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Experts Say Live Promoters Need a New Game Plan for Coronavirus

Billboard logo Billboard 2020-03-05 Steve Knopper

As coronavirus fears ravaged global markets — slashing Live Nation’s stock by more than 25% since mid-February — the concert giant’s CEO, Michael Rapino, tried to reassure investors. “Asia is less than .01 of nothing of our business right now,” he said. “The fan will show up.”

But in the past week alone promoters have canceled Ultra Music festivals in Miami and Abu Dhabi and Tomorrowland in France; Apple, Netflix and other big brands have pulled out of South by Southwest; and United Airlines and JetBlue have drastically cut back on flights.

Should the concert business be freaking out?

“They should be,” says George Loewenstein, a Carnegie Mellon University professor who specializes in the application of psychology to economics. “Concert promoters might need to come up with some kind of new model for this period.”

He adds, “It feels to me like we’re at the beginning.”

Loewenstein and other crowd-behavior experts say coronavirus could have dark implications for live events — Live Nation grossed more than $3.3 billion last year, AEG followed with $2.2 billion, and concerts remain a key financial engine driving the music business. China, Italy and Iran have endured the most documented cases, but the disease with a 3.4% death rate has spread gradually through the U.S., especially in Washington state but also New York and California. If this continues, with no cure on the horizon, concertgoers may conclude the safest health choice is to stay home from, say, Coachella, or a stadium show.

“You are going to see a fairly steep drop-off, would be my guess, in the number of concert attendees,” says Nicholas Evans, a University of Massachusetts-Lowell bioethicist who has written extensively about the impact of the Ebola virus, the Avian flu and HIV. “Any festival that’s drawing an international crowd is going to have to deal with people and their desire to get on a plane — this is going to be a major challenge.”

Evans adds that promoters need to thoroughly check in with contractors who oversee the physical process of setting up and loading in live events, making sure they give their employees adequate sick time and do not force them to work if they show coronavirus symptoms.

“If there’s a Los Angeles Times story that says ‘Coachella becomes a hotbed for coronavirus,’ I don’t think it’s going to be the company that serves drinks at the bar that’s going to be taking the hit for that one. It’s going to be the festival organizer,” he says. “If I’m CEO, I’m going to want to have policies for taking care of sick employees.”

Within the concert business, booking, marketing and promoting events will continue as always, but an underlying anxiety has seeped in. The health scare is “the elephant in the room,” Patrick Moxey, the Ultra Music label’s president and founder, who works with the Ultra Music Festival, told Billboard earlier this week before the Miami and Abu Dhabi cancelations were announced.

“That’s going to affect everything across the next 12 months,” he adds. “As I go through my days in the last couple of weeks, every agent, every manager, is functioning, but there’s also this parallel universe where everything might be canceled. People are booking tours, making lineups, promoting shows, but there’s this feeling underneath of a slight uncertainty. There’s a big question mark over many across the business, on all levels.”

Evans and other crowd-psychology experts emphasize the World Health Organization has yet to classify coronavirus as a pandemic and it’s impossible to gauge its future impact — so far, the disease disproportionately affects older and unhealthier people, who tend not to attend live events. Still, says Paul Slovic, a University of Oregon psychology professor and president of the nonprofit institute Decision Research, who studies public health and threat perceptions, “I would be worried.”

“We know it’s spread through close interpersonal contact, and there’s a lot of people at a concert,” Slovic says. “If they’re close together, that’s worrisome. If it keeps spreading, it leads to some difficult decisions for promoters, as to whether to cancel or not.”

The crisis has become so disturbing that Andrew Noymer, a University of California Irvine associate professor of public health and live-music aficionado who recently bought tickets for an upcoming Best Coast show, says concertgoers must assess their risk tolerance before even going out.

“I can’t give you an airtight guarantee that there’s no risk, even though a lot of people want to say ‘just keep calm and carry on,'” he says. “Coronavirus is spreading and it’s going to spread more. A soccer game in Italy was played in an empty stadium for only TV cameras. So I don’t want to say it’s unreasonable to exclude going to crowd events.”

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