How coronavirus is affecting the global concert industry, including SXSW and Coachella

March 9, 2020, 5:30 PM UTC

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While the world scrambles to contain the coronavirus, the concert industry is suffering the secondary effects of the outbreak, with safety concerns leading to the cancellation of SXSW and the postponement of Coachella.

It’s completely understandable that mass gatherings like this are being preemptively shut down, given that COVID-19 is spread by humans in close proximity to each other. Just how much it will continue to affect the American live music space is unknown, but if the responses to the virus in China and Italy are indicative of what the U.S. must do to contain it, the next couple of months will likely see many more cancellations. The timing couldn’t be worse, as summer festival season normally kicks off with Coachella in April, followed by a number of massive gatherings that could lead to community transmission of the illness. Spring and summer tours are also in jeopardy, with Pearl Jam postponing the first leg of its North American tour out of concern for their fans’ health.

Here’s what’s happening abroad, the cancellations and postponements so far in the U.S., and the major music events coming up that could be affected should the number of cases and deaths due to coronavirus continue to rise.

China, Korea, and Japan have shut down almost all concerts

After the outbreak started in the city of Wuhan, the Chinese government combatted the virus’s spread with a massive lockdown of its citizens that included, starting in late January, the cancellation of all live events. The drastic measures, which include a massive surveillance effort, have slowed the virus’s spread.

Thanks to the internet, however, Chinese music fans have found ways to enjoy “live” music. Concerts and DJ sets are being livestreamed, particularly on the service BiliBili, which allows fans to chat during the performances and feel a semblance of the in-person interaction they’re missing. Showcases with several acts and online festivals with live and pre-recorded sets have already occurred, and some venues might even offer ticketed performances as a means to keep some revenue flowing. Members of the  Shanghai Symphony Orchestra have also started offering master classes online as way to connect with fans and combat their own boredom.

Meanwhile, South Korea and Japan have largely shut down their concert industries as well, with K-Pop megastars BTS scrapping four April shows in Seoul that were supposed to kick off their worldwide “Map of the Soul Tour.” Some acts in both countries have defied the governments’ orders to perform in recent weeks, though it’s unlikely the trend will continue as the number of infections rise. A number of international acts, including Green Day, Stormzy, the Pixies, and Avril Lavigne, have also canceled their Asian tour dates. Japan, in particular, could suffer one of the worst cancellations of all: the Summer Olympics, set to begin this July in Tokyo.

Italy bans all cultural events, while France scraps most  

With Italy suffering the worst coronavirus outbreak outside of Asia, the government there has ordered the lockdown of its northern region, including Milan and Venice, a move that affects 16 million residents. All cultural events in the country, as well as funerals, are prohibited until April 3, with people told to stay one meter apart. 

In France, public events with more than 1,000 people are now banned, a rule that went into effect just days after the country initially capped indoor events at 5,000 attendees. The Tomorrowland Winter festival, set for March 14-21 at a ski resort in Huez, has also been called off. The EDM gathering was expected to have 25,000 attendees, with Steve Aoki, Armin van Buuren, and Afrojack headlining. 

The SXSW cancellation and its massive fallout

After many high-profile entertainment figures and companies, the March 6 decision to pull the plug on SXSW wasn’t a surprise. Until then, the biggest American concert event to suffer this fate was Miami’s three-day Ultra Music Festival, which was slated to bring around 170,000 people to the city beginning March 20. Ultra ticket holders are now in an uproar because they’re being offered credit for 2021 or 2022 passes instead of full refunds, a sign that the organizers can’t afford this year’s massive loss.

The economic impact on the city, the festival itself, and all of the people directly and indirectly involved with SXSW is still impossible to gauge, as the the fallout will continue for months, if not years, to come. In 2019, the festival brought $356 million to the city of Austin as over 100,000 people came for the tech, film, and music events. As Texas Monthly reports, there’s the shadow economy of SXSW—”caterers, pedi-cabbers, ride-hailing drivers, bartenders and servers, tech crew and security staff”—that will lose a substantial part of their annual income, as will many venues and restaurants that rely on the festival to survive. Then there are the tech startups and indie artists, from filmmakers debuting their movies in the hopes of getting picked up by a distributor to the many bands and labels who already spent their money on travel and setting up showcases. 

In the latter case, there’s still a chance many shows will go on—if the bands show up to play unofficial SXSW shows. Every year, hundreds of shows not under the festival’s umbrella take place throughout Austin and the city has not announced any specific plans to limit them. For some artists, who’ve already booked non-refundable travel, this might be the only way to offset some of the sunk costs. According to the Austin American-Statesman, several venues said in a statement they’re working to “ensure as many artists and events that want to continue on and perform a showcase in Austin in the following weeks are able to do so.” The same group has also started a GoFundMe to help venues, their employees, and artists affected by the cancellation.

But looking ahead to 2021, it’s unclear if SXSW will be able to come back, whether at full-strength or at all. The festival was not insured against a disease-related cancellation and is only offering credits to sponsors and badge holders, not refunds. As cofounder and Chief Executive Roland Swenson told the Wall Street Journal, “We are planning to carry on and do another event in 2021, but how we’re going to do that I’m not entirely sure.”

On March 9, just a day after that report, SXSW laid off around 50 employees from its year-round staff, with the terminations including people from departments across the board. The Austin Chronicle reported that one senior official in the organization said it was “the only way to stop the bleeding” and that the layoff targeted anyone who wasn’t working on pressing matters as the festival regroups.  

Coachella and beyond

On March 10, Coachella and Stagecoach organizers Goldenvoice officially announced the festivals’ postponements. Coachella will now take place on the weekends of Oct. 9 to 11 and 23 to 25, with the lineup still to be determined. In the leadup to the move, Rolling Stone and several other outlets that Goldenvoice was in negotiations with artists to keep as many of them, including headliners Rage Agains the Machine and Frank Ocean, on the bill as possible. Unlike SXSW and Ultra, ticketholders can get a full refund.

It seemed inevitable, given the festival’s daily attendance of over 100,000 people and the rapid pace at which COVID-19 cases were getting discovered in Riverside County, where the festival takes place. In the days leading up to the announcement, the Coachella Valley went from zero confirmed infections to four, including one due to local exposure, prompting the immediate cancellation of the BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament at Indian Wells. One of the most popular events in the sport and the second-largest in the country after the U.S. Open., the event was supposed to begin the next day and its loss could cost local businesses $400 million in tourism-related revenue

The concern isn’t limited to festivals, though, as bands are scrapping or reconsidering upcoming concerts across North America. On March 9, Pearl Jam announced it was canceling the first leg of its tour supporting the band’s new album, Gigaton. Citing the emergency situation in their hometown of Seattle, the fact that many of their fans travel long distances to attend their shows, and having “no reason to believe that it will be under control in the coming weeks ahead” due to the federal government’s handling of the outbreak, the group postponed 16 concerts in Canada and the States that were set for March 18 through April 19. Neil Young, meanwhile, released a statement saying that although he has a North American tour booked, he might not go through with it. “The idea of announcing the tour and putting tickets on sale is questionable and needs to be thought through,” he wrote, adding that “the last thing we want to do is put people at risk, especially our older audience.”

This now puts the spotlight on other festivals, including New Orleans Jazz Fest, which is set to begin April 24 and stretches into May. The latter month’s big music events include Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas and Boston Calling, which takes place at the city’s Harvard Athletic Complex. Coincidentally, on March 10, Harvard ordered all of its students not to return to campus after spring break, with the University switching to online classes beginning March 30. 

After that, June 5 to 7 is the scheduled weekend for Governors Ball on New York City’s Randall’s Island, located just 15 miles from the quarantined city of New Rochelle. Bonnaroo is set to take place in Tennessee the following weekend and has already sold out its 80,000 tickets. The organizers for all these festivals, as well as artists with spring and summer touring plans, will now just have to hope that the rate of new COVID-19 cases and deaths slows before they have to follow in the footsteps of SXSW, Coachella, or Pearl Jam. 

Meanwhile, professional sports leagues and the NCAA are preparing to play games without spectators or, in the case of the March Madness tournament, limit the games to a handful of locations to concentrate safety efforts.With all that in mind, music fans in the U.S. can only take all the precautions against contracting the coronavirus and wait for word to come from local, state, and federal officials about what events can happen and what will be called off. At the moment, the shows will go on and Americans won’t have to resort to livestreaming concerts. But as coronavirus testing slowly catches up to the demand across the country and more cases are confirmed, the outlook for live events only seems to be getting worse.

Update, March 10, 2020: This story has been updated to reflect additional tour cancellations and the postponement of Coachella to October.

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