The future of live events: What works and what won’t during COVID-19

by Nick Gonzales

The spread of COVID-19 impacted virtually every industry. But as people have remained mostly at home for the last four months, venturing out only into places where reasonable social distancing can be maintained, one of the things most noticeably absent from the world has been live entertainment.

Sure, in many of the areas that have reopened post-quarantine, you can catch live tunes while dining on restaurant patios and the like. And there are always shows you can live stream at home. But chances are good that you haven’t made it to any concerts, plays, or other live performances since early March … because they were all canceled or delayed indefinitely.

This leads to the question: Can the rest of 2020 be salvaged? Or will we have to wait until next year, at the earliest, to see our favorite artists perform live again?

Proof of conceptConcert season, it turns out, has already resumed — at least in Durango. If anything can be cited as a case study on how to hold a live event mid-epidemic, it’s the iAM MUSIC Festival. Held on July 19 at Durango’s Buckley Park, the event featured performances by soul-funk-groove band J-Calvin, soul band Ghost Tapes, and Durango violinist and songwriter Alex Blocker. It was preceded by a kickoff party on July 18 at The Nugget Mountain Bar near Purgatory Resort, featuring Cassidy Bacon, Funk Express, Profetic Calavera, and Ghost Tapes.

[image:2]A safe concert experience was achieved through a bit of creative planning.

The kickoff party was a relatively standard small event, but the main part of the festival, which was split into two different sets between a matinée show and a late show, required some planning. For each set, the lawn of the park was divided up into socially-distanced areas that could seat two, four, or six people, or attendees could rent a private tent that seated up to six.

Having two sets not only doubled the festival’s potential attendance, but also gave musicians a chance to play.

“Given the fact that none of us are performing these days, it’s kind of exciting to get to play two sets,” said iAM MUSIC Institute Executive Director Alissa Wolf

A maximum of 175 people is currently allowed for any given outdoor event in Colorado. Of that, roughly 150 people attended each set, she said.

This still effectively amounted to a sold-out performance for the night show, said Jesse Ogle, one of the institute’s founders. As the smaller spaces started to sell out, groups with less than six people bought six-person spaces. So even if the concert was not at its maximum capacity, the maximum number of tickets was sold.

[image:3]Aside from minor snafus, including translating the seating chart from concept into real life, dealing with the one person who sneaked in, and not having quite enough wifi to have the most efficient number of cash registers, everything went off without a hitch, Ogle said. A system in which attendees pre-bought drink tickets and servers ran said drinks to people worked well.

As the first local concert of the summer, the organizers are proud of what they accomplished — especially from an economic standpoint.

“We hired 15 musicians for that show,” Ogle said. “We also hired five circus performers, and we hired sound technicians … and then we have about a 15-person crew that puts on the festival. Beyond that, we’re promoting local craft beer with (Ska Brewing Co.) and craft vodka from (Durango Craft Spirits) and Fenceline Cider.”

iAM MUSIC, which originally planned to have three concerts over the course of the summer, is currently in the planning stages for another one in August, which will likely be held at The Nugget and Buckley Park again.

A Telluride without festivalsPulling concerts at the park out of thin air is a nifty trick, but it can’t be accomplished everywhere. In Telluride, which basically revolves around a dense summer calendar of large festivals and events, the season quickly fell apart after the pandemic struck.

The town’s three major music festivals — the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, the Telluride Blues & Brews Festival, and the RIDE Festival — each waited until about two months before they would have happened, assessed the situation, and, unable to predict how COVID-19 would progress, canceled, said John Wontrobski, Projects Coordinator at Telluride’s Parks & Recreation Department.

[image:4]He said the town’s stage – the focal point for all of the music festivals — needs to have its fire suppression sprinkler system, water fixtures, and the like winterized at the end of the summer music season. This year, there was never a reason to de-winterize the stage in the first place.

Based on his discussions with other special events planners around the state, Wontrobski’s best guess is that conventions, conferences, and concerts will begin to return in January 2021. But even those are just the most tentative of plans; due to the unpredictability of the coronavirus, reopening anything on a large scale is a moving target.

‘Rona and the RocksWhen it comes to opening up for concerts on the Front Range, the one place that is doing so is doing it much like iAM Music.

Like most places, Red Rocks Amphitheatre, the iconic outdoor venue west of Denver that seats up to 9,525 people, had its entire season wiped out, said Red Rocks Spokesman Brian Kitts. Last year, it hosted 180 concerts and another 100 or so fitness events, graduations, weddings, and private events. This year, as of the time this article is published, it will have hosted one music event and a handful of fitness events, such as “Yoga on the Rocks.”

[image:5]Notably, the 2020 concert season that Red Rocks originally planned is probably still going to happen … just not in 2020.

“The interesting thing is, a lot of those concerts have been rescheduled to next year on almost the exact same date,” Kitts said. “So I think what you’re going to see is that the 2021 season is going to replicate what would have happened this year anyway.”

But 2020 will not be without live music in the sandstone cliffs. A five-night acoustic series featuring the Colorado Symphony, titled “Acoustic on the Rocks,” will last from July 29 through Aug. 2.

For the fitness events, the venue staff has come up with a system for assigning placement of yoga mats at least 6 feet apart, and the same applies to concert seating. Concert-goers are also required to wear masks while entering and moving around the amphitheater. Concessions are now prepackaged and contact-free, as is the exclusively phone-based ticketing system, Kitts said.

And, at least in this case, the COVID-19 rules don’t apply to just the audience and staff. The symphony, which has had limited ability to practice together in quarantine, is limited to 20 of its members who will also be spread at least six feet apart from one another across the stage. It’s also the reason the show is entirely acoustic, with neither microphones nor a sound system.

If everything goes well, he said, audiences can probably look forward to at least a few more small concerts at Red Rocks.

“We’re talking to several artists who are willing to go on stage at Red Rocks and perform, and it’s gonna be for a very, very limited audience locally,” Kitts said. “But I think the upside there is that you can actually perform at Red Rocks and live stream to a global audience. So I think that you should hopefully look for some of those as we get into August and September.”

From concert hall to class roomEvery indoor venue we were able to contact, from Sky Ute Casino in Ignacio to Meow Wolf in Santa Fe, was closed indefinitely — in a holding pattern, waiting for local and state authorities and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to provide clearer guidance on how to safely host live events inside.

Some venues that book acts far in advance are essentially done for the rest of the year. This is the case for the Community Concert Hall at Fort Lewis College, said Director Charles Leslie.

[image:6]The Concert Hall hosted jam band Leftover Salmon on March 12, and the next day, venues across the state started to shut down. Five or six concerts at FLC were canceled, along with shows put on by local groups such as the San Juan Symphony, Dance in the Rockies, and the Community Foundation. All told, 25 to 30 events were canceled, Leslie said.

For all intents and purposes, the Community Concert hall will be closed from Aug. 1 through the end of June 2021. Over the summer, it converted its “Concert Hall @ The Park” series of shows, which typically take place at Buckley Park, into online streaming events.

In the same vein, the CCH is working on developing a weekly webcast to highlight local artists as well as performers the concert hall has hosted over the years, Leslie said.

“The goal is to have something so that we stay in front of everybody and that musicians are still in front of people’s minds here in Durango because we’ve got a really great performing arts and music community. We want to make sure that people don’t forget them,” he said.

That series should come in September, after Labor Day. In the meantime, the physical venue itself, which seats up to 600 people, will be used as socially distanced classroom space for the college, which — as of yet — is still planning to open for in-person classes for the fall semester.

Around Thanksgiving, the CCH plans to reassess the status of the pandemic and the school, Leslie said. If the outlook is positive, the CCH may reopen in February for events related to the college, such as recitals and performances by FLC’s music department. Presenting concerts with artists from outside the area, though, will have to wait until the summer of 2021.

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