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Performing in the Covid Era

Last year, I frivolously purchased tickets to H.E.R.'s Lights On Festival which was to take place in October at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, NY. I purchased the tickets in the early part of the summer as Covid numbers were super low and it looked like life was getting back to normal with shows, concerts, and other venues reopening. Then in September, almost like clockwork, the numbers started going up and venues started closing down again. Ultimately, the festival was cancelled and tickets were refunded (although it felt like forever for them to actually refund the tickets...didn't get my money back until almost November).

However, these numbers on the rise and venues closing didn't seem to deter plenty of artists from keeping committed dates or from announcing new tours for the rest of 2021 into and throughout 2022. For example, Jazmine Sullivan announced her North American 2022 tour with tickets selling out within minutes of going on sale. iHeartRadio's Jingle Ball tour continued, but then artists like Doja Cat and Lil Nas X began pulling out as either they themselves or members of their crew became infected. And all of this happened after these artists and crews were either vaccinated or took stringent social distancing and hygienic practices. Most recently, Bad Bunny held a concert in Puerto Rico with a crowd of 70,000 people. And even with all mask mandates and vaccination proof requirements in place, 2,000 concertgoers tested positive for the virus.

While some people may wonder why people are still going to concerts and events like these in the middle of a pandemic, blaming it on the selfish need to get back to normal, I wondered if the reason that these tours and shows are being announced may be for a different reason. Seems like with all things music related, the buck stops with the music industry and its greed.

Basic knowledge of the music industry reveals that most artists who've signed major label contracts are required to recoup a certain amount of money that the label grants them upon signing. This money covers tons of things like music production, marketing, music videos, and more. In the age of streaming, selling music to make that money back has become increasingly more difficult and one of the largest ways for artists to gain some kind of financial stability is to go on tour, as normally, that money goes into their pockets before it goes back to the label. A high grossing artist can live comfortably off of tour money alone if they're selling out arenas and bringing their shows to the masses all over the country or the world, granted they have a high selling album.

But what does an artist do in the age of streaming and now in the age of Covid-19? Almost every year, we're made aware of how little of a cut artists get from streaming, and also how low physical sales have gotten. This now means that artist may have to dig deep into their tour money pockets to pay back their label for the advances given to create their albums. So, in a bout of desperation to not go bankrupt or, even worse, sued by their label, artists have either made announcements of tours that have the potential to get cancelled because of the pandemic, or they've gone ahead with their shows in spite of it. To their defense, these shows may be the only lucrative way for them to safeguard themselves from low album sales, and ultimately the responsibility of recouping their advance. (I speculate that when a show, tour, or festival is cancelled, maybe the reason it takes so long for people to get their tickets refunded, is because that money has gone through several hands, the biggest being the record label's. If an artist is smart, they'll have insurance on those cancelled shows to take care of paying the label AND refunding ticket holders...but I digress...)

But there are options as 2020 and the earlier part of 2021 has shown us. Virtual pre-taped performances have been the advantage for some artists as a way to get their music to the masses without ever having to step out of their cities. To use Jazmine Sullivan once again, she reportedly taped over half a dozen performances in her hometown of Philadelphia, PA and shipped them out to various networks and programs to give her audience the live experience that they were holding out for due to pandemic restrictions. The 2020 BET Awards was a visual success by keeping it's broadcast completely pre-taped with performances elevated by a music video-esque sheen that made viewers herald it as one of the best in the history of the awards and the blueprint for other organizations to follow.

All this means is that artists MUST think differently going forward. First, rethink and renegotiate these contracts so that things like a pandemic are paramount in deciding how to move. Next, plan ahead! We know that Beyoncé is the queen of the surprise drop complete with visuals filmed months to almost years in advance. You'll never get caught unaware if you've already got content stashed away for that rainy day. Lastly, think of others. The tragedy of Travis Scott's Astroworld festival is something that all artists should consider, even outside of the ramifications of Covid. Some things do not require thousands in attendance, and a virtual show, when done properly and with some real thought behind it, can turn out the same kind of numbers. Remember, in 2018, Beyoncé made us all stay up late to watch her legendary Coachella performance, and if you're like me, you felt like you were right there in that dirty ass field with everyone else who bought a ticket. Now, just imagine if she made us all pay to watch from home?

Oh wait...she did. Thanks Netflix!

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