There will be a music festival of some sort in the United States before the end of the year, of this much I am certain. It’s going to be a bad idea, and will likely result in people getting sick or worse, but it is going to happen. Whether it’s with the best intentions or is just a cash grab, whether it’s in a red state or a blue state, who might headline or what type of music it might feature are all things I do not know, but it is going to happen.
You can place your bets on where and when you think it'll happen. It’s unlikely to be one of the big-name festivals. A Coachella or an EDC or a Bonnaroo may be "postponed" for now, but they have too much invested in their brands to risk a pandemic-related death and are unlikely to return before the year is over. There are certain cities that are already out of the running; mayors in Los Angeles and New York have mentioned not being able to imagine large public gatherings in their city until 2021. It’s not going to be one of the fringe festivals so many people thumb their nose at either; joke all you want about the Insane Clown Posse and the Gathering of the Juggalos, but they’re respecting the science of things much better than many a political pundit.
Still, it will happen, if for no other reason than people enjoy defiance when it doesn’t really involve any labor on their part. They’ll dress it up differently, of course, with platitudes about the “power of live music” and “the pursuit of happiness.” It’ll be a metaphorical circus and probably feature awful music, but it’s not going to matter because it’s not going to be run or attended by actual fans of music, but by people cosplaying as music fans so they can “stick it to the man” and prove they aren’t sheep who can be told what to do. We'll watch the car crash nature of it the same way we watched Fyre Festival break down.
But the people who actually love music, the ones who’ve had those life-changing moments surrounded by strangers where the right chord from a guitar or the right vocal melody shouted out or the right drum beat triggered by a computer reached deep into their soul and made them feel something they struggle to translate into words, they’re not going to be there. They’re going to be at home, playing it safe, looking for ways to support the artists they love, and to keep the passion in their hearts burning until this all blows over, as much as a global pandemic can blow over. They’ll watch the pro-shot videos bands are releasing and the cell phone videos they sometimes complain about. They’ll revisit old records they love and discover other records they didn’t know about. But they will wait because they know it’s our best shot at getting live music back.
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Because live music is going to come back. Will it be in the same shape as before, with all the same venues? Probably not. This outbreak will likely be the catalyst for major changes in the business of live music, in ways that us on the fan side of the barrier may never quite understand. What companies survive, what venues are left, how insurance will be handled, these are all things that are going to have to be worked out for the lights to be turned back on and the speakers to be turned back up.
It’s going to happen though. Author Joseph Fink recently talked on his podcast, Our Plague Year, about how “theater has outlasted every plague humanity has ever faced… we always eventually gather back together in the dark.” The same is true of live music. People have gathered to hear the songs of strangers for thousands of years and will keep doing so as long as we have ears to hear them, and probably even beyond then. Music may not touch every soul the same way, but it touches enough to know that no matter how long the concert drought lasts - weeks or months or more — that’s all it is — a drought.
Will we need to wear masks or cap attendance or have our temperatures checked at the door? Whatever we need to do we’ll figure it out. We’ll get live music back.
Just maybe don’t rush to go to that first festival, wherever it happens.