One of the most anticipated panel discussions available on my schedule for South by Southwest in 2021 was “We Want Live Shows Again! Concerts in a Post-COVID World.” Hosted by Adam Shore (the US General Manager/Programmer of Driift, a global live-streaming company), the conversation took place between Michelle Cable (Booking Agent & Manager/Panache Booking, Panache Management) and Tom Windish (Sr. Exec/Paradigm Talent Agency) as they addressed the future of live concerts.
Adam Shore jumped right in by asking Michelle Cable what aspects she saw being different that pre-COVID, once artists begin touring again. She is sure that a lot is going to change, “The protocols are going to be a lot more specific, not going to be as relaxed. From guest lists to ordering drinks to loading in to a venue; how we structure deals and confirm shows and how last minutes changes happen because of the precariousness of the COVID situation. I think we can expect a full overhaul of the live touring industry. We don’t know what that’s going to be yet.” In addition, Cable works with Australian artists that have started playing again. They are having to check-in when they travel from state to state. If they go to the grocery store or get a coffee, they are scanning a QR code that keeps track of COVID hotspots. Additionally, venues are paying for a COVID marshal “who acts as extra security to make sure people use their masks and follow protocols.” She sees the artists and crews are going to have to provide COVID safety plans.
Things in the United States are going to be a different situation: Tom Windish thinks the artists and crews will take on COVID protocols themselves – he doesn’t see a national protocol or even a state protocol. “There may be just some regulations or guidelines for venues in certain cities or states.” Windish also said, “It is too early to see how it will pan out. I think a big thing is we don’t know yet is how will the money, the additional costs that are incurred for any sort of COVID protocol, whether government-mandated or not, will affect the artist. Unfortunately, I’m afraid it will affect the artist negatively. It will be different for every venue – it’s really too early for any venue to really know what the finances will look like. We’ve got a ways to go to figure it out.”
Shore’s next question for Cable addressed the artists’ personal lives, “How have you seen your bands take advantage of this time away from the road?” Her response indicated that it has been a fruitful time for the artists:
It’s been a different experience for most of the artists I work with. Fortunately, a majority of the artists I work with have taken this time to get really creative. Those that have been on the road for a decade have taken this time to heal and get healthy and be a little more human again. This has been a time for people to accomplish goals that are outside of touring. Some have collaborated, done more writing, producing other artists. A few artists that I have managed have started their own labels. It’s been a healing time, a time to restructure. A lot of started families during this time. People have gotten really creative with, like, their merch, like direct to consumer and fan engagement.
Shore’s next question was directed to Windish: “How do you see the agent, and the service the agent provides, being different going forward?” Windish explained:
There has been this hamster wheel for years – band makes a great song, gets interest, meets with tons of labels, signs a record deal, puts out the record, tours for like a year, and then does that again for as long as possible. How are we going to make the most on the shows, sell the most records? This time has given artists a chance to sort of step back and evaluate all the different sections of their business, all the way they communicate with their fans, gather new fans and try to make them better. There’s a lot of tools out there that most artists and their teams barely use or don’t use them very well. An example is selling merch on your website. There’s a lot more that can be done, and I’m not just talking about more products. How can you communicate with your audience the best? Also all the socials and everything.
To your question, I think a lot about services that agencies provide, or traditionally provided, versus what artists really need. Social media, for instance, is a big one. Most artists don’t have experts that are helping them with their social media strategies. Another is all this e-commerce stuff. People that help, like, look at your e-commerce or e-strategy across everything are really, really interesting. I’m talking to people that kind of go out to any creator out on the internet, podcaster, or people who have huge audiences and look under the hood of your business and see how you’re doing everything, and barely anyone’s doing it very well. Why would they? They’re experts at the thing they do. Who do you hire? There a few people that are awesome, but that’s who the biggest artists in the world are using. I don’t know that agencies will do it, but I think those are valuable additions that I think they should consider doing.
Shore’s last question addressed what happens next: “Since there seem to be so many new services, as an agent and a manager, where do you see the responsibilities lie and how do managers and agents ramp up?” Cable said:
I think what’s happening right now with live streaming where artists are doing live streaming with merch add ons, some managers are taking on this role, some agencies are taking on this role. Or creating their own platforms so there isn’t a third party that you have to pay. Some agencies have been creating streaming platforms on their own and then working directly with the artists and managers. I think that’s going to continue because artists have found that it’s a way to make money, engage with their fans more and do it well. I think the structures of hiring a social media within a booking agency or a management team, or someone who is really savvy at that has suddenly become much more real because that street marketing that we’ve been so used to, the print media is a thing of the past. Social media the sizing, the stories, the algorithms of your posting, those are all things we need to teach ourselves. The bottom line is everyone was impacted with this, especially the live entertainment industry. We were the first to shut down and we will probably be the last to open based on what we’re seeing, so we need to think about how we can all work together and of course take care of the artist and keeping them safe and happy. That’s something we need to keep brainstorming as we’re in this weird holding pattern.
I think it would great if what came out of this was artists could figure out how to make the same amount of money as they did before and have more time to focus on other things. Between song writing, and families, and doing other things, mental health is something, there has been more attention paid to it in the last few years, but not nearly enough and artists need to step back and get off the hamster wheel a lot. And I hope that this has actually been a good thing for them in that regard in a lot of ways. I know financially, it’s devastating, but I’ve talked to a lot of my clients and they do appreciate not being on the road all the time and seeing their family more often. It’s really important. If they can figure out how to do that more in the future, that would be great.
I found this conversation interesting on a lot of levels. I am very grateful that artists have been able to take this time to re-tool and rejuvenate. When you understand the hamster wheel, as Tom Windish described the musical routine, it is not sustainable for a balanced life or for an artist’s mental health. Fortunately, they have been able to prioritize themselves, which I am sure, leads to greater creativity, more output, and more money in the end.
I am encouraged that the people who are in the artist’s orbit are finding their own creative paths to support the artists without further grind. More engagement with fans is also a positive takeaway from this forum. I am anxious to see live shows again, as I am sure everyone is. However, as someone who has watched a lot of live streams this year, subscribed to more podcasts, and listened to a lot of music, I am grateful that care is being taken with the health and safety of both the artists and the audiences.