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Are Hybrid Concerts the Future for the Music Industry?

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The COVID-19 pandemic is having a profound impact on a wide range of industries. Travel and tourism, and the hospitality industry have seen devastating declines that have stretched into adjacent entertainment sectors like the music industry. Artists, labels, and music venues have faced an uphill climb in 2020. Without the ability to perform in front of a live audience, venues have closed their doors and artists are looking for new ways to connect with their audience. As difficult as this all sounds, there are significant bright spots on the horizon. Many in the music industry have successfully connected with their base and with the use of event technology, it is possible to forge a path forward with hybrid events.  Here’s a closer look at what has been going on in the music business and what it can all mean for the future!

Creative Hybrid and Virtual Events From the Music Industry

Like so many professionals the world over, musicians have found creative ways to connect with their fans. Independent artists, like Canadian-born, New Zealand-based belter Tami Neilson took to YouTube to maintain audience engagement. Neilson created “The Tami Show,” a campy retro look behind the scenes, complete with interviews, beehive hair and winged eyeliner tutorials, and, of course, musical performances. In March, legendary jam band, Phish, hosted “Dinner and a Movie.” As a band known almost exclusively for their live performances, Dinner and a Movie was a way to connect audiences with one another in a virtual format. This weekly event was a webcast of an entire past Phish performance paired with a suggested recipe that meant something to the band. Fans, or more appropriately—phans, posted pictures of their set up and the dinner plates and chatted about the music like they were all in the same room. More than just artists finding a way to connect, established institutions like the Grand Ol’ Opry began to stream shows without an audience and record labels began to embrace virtual events as a way to stay in touch with their marketing demographic. While free events hosted on the artists’ social media channels are great, venues and labels have been forced to find a way to monetize the experience.

The Future of Concerts and the Music Industry

It goes without saying that a streaming virtual concert experience is not the same as the electrifying experience of a live show. So as the world continues to grapple with the coronavirus, most of us are left with lots of questions about the future of concerts and the music industry. There was something unifying and curious about watching your favorite act live streaming an acoustic set from their living room but is that really something that is sustainable long term? Will we ever be able to return to something more familiar?A recent study out of Germany can provide us with valuable insights into what may be possible in a concert format.

Concerts and the potential spread of COVID-19

Named RESTART-19, researchers from the German University Medical Center Halle (Saale) sought to simulate and explore the risks of a COVID-19 outbreak at a major event, like a concert or sporting event, held in an indoor, closed space. They also wanted to know what steps, if any, could be taken to ensure the safety of participants in such events. The study was broken down into three parts:

  1. A live concert that took place on August 22, 2020, with 1500 attendees to determine exposure within the venue.
  2. A computer-generated simulation of the airflow to estimate exposure through aerosols
  3. An epidemic model created from the data collected from parts one and two.

To properly gauge the risks, the simulation itself was divided into three scenarios:

  1. Pre-virus scenario: The venue with a capacity of 8000 operated the event as it would before COVID-19 with no social distancing (but the use of PPE), the use of two entrances to the venue, two catering stations, and unrestricted access to the washrooms.
  2. Moderate measures: The event ran at 50% capacity with the 4000 attendees in every second seat in a “chessboard” pattern. The venue was divided into quadrants, each with its own dedicated entrances and food services. Every second urinal within the washrooms was closed.  
  3. Limited seating measures: The event ran with only 1500 attendees, all sitting in pairs distanced 1.5m (around 5ft) from each other. The distance was enforced throughout the spectator stands. Eight venue entrances were used, divided into quadrants. Each quadrant had its own catering services and every second urinal was closed.

Initially, the researchers hoped to have 4000 participants in the study but only 1500 signed up. This means that the data for scenario 1 and 2 (the 8000 and 4000 attendee models) was reached by extrapolating the data from the 1500 participant scenario. Participants were treated to a performance by German musician Tim Bendzko so that the scenario would replicate audience behavior as realistically as possible. All participants were given a contact tracer that collected data and measured participant location to within 20 centimeters. They are also given FFP2 masks which are similar to N95s and fluorescent hand sanitizer which was used to identify frequently touched surfaces.Once the experiment was set up, a computer-generated an airflow simulation within the venue. This simulation was designed to measure the path of potential aerosols around the venue based on the venue’s ventilation system.  While the study has yet to be peer-reviewed and was intended less as an academic paper and more as guidance for the industry, the findings were interesting (and informative!) nonetheless. The findings:

  • Protective measures work: Mask use seems to reduce the risk of virus spread. To be effective, mask wearing must be enforced, even while seated. All food and beverages should be consumed in one's seat to avoid additional contact points.
  • Event registration and check-in can be risky: When people are forced to line up for long periods they pose a greater risk for virus spread. Event hosts should employ technology or online ticketing/registration platforms like Accelevents and increase the number of gates to streamline the process and control capacity.
  • Poor ventilation makes things worse: Quality ventilation can help replace the air in the room and keep people safer. For event planners, this means asking potential venues about their ventilation system. Look for a venue with a ventilation capacity that far exceeds the number of people you expect to attend the event. Running an event at full capacity can increase the risks.
  • Assigned seating can help: The more you can do to keep attendees in one place, the better. Moving around increases risk and taking masks off to eat or drink increases risk. The best way to mitigate these concerns is to require people to stay in their seats.

What does it all mean for the future of concerts and events?

Well, the RESTART-19 study does not indicate how to hold an in-person event without any risk (as that would be impossible) but it does suggest some ways to mitigate the potential spread of the virus. Many event professionals have already implemented the required use of PPE and COVID questionnaires and temperature checks at entry but when it comes to large-scale events like music events and concerts, the industry has not quite found its way to a return. How can you satisfy the appetite for live music consumption and keep crowd numbers down? Hybrid events!

With a hybrid event, a record label, promoter, or concert venue can reach a large audience without losing ticket sales or increasing risk to attendees. By having a small in-person audience and live streaming the performance to a virtual audience, concerts can possibly happen once again. This means limiting venue capacity, potentially putting performers behind a plastic partition, and assigning attendees to specific seats. It also means eliminating or reducing concession stands and trying to reduce movement throughout the venue whenever possible. It will be necessary to create two ticket streams one for in-person attendees and one for the virtual attendees but with the right platform, creating and selling these tiers will be simple.

Certainly touring will increase potential complications as a performer faces risks moving between communities but some of that can be addressed with a soft schedule. Planning live shows during the pandemic will require lots of considerations. Concert production will be more important now than ever and digital platforms and a well-shot live stream will bring the artist directly to the average music fan. Tuning in from home will not necessarily present the same raucous vibe as attending in person, but will allow people to stay safe AND attend a live performance. As we head into 2021 and promising vaccines are on the horizon, it is possible that we will one day return to life as ‘normal.’ But in the meantime, it is refreshing to see the music industry find creative solutions to the traditional live concert, keeping fans engaged and connecting people to one another when we need it most.

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