For live music fans, what was supposed to be "hot vax summer" has begun to feel more like "delta variant downer." The recent COVID-19 surges around the country are putting a damper on the joys of finally experiencing live music again even as major festivals and concerts return. It's also putting organizers and artists in the music industry in an increasingly tricky and uncertain position.
A roaring, hopeful return interrupted
As soon as guidelines for fully vaccinated adults relaxed a few months ago, music festivals and concert venues kicked into gear, announcing dates and artist lineups. With so much pent-up demand for the thrill of sharing live music with crowds of strangers, tickets to many of these events were snapped up by eager homebound audiences.
"Magical" is how Michelle Joy, lead singer of the up-and-coming band Cannons, describes performing at Lollapalooza last weekend in Chicago. It was the band's first festival ever. "We've been working so hard for an opportunity like this," she says. "So we have spent a lot of time thinking about how we can make this safe and not let the virus also kill our dreams." To that end, band members are fully vaccinated but still wore masks when they weren't performing, even though they weren't required to do so.
Lollapalooza's rules for returning were strict by all measures. Festivalgoers had to show proof of vaccination or a negative coronavirus test result obtained within 72 hours of entry. Only unvaccinated people had to wear masks.
Even though a video emerged online that appeared to show attendees didn't always adhere to those protocols, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot told WVON-AM on Tuesday she was confident officials made the festival as safe as they possibly could, including having city staff make regular visits to the screening checkpoints.
Lightfoot also revealed that Chicago's public health commissioner went to Lollapalooza "incognito." Lightfoot says Dr. Allison Arwady didn't have the proper paperwork. "They wouldn't let her in. Every single day," Lightfoot says, screeners "turned hundreds of people away."
Did delta turn off the carefree vibe?
Still, even with protocols such as those at Lollapalooza in place, many in the industry and the medical community think these kinds of massive gatherings remain unsafe. As NPR has reported, the delta variant appears to be around twice as transmissible as the original SARS-CoV-2 strains.
On social media, some are using dark humor to express their disbelief, imagining what a feast these festivals must be for the coronavirus. One Twitter user posted a photo of an exhausted basketball player keeled over with the caption, "Covid after running rampant at Rolling Loud and Lollapalooza."
Marianne Shanley, who lives in Brooklyn, has taken to social media to express her anger over New York City's plans for large-scale outdoor concerts with such marquee stars as Bruce Springsteen and Jennifer Hudson. Shanley says she "physically felt ill" when she saw the photos of tens of thousands of bodies pressed against each other at Lollapalooza.
"I feel like there's enough evidence to know that these large gatherings at this point in time are going to be hugely problematic and seed the country for another catastrophic winter," Shanley says.
Epidemiologist Eric Feigl-Ding believes "music festivals and concerts are risky," he writes in an email to NPR, "mostly because of the ... indoor gatherings after hours and crowded bathrooms."
Please don't stop the music, others say
Artists have been booked. Tickets have been sold. Stagehands and other workers have been hired. The music industry's reopening train left the station months ago. So how should festival organizers and concert venues respond to the increasing risks?
"I don't think that the events should be canceled," says Leana Wen, an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University. "I know that there are calls for them to be. But we have to recognize as a society that we're now going to be living with risk, that nothing that we're going to be doing at this point is zero risk from COVID-19, from spreading COVID, from getting COVID."
Wen says that to "make the events as safe as possible" audience members should be required to show proof of vaccination. "We know that getting vaccinated protects you extremely well from getting severe illness," she says, "and also reduces your likelihood of getting COVID and therefore of transmitting it to others." Wen says to reduce the chance of a superspreader event further, venues could also require proof of a negative test. These measures might even incentivize more people to get the shots, she says.
A performing arts economy bruised but not broken
COVID-19 has devastated the arts and entertainment industries. The vast majority of musicians only get paid when they perform. Chad Smith, CEO of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association, which oversees the Hollywood Bowl, says as soon as county and state health departments announced the venue could open up at full capacity, "we did."
"The mood with artists and the community and audiences has been celebratory up until this point."
The legendary outdoor theater has a capacity of nearly 18,000. Its first concert back — the "July 4th Fireworks Spectacular" with Kool & the Gang — sold out. Smith says that it "was an incredibly emotional time. ... I don't think I've ever heard the national anthem sung so loudly."
Smith agrees that the "delta variant is a concern." He says a survey of patrons found "that close to 98% of the people who are coming to the Hollywood Bowl are vaccinated." Currently at the Hollywood Bowl masks are required when indoors and whenever attendees are not in their seats.
That requirement is some comfort to Geetanjali Dhillon, who recently attended a Ziggy Marley concert at the Hollywood Bowl, which she calls "a place of such great community for Los Angeles." But she admits the uncertainty around the delta variant prevented her from fully enjoying the experience. "I didn't even realize it until I got there and then started to feel a little bit of anxiety because it was a massive crowd," Dhillon says, "and I had not been in a crowd like that in ... about a year and a half."
Those public health officials and programmers advocating for a sustained return hope that a blend of audience anxiety and desire will motivate live music lovers to be extra careful — and to get vaccinated — so shows can go on.
The Cannons' lead singer believes, in the age of COVID-19, it'll come down to personal responsibility. "If everyone does want to go to these festivals and stuff, there's a part that they have to play to keep themselves and everyone safe," Joy says. "And we're personally trying to do that. And we hope that other people do that as well."