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The Global Uncertainty Over the Coronavirus Is Threatening the Music Festival Industry

SXSW is canceled, and Coachella has officially been postponed until October. What does it mean for the industry at large? And how are bands reacting?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On Tuesday, after weeks of fraught rumors, months of coronavirus-dominated headlines, and several lifetimes’ worth of “song lyrics set to the hand-washing infographic” memes, the biggest domino in American music-festival season finally fell. California mega-promoter Goldenvoice has delayed both the mighty Coachella (originally set for two consecutive weekends beginning Friday, April 10) and the country-music-specific Stagecoach (set for the weekend of Friday, April 24) to October. This year, prime festival season will push deep into autumn, which for now is the best-case scenario amid several increasingly disastrous options.

“At the direction of the County of Riverside and local health authorities, we must sadly confirm the rescheduling of Coachella and Stagecoach due to COVID-19 concerns,” Goldenvoice’s brief statement began. “While this decision comes at a time of universal uncertainty, we take the safety and health of our guests, staff, and community very seriously. We urge everyone to follow the guidelines and protocols put forth by public health officials.”

Indeed, even a reunited and forever defiant Rage Against the Machine, still scheduled as Coachella 2020 headliners alongside Travis Scott and Frank Ocean, have gotten used to deferring to the experts.

The most important part of that Coachella-Stagecoach statement (other than the alarming and quite accurate term universal uncertainty) is that deferral. As every upcoming 2020 music festival—major or minor, months or mere days away—grapples with the question of whether to cancel, postpone, or stay the course, bear in mind that it’ll largely be local government officials and public-health experts doing the grappling.

As for Goldenvoice specifically, “They’re not tracking the cases—they’re not epidemiologists, right?” explained Dave Brooks, a senior director at Billboard covering the live-music industry, in a phone interview Tuesday shortly before the Coachella postponement was official. “I think that probably Riverside County health officials have communicated to them that there’s going to be a problem getting their permit, and this is the reaction to that.”

As of Wednesday morning, more than 115,000 cases of the coronavirus had been reported worldwide. This includes at least 1,000 instances in the United States, where this week many colleges are canceling all in-person classes, major companies (including Google) are advising their employees to work from home, and the NCAA is contemplating the idea of a March Madness tournament with no live spectators. On Friday, South by Southwest, the annual March music-film-tech festival behemoth held in Austin, Texas, canceled outright at the direction of local authorities, with immediately devastating results. This week SXSW was forced to lay off at least 50 employees, representing one-third of its full-time staff; CEO and cofounder Roland Swenson predicted “tens of millions of dollars” in total losses.

For most music festivals, the notion of outright cancellation is an existential threat, in large part for insurance reasons. “We’ve seen with South by Southwest, and we’re expecting to see with lots of other events, insurance, mostly the cancellation insurance, doesn’t cover infectious disease,” Brooks says. “It’s exempted. You have to purchase it separately, and most of them don’t do that, because these are promoters. They’re not the most foresightful people in the world. They’re essentially gamblers. And so that just exacerbates the problem. I think you’re definitely going to have people going out of business because of this. I have no doubt of that. And that’s really unfortunate.”

The logistics of moving a Coachella-sized event from April to October—coordinating the artists, the agents, the technical crews, the vendors, the insurance companies, the ticketing companies, and of course the ticket holders themselves—are daunting. But the financial hit of not holding the event at all is severe, from the perspective of both the festivals and the fans. Last week, Miami’s annual Ultra Music Festival also canceled its 2020 edition set for March, and said it won’t be offering refunds—only deferrals to the planned 2021 or 2022 events. (As for SXSW, “They told me they fully intend to come back next year,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler told The Austin American-Statesman prior to the layoffs. “They haven’t quite figured out the path yet. But they fully intend to come back.”)

What this means, in the short term, is that any domino effect from the Coachella postponement won’t be immediate. “Without a federal stopgap forcing events to shut down, it’s left up to this network of local officials across North America,” Brooks says. And every individual festival, and the city it’s held in, will hold off on making a decision of this magnitude for as long as possible.

“I think it’s going to be really vague, and it’s going to be different in every single town,” Brooks continues. “And it’s tricky, because it’s hard to prove that person caught the virus at your event, right? A lot of these cities are really invested in these festivals. They get direct income from renting their properties—fairgrounds in those states, the hotel taxes. People sell these to their communities, and there’s going to be political leaders who don’t want to cancel. I think there’s going to be even times when the promoters really want the local leaders to force the cancellations so they don’t have to pay the artists’ fees, right? And mayors might balk at doing that.”

With a reported 125,000 people attending per day, Coachella is both the biggest music festival in America and the unofficial launch of prime festival season, but Goldenvoice’s call was still a regional decision, not a national decree. Events set for the next few months—from Knoxville, Tennessee’s Big Ears to North Carolina’s MerleFest to New Orleans’s Jazz & Heritage Festival to Detroit’s Movement Electronic Music Festival—are proceeding as planned for now, some with updating statements highlighting their cooperation with local authorities. (Update: After this article was published, Big Ears announced the cancellation of its 2020 festival.)

These decisions, for now, will still happen on a case-by-case basis, which is also true for individual bands: On Monday, Pearl Jam delayed its upcoming national tour, citing COVID-19 concerns, whereas the Strokes recently added dates and plan to kick off their tour in Seattle next week. (The SXSW cancellation has wreaked havoc on tours for smaller bands, as well; as many industry folks have observed, now’s a great time to buy a record or some merch on Bandcamp.) The broader threat to live music in 2020 is very real, albeit minuscule in the face of what the World Health Organization, as of Wednesday, now regards as a global pandemic. A national decree might not be far off. But while that “universal uncertainty” still reigns, it’s still every festival, every city, and every artist for itself.

This piece was updated after publication with more information.