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For many musicians and live music venues across the country, the pandemic created an existential crisis. Despite signs of life this summer, new clouds are making the future uncertain. Jeffrey Brown reports for our arts and culture series, CANVAS.
For many musicians and live music venues across the country, the pandemic has created an existential crisis. There have been signs of life this summer, but also new clouds making the future uncertain.
Jeffrey Brown reports for our arts and culture series, Canvas.
It was perhaps the grandest opening of a music venue in the COVID-19 era.
In early August, a year late because of the pandemic, the San Diego Symphony debuted the Rady Shell, a spectacular $85 million outdoor performance space on the city's waterfront, a new home for music of all kinds; 3, 500 people took in the celebration, conducted by music director Rafael Payare.
Rafael Payare, Music Director, San Diego Symphony:
It was wonderful. You could feel the electricity on the stage and from the audience.
The symphony originally planned to use the shell as its summer home. But with the pandemic and now the highly transmissible Delta variant, it will perform here through the fall.
The timing of everything, it seems like it was meant to be. The beautiful thing about this venue is that, even though it's outdoor — and you remember that you are outdoor when you just look and you could see the Coronado Bridge, you could see Mexico, or you could see the seagulls going around — is that the feeling on stage, it's like you would be in an indoor concert hall, and a very, very good one.
A native of Venezuela, Payare joined the orchestra in 2019 as construction was beginning on the Shell just months before the pandemic spread worldwide, bringing the live music industry to a screeching halt.
The San Diego Symphony experimented with streaming performances for its music-starved audience.
When you see that the concerts were taken away, now the people, you see that it was something that they were taking for granted a little bit. And now everybody's so hungry and so happy to have it again. And this is something very reassuring and beautiful.
For a year-and-a-half, artists around the globe put on virtual performances and drive-in shows.
But when vaccines became available and case numbers dropped, live music began to return at big festivals like Lollapalooza in Chicago and historic venues like Royal Albert Hall in London.
The doors also reopened at smaller clubs around the U.S., like First Avenue in Minneapolis.
How did it feel, that first performance? What was it like?
Dayna Frank, Owner, First Avenue:
I kept saying, I know I'm married and I have kids, but I think this was the best night of my life.
Dayna Frank is owner of First Ave, renowned in rock history as the place where, among much else, Prince performed and filmed "Purple Rain."
We first spoke last summer, as venues like hers teetered on the brink of extinction. As president of an industry trade group, she helped push for legislation, including the Save Our Stages Act passed last December, giving venues up to $10 million for things like payroll, rent, and utilities.
Our industry wouldn't exist without this, so it was all or nothing. And we knew that.
And Frank says the crisis showed the larger value of spaces like hers.
Without us, the hotel behind us doesn't exist. The four restaurants don't exist. The uber drivers don't exist.
And being able to tell that story, I also think gave us a renewed sense of purpose and exactly like why we needed to survive, because our communities were relying on us to survive.
But now, as the pandemic enters a new phase, so too does the live music industry.
First Ave, for example, mandated COVID vaccines for its staff and now requires concert-goers to show proof of vaccination or a negative test. Concert giant Live Nation will do the same. It put on about 2, 300 events globally in the first half of 2021, compared to more than 18,000 during the same time in 2019.
Meanwhile, outbreaks are testing artists' comfort levels. Some, like Garth Brooks and K-pop stars BTS, have canceled shows and tours altogether. On the other hand, rock legend Eric Clapton reportedly said he would not play any venues that do mandate vaccines.
For working musicians, it's a time of uncertainty.
Ryan Miller, Guster:
I don't even know if we're all going to feel comfortable going to dinner, much less putting ourselves in indoor rooms night after night.
Ryan Miller is lead singer and guitarist for Guster, the alternative rock band that turns 30 this year, hanging on through the pandemic.
There was also some kind of low lows of just figuring out how this was going to play out, how we were going to stay connected internally, how are we going to stay connected to our fans, how we're going to keep some momentum up, if that even mattered anymore.
The band had weekly meetings to stay connected, and played a drive-in show last August in New Hampshire.
We're in the midst of this storm, but we felt like it was important to do, even though it was a lot of stress and not something that any of us were, like, super excited to do, other than just feeling like we kind of had to.
But, in July, Guster emerged from what band members called COVID-tirement to headline a sold-out show at Red Rocks outside Denver, along with the Colorado Symphony.
There probably isn't a better story that I can concoct coming out of this.
It was a bifurcated experience, because I have got 9, 200 people in front of me. I have got bandmates on the side of me. I have got 60 orchestra players behind me, and I'm standing in the middle. But, also, it was, it was windy. I couldn't hear. There was a rainstorm 60 minutes before. My guitar pedal wasn't working. Like, my voice cracked for the first time that week on the second song.
So, I'm in my head being, like, am I going to — is my voice going to blow out?
And, like, we're livestreaming this all over the world. And so none of us felt like when we got off stage that we, like, crushed it. But, that night, I was just reading every Internet comment. And it was literally only then I was like, oh, we pulled it off.
Now the band is working on a record and has tentative plans for a tour this winter. But everything, says Miller, is on the table, including the future direction of the music industry itself.
Anywhere you spin, like, live music, recorded music, streaming music, collaboration, digital sales, is being impacted by COVID, is being impacted by technology, being impacted by a music industry that was that is basically being destroyed and recreated as we speak.
So I don't think there will be a single part of the music industry that will be unscathed.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.
And you have got to love their spirit.
Watch the Full Episode
In his more than 30-year career with the NewsHour, Brown has served as co-anchor, studio moderator, and field reporter on a wide range of national and international issues, with work taking him around the country and to many parts of the globe. As arts correspondent he has profiled many of the world's leading writers, musicians, actors and other artists. Among his signature works at the NewsHour: a multi-year series, “Culture at Risk,” about threatened cultural heritage in the United States and abroad; the creation of the NewsHour’s online “Art Beat”; and hosting the monthly book club, “Now Read This,” a collaboration with The New York Times.
Sam Lane is reporter/producer in PBS NewsHour's segment unit.
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