Can the world of concerts, theater and other performing arts survive another COVID-fueled shutdown of live events?
How many commercial and nonprofit arts organizations can weather going dark again without crucial government funding?
This story is for subscribers
We offer subscribers exclusive access to our best journalism.
Thank you for your support.
And, if worse comes to worse, what happens to culture, the artists who create it and the audiences who crave and consume it if all our stages once more go silent?
These are questions that no events producers, performers or attendees want to contemplate, especially not after enduring the numbing, 16-month global pandemic shutdown that began in March 2020.
But in a pandemic era marked by constant change and unpredictability, these questions may need to be discussed sooner than later. As COVID-19 Delta variant cases continue to soar, the rapidly emerging Omicron variant has prompted new global travel restrictions and live-event lockdowns in some European countries, while raising concerns about what 2022 may have in store.
Veteran concert producers, theater presenters and arts leaders in San Diego, like many of their counterparts nationwide, are taking a “wait-and-see” approach, while continuing with business as usual in the meantime.
“We certainly are proceeding with our winter concert season and are planning on announcing our summer season in February,” said Martha Gilmer, the CEO of the San Diego Symphony, which in August opened its $85 million outdoor bayside venue, Rady Shell at Jacobs Park. That opening came a year late because of COVID-fueled delays.
“I hope we all take a deep breath and wait for the science, as opposed to reacting now without that knowledge,” Gilmer continued. “That’s what we are doing, waiting and making things safe at our concerts — and keeping our fingers crossed.”
Listening to the experts
Guidance from medical and government leaders is key for promoters here, including Belly Up Entertainment President Chris Goldsmith. He oversees bookings at two of San Diego County’s largest music nightclubs, the Belly Up in Solana Beach and the Music Box downtown.
“Asking me to forecast how the Omicron variant might impact the concert business is like asking Dr. Anthony Fauci who will win the Grammy Awards,” said Goldsmith, himself a multiple-Grammy Award-winning album producer.
“Our point of view, through the whole pandemic, has been that we follow the guidance provided us by federal, state and county officials, and try not to project anything. We operate with what we have in front of us. If the guidance changes, we’ll adjust.”
La Jolla Music Society President and CEO Todd Schultz concurred.
“Our policy, like most of the theaters in town, is that we require mask-wearing at all concerts and proof of vaccination or a negative test for everyone who buys a ticket,” Schultz said.
“Our audiences know they can come and feel safe at our performances. I think that’s why our concerts have sold so well this year, better than pre-pandemic, so I’m encouraged. I really worry about the impact of fear in the media that is sometimes premature. The Union-Tribune’s front-page story on Thursday quotes both President Biden and Governor Newsom that there won’t be another shutdown.”
The La Jolla Music Society has had an impressive number of sold-out and near-capacity shows since reopening this summer. So have such varied venues as Humphreys Concerts by the Bay on Shelter Island, the Casbah downtown and the Cal Coast Credit Union Open Air Theater at San Diego State University. The SDSU venue is booked by Live Nation, the world’s largest concert, festival and live-events producer.
The symphony, Gilmer proudly noted, has drawn more than 117,000 ticket-holders to the 45 concerts it held at The Shell between August and November. Five holiday-themed concerts are scheduled by the orchestra at the bayside venue between Friday and Dec. 22. Then, starting Jan. 15, comes the symphony’s 32-concert winter and spring series at nine indoor venues across San Diego County.
“The worst-case scenario is we go through another period where businesses are shut down, but I don’t believe that’s a realistic scenario,” said Humphreys Concerts by the Bay owner Richard Bartell. He is the chairman of the San Diego Tourism Marketing District and the owner of Bartell Hotels, which owns and operates eight area hotels.
“The best-case scenario is the most likely case,” Bartell said. “And that is that the variant gets under control, businesses continue to operate, and concerts continue to take place. It has never occurred to me otherwise, and we are going full steam ahead in booking our 2022 season lineup.”
Similar sentiments are shared by Tim Mays, the co-owner of both the 32-year-old Casbah, San Diego’s oldest indie-rock venue, and the 13-year-old Soda Bar. His production company also books concerts at the Observatory North Park, Balboa Theatre, Brick by Brick and other area venues.
“We have a robust schedule of shows at venues all over town in the new year and are looking forward to getting back to a more normal state of affairs,” Mays said. “There does seem to be some sort of media feeding frenzy over the Omicron variant in the past week or so. Hopefully, it’s much ado about nothing, or at least nothing compared to what we’ve all been through for the past year and three quarters.”
And if, sadly, that frenzy is followed by another shutdown?
“Reductions in capacity or a shutdown would be a major setback to the Casbah and all other live music venues all over the country,” Mays said. “We have been fortunate to receive Shuttered Venues Operators Grant funding and other grants which have helped us and will help us get through another downturn if need be.”
Everyone interviewed for this article agreed on the paramount importance of government funding, should there be another shutdown of live arts events. What is unmistakably clear is how unclear things are, at least for now.
“There is a huge level of uncertainty,” said Daniel Atkinson, who has guided the La Jolla Athenaeum’s jazz concert series since its inception in 1989. He is also the executive director of the Western Jazz Presenters Network and the founder of San Diego Jazz Ventures, which launched in August with a pair of outdoor concerts at The Alexandria at Torrey Pines.
“We had a moment in May or June where it appeared things were getting considerably better,” Atkinson recalled. “So promoters sort of dashed into creating a season for the summer or the fall, when they had not been planning to program anything at all, or — at best — do only streaming concerts with no live audiences.
“There was the anticipation that we could get back to normal, and I think it’s now clear that was premature. Promoters have had to readjust, retroactively, to the Delta variant and apply more strict rules for their audiences.
“At this point, I am not panicking. Given the experiences we have had in the past 21 months, we know it doesn’t make a lot of sense to rush out and make decisions based on suppositions and an absence of information. I’m hopeful that, in 10 days to two weeks, it will become a lot clearer what we are dealing with. There’s definitely an undertone of realizing there is a significant likelihood of things not turning out the way we think they will. We’ll have to sort of live with that as best we can.”
The situation is more complicated for concert tours abroad by U.S. musicians and for foreign musicians planning tours in this country. The number of tours in 2020 and the first half of 2021 that were canceled, postponed or rescheduled (in some cases, multiple times) is incalculable.
“Domestically, at least for now, things are headed in the right direction. But internationally, it’s been a big problem,” said Dave Shapiro, the co-founder of the San Diego-based Sound Talent Group. His company represents more than 200 bands and solo artists from around the globe, including Chilean vocal star Mon Laferte, the Australian heavy-metal band Parkway Drive, Puerto Rico’s Calle 13 and Guns N’ Roses co-founder Duff McKagan.
“Some countries are opening up again, some are shutting back down, and some still have a fairly long quarantine period,” Shapiro noted. “It’s been very tricky for our international acts. We have a lot of tours planned for next year, and we don’t know if they’ll happen. So, we’re just waiting and hoping.”
Shapiro spoke with the Union-Tribune on Thursday. On Friday, the Irish government announced that — starting Tuesday — all nightclubs will have to shutter and concert venues there will have to reduce their audience capacities by 50 percent. These moves come less than two months after nightclubs in Ireland reopened on Oct. 22, following the previous COVID-fueled shutdown of live events in that country.
In Austria, all concert halls, theaters and opera houses were closed for a month — as of Nov. 3 — in response to a surge of COVID infections across the country. (The reopening date has since been pushed back until at least Dec. 13.)
And on Nov. 24, English heavy-metal legend Ozzy Osbourne — a longtime Los Angeles resident — announced that his 2022 European tour with the band Judas Priest is postponed until 2023.
“Due to the ongoing uncertainty with full capacity events and travel logistics in much of Europe, we have come to the difficult decision to postpone my 2022 tour to 2023,” Osbourne said in a statement. “Original tickets remain valid for the new dates.”
Closer to home, a sizable number of the bands and solo artists that performed at this year’s truncated, three-month Humphreys Concerts by the Bay season did so only after their original 2020 and 2021 dates at the venue had been rescheduled. The same of kind of juggling also took place at countless venues across the nation and around the world.
“I’d love to tell you that there’s a lot of strategy behind the announcement of tours,” said Sound Talent Group honcho Shapiro. “But right now, with the amount of artists needing to get on the road and make a living, everyone is just hustling to get things booked as quickly as possible. So, it’s a lot of tours at once. …
“There are real concerns about 2022 European festivals being canceled. The best-case scenario is that they happen and Australia and other countries open back up. The worst case is the flip-side: none of those things happen and neither do things in the U.S. I think the reality will lie somewhere in the middle.”