Big festivals in the UK such as Glastonbury and Download are cancelled. Londons month-long Meltdown festival has shifted to 2021 and the entire lineup – featuring hard-to-obtain stars such as Solange and also its curator Grace Jones – has shifted with it. Arena tours are being moved, repurposing some: David Grays 20th anniversary play-through of White Ladder will become a 21st birthday tour next year instead.
But other large events, keen not to lose a years worth of planning, are applying a best-case reading of the crisis. They hope to reschedule for after the pandemic has passed its peak in summer, but before a potential second wave of infection in winter.
In the UK, the large-scale Newcastle indie festival This Is Tomorrow has been moved from May to August. In the US, Augusts desert gathering Burning Man has been scrapped, but in September and October there are revised dates for Detroits Movement, Tennessees Bonnaroo, EDC in Las Vegas and both legs of Coachella in California – all important income for touring musicians and the local economy alike. In Ibiza, a marketing blitz is under way to move spring events to autumn, beseeching islanders and would-be tourists alike “to celebrate the end of this bad dream”.
One problem is that postponements, rather than cancellations, are leaving ticketholders out of pocket. Ticketmaster quietly changed its terms last week so that it would only deem cancelled events eligible for refunds. And even if rearranged festivals take place, there will be logistical difficulties for artists, vendors and fans. New dates in late August and early September for Primavera Sound in Barcelona, NOS Primavera in Porto and Kala in Albania are now wedged into the same time already occupied by – in the UK alone – End of the Road, Reading and Leeds, Lost Village and Notting Hill carnival, not to mention countless smaller promoters who hope to juice whatever they can from a summer in suspension.
For Judy Miller Silverman, owner of US publicity firm Motormouth Media, whose roster of electronic artists includes Caribou, Thundercat and Floating Points, this makeshift approach seems untenable. “My glass is half empty,” Silverman says of salvaging the festival season, adding that any in-person promotion by artists is almost impossible: “We have no idea what individual territories will do with travel restrictions.”
Mat Schulz, the artistic director of Krakóws Unsound, says the experimental arts festival is still set to run in October, but will take a hybrid form. “We cant simply plough ahead as per usual,” Schulz says. “Were trying to consider what form Unsound could take in practical terms, as well as consider how we can respond to the current crisis conceptually.”
The role of live music at this years festival will be diminished, he says, supplanted by an edition that probes existential quandaries generated by the pandemic, via talks and other ideas in development: “What does local mean now? Globalisation? Closeness? Isolation? These are the questions that we are asking ourselves.” He is in contact with other independent promoters through EU-funded platforms such as Shape, looking for ways to mitigate the effects of the crisis.
Barcelonas wide-ranging Primavera Sound, which begins each year at the end of May, is the starting gun for the European festival season. It has been postponed until the end of August, with an announcement that generated anger for its lack of refund options. Comparisons were made by fans to the troubled All Tomorrows Parties, the 2000s festival that became a byword for opacity and incompetence after numerous events were cancelled and refunds became difficult to secure.
Last week, the Spanish prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, prolonged the countrys state of emergency – which bans people from leaving their homes unless they are going to work, or to buy food or medicine – until 26 April. Sánchez suggested that he seek a further extension until 10 May (the head of the regional government in Catalonia said he would not comply with any premature easing of the lockdown anyway). Primavera commented by pointing to its official statement: “Until the state of alarm is over we wont reactivate the ticket sales, nor are we allowed to give more information about the ticket policy.”
Separately, Dice, a ticketing partner, confirmed in emails that “emergency regulations have been introduced in Spain to help promoters through this crisis”, with the government suspending the need for festivals to process refunds until the state of alarm is over. This could be another month, or more. Primavera is perhaps unable to invoke a force majeure clause – that coronavirus was unavoidable and thus insurers should pay out – owing to the complexities of Spanish insurance law. In previous relevant cases, a clause has been invoked that would allow insurers to modify contracts rather than see them cancelled. As taking the decision to cancel 2020s edition is likely to inflict a heavy financial loss on Primavera, the festival is left to kick the can down the road and hope for the best. International ticketholders, who make up a substantial proportion of its audience, are low on empathy.
In the past few days, Dr Zeke Emanuel, a prominent US health policy expert, created fresh jitters with his prediction that autumn 2021 is the soonest large gatherings are likely to be permitted. The psychology of how we interact in communal spaces is another hurdle – a poll held by Metal Injection, a website catering to a particularly hardy subset of rockers, revealed that less than 50% would feel comfortable returning to concerts even if restrictions were lifted and fast testing was available.
There is a real risk of reputational damage for those tripped up by overly optimistic reshuffles. Lyons Nuits Sonores festival organisers will have watched Emmanuel Macrons speech on Monday night with distress – the premier extended Frances lockdown until 11 May, but added that public events would be the last to return as the country “progressively opened”, and that this could be later than July. The festival, which had already moved from May to July, is thus back in the red zone. A similar case befell Copenhagens Distortion, which was rescheduled from June to August but is now cancelled because Denmark has extended until September its ban on events involving more than 1,000 people.
These cases speak to the wider predicament facing live events: a global industry has been broken into national components and absorbed into mechanisms of the state. When musicians and audiences are penned in by land borders, infrastructure based around interlocking tour schedules and interchangeable headliners collapses.
Some of the events industrys more pernicious restrictions, such as the radius clause that dictates booked artists cant play within a certain distance of the festival or event within a certain time period, might be abandoned. The bubble of sky-high DJ fees is sure to burst, and local music scenes could wind up flourishing. One Hong Kong club told me that it was preparing to reopen by mid-May, but initially with a “regionalisation” of its programming.
“Theres going to be a huge craving for live music after this,” reckons Schulz. “The experience of collectively listening or dancing together – how that need is met will change in ways we cant yet predict.” The reckoning with coronaviruss impact seems to be moving from the bargaining stage to something approaching acceptance. Whether or not 2020 is a total write-off, music communities will need to meet these new challenges with creativity, says Schulz. “If ever there was a time to think outside the box, this is it.”