With COVID-19, concert industry from artists to tour managers forced to rethink live shows, music production

Keith Urban was one of the first to perform in front of a concert audience.

May 16, 2020, 1:33 PM

It was a show like no other for country music star Keith Urban.

Instead of people standing together in a massive auditorium or on a football field like at past shows, the audience members for this surprise performance, all health care workers, watched the "We Were" singer from their cars, parked 6 feet apart.

"It felt amazing to be playing," Urban said. "People were honking horns and flicking headlights. ... It was really magical."

The surprise concert Urban performed on Thursday was held at the Stardust Drive-In Movie Theater, about 40 miles east of Nashville, Tennessee. He was one of the first artists in the country to perform a live show in front of an audience since the onset of the pandemic.

Almost 125 vehicles filled the parking lot for the unannounced show, which was only for doctors, nurses, EMTs and staff from Vanderbilt Health, a division of Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

PHOTO: Keith Urban performs for first responders at the Stardust Drive In Theatre in Watertown, Tenn. May 14, 2020.
Keith Urban performs for first responders at the Stardust Drive In Theatre in Watertown, Tenn. May 14, 2020. The private show was set up exclusively for more than 200 doctors, nurses, emergency medical technicians and staff from Vanderbilt Health, part of Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
Andy Snyder/Guitar Monkey Entertainment via AP

"So we had the idea for the drive-in ... over a month ago," Urban said. "It's an obvious venue because you're playing to people in cars, which is such a great way to keep the distance between everybody in a safe environment, but the venue is already built."

"We just set about figuring it out, how to do it in a safe way," he continued. "The crew could be minimized. Musicians on stage could be minimal, everything just had to be very, very minimal."

Urban and his crew's decision to hold a concert using this format was a huge first step as the world of live music tries to find its footing amid the ongoing pandemic.

"Just freezing and stopping and doing nothing is just not an option," Urban said. "So, how do we move forward, steadily, methodically, not just for us but for the audience too? The audience is out there and they want to come and see something but they want to feel like it's a safe environment and everything's been thought through."

Concerts and festivals haven't been immune to the nationwide stay-at-home orders. The music industry is preparing to lose an estimated $9 billion in ticket sales, according to a study published by the trade publication Pollster.

Some of today's biggest entertainers are finding new ways to adapt and connect with fans.

Doja Cat's song "Say So" became a No. 1 hit, fueled by a TikTok dance craze. Artists like Ariana Grande, Justin Beiber and Drake have filmed quarantine-themed videos. Legendary DJs have turned their living rooms into night clubs and live streamed dance sets.

PHOTO: Drake performs onstage during the Final Stop of 'Aubrey & The three Amigos Tour' at State Farm Arena, on Nov.18, 2018 in Atlanta.
Drake performs onstage during the Final Stop of 'Aubrey & The three Amigos Tour' at State Farm Arena, on Nov.18, 2018 in Atlanta.
Prince Williams/WireImage, File

"One amazing thing that we've seen is that artists are feeling they're still entertainers and they still want to bring people together," said Puja Patel, editor-in-chief of Pitchfork. "We've seen everyone from Cardi B to Diplo ... take over their Instagram Lives. ... Travis Scott did a concert within Fortnite."

"It's been really special to see so many musicians come together for their fans and to know that fans really need them right now and they need kind of that escape," she added.

Patel said livestreaming is crucial right now for artists while everyone is stuck at home.

"So many people are turning to mobile devices for entertainment," she said. "I think this will get us through, but believe live music will return in a public facing way. For now, I think these shows are the way we move forward."

Derrick Jones, whose stage name is "D-Nice," has been called a hero for his livestream sets dubbed "Club Quarantine," streaming for hours on end and breaking the internet with as many as 100,000 viewers. Guests for that show included Michelle Obama, the Kardashians and Mark Zuckerberg.

"I started DJ-ing and, listen, the energy was just different, it really felt like a party," Jones said. "Then I would read the comments and then say, 'Wow, I was putting out energy,' but based on what people were saying, I could really feel the energy."

"That's when I realized this thing has legs," he continued. "This is a good thing that's happening and it just keeps going."

But for someone who built his career on the road performing for big audiences, he says it's not the same.

"Before the pandemic, I was on the plane every few days. My gigs were all over," Jones said. "Once the pandemic hit, I had to be still and sit at home. I honestly didn't know what to do because I almost didn't recognize this was my residence because I was never here."

It's a sentiment shared by people in jobs all over the industry. Longtime production manager Chris Gratton said there are many others in the business who are being forgotten in the pandemic.

"It's really affected the 12 million people in the entertainment business, you know, live entertainment in the U.S. alone," Gratton said. "I mean, we have caterers, there's the popcorn poppers, the ushers, the parking lot people. It's not just the roadies."

Gratton said it's these unsung heroes who have been hit the hardest.

"We go to the studio, do work with the artists and the dancers and the choreographers and designers and work throughout the day ... going through setlists, getting everything advanced," he said.

He said his team was supposed to kick off Justin Bieber's "Changes" tour on Friday in Seattle.

"This would have been the day we would have finished production rehearsal," he said. "It's kind of sad for me and the fellas that we're not doing that today, but our time will come. So we will be back."

PHOTO: Cardi B performs onstage during Universal Pictures Presents The Road To F9 Concert and Trailer Drop on January 31, 2020 in Miami, Fla., Jan. 31, 2020.
Cardi B performs onstage during Universal Pictures Presents The Road To F9 Concert and Trailer Drop on January 31, 2020 in Miami, Fla., Jan. 31, 2020.
Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Universal Pictures, File

A roadie for over 30 years, working for artists like Ariana Grande, Kanye West and J Balvin, Gratton said he's never seen anything like this.

"Man, the only thing that even comes close at all would be 9/11," he said. "Everybody was afraid to fly. So everybody postponed or canceled for a few weeks. But that was a few weeks, the maximum a month. And then everybody got back up to it. And, you know, it was scary, but it's the only thing we ever got close to this."

Gratton spends around 10 months a year on the road. Now he and 87 employees on his team are out of work. He said he's worried about his crew and their families being able to put food on their tables.

"We're going to get to that point. Independent contractors often live check to check," he said. "We went from having the biggest year ... to zero dollars overnight."

Gratton said he's eager to get back to work, but believes his team is looking at up to two years before things get back to normal.

"It's not just a matter of doing a show," he said. "How do you park the kids outside? How do you line up? How do I dump my trucks with the band gear into it, into the building when you have a lot of heavy gear? You need to try to stay 6 feet apart. You're wearing masks."

"I want to hear the drums," Gratton continued. "You know, I want to feel the music. We want to open Justin Bieber's doors and the girls go crazy when 'Baby' comes on ... you can't get that off a computer. There's nothing better than live music, and it's truly the only language we all speak. We need to bring it back, of course, and it shall come back."

It's a major setback for the industry like it has never experienced before. Patel said she believes this moment in time will be forever remembered as one of the "great musical moments of the past."

"The music that comes out during this period will be remembered forever as coronavirus music," she said.

For Urban, while he said it felt "extraordinary" to be back on stage, he still misses being able to do "meet and greets" and shake hands with his fans.

"There's a huge amount of it that I miss," he said. "I miss the physical connectivity with an audience. I don't know when we're going to get to play or mosh pit again. A bunch of car headlights is not the same as a mosh pit, I can tell you that much.

"I derive so much of my energy on stage from that audience right down there and everybody is in this flow. I miss that."