LIMBONG: Booking ahead has its advantages.

MATT GALLE: The arenas are - when you're working further out, they're working with you to clear other things.

LIMBONG: Like sports teams. Matt Galle is a senior agent at Paradigm Talent, where he works with acts like Janet Jackson, JoJo Siwa, Shawn Mendes and more. He also works with My Chemical Romance, who had a big reunion tour planned pre-COVID...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WELCOME TO THE BLACK PARADE")

MY CHEMICAL ROMANCE: (Singing) Sometimes I get the feeling she's watching over me...

LIMBONG: ...Which they postponed to 2021. Then in April, the band pushed the tour again 'til 2022. Galle says rescheduling was relatively easy because they made the call to postpone so early.

GALLE: If we had done it later, a lot of the real estate would be gone.

LIMBONG: It helps that this is an extremely hot-ticket item that audiences are hyped to see live. But Gary Gersh of AEG says there's other things to keep in mind.

GERSH: We're a little bit concerned about not just tour dates and not just whether people come, but - you know, road crews are going to get stretched thin. Bussing is going to get stretched thin.

LIMBONG: The live touring industry is this big, lumbering thing, and getting it up and running again after a year dormant - well, it's complicated. Andrew Limbong, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.