2020 was supposed to be the most revenue-generating year the live music industry had ever seen. In fact, live music revenue is predicted to double by 2030, and this long-term growth is expected to stay consistent despite the 75% drop in revenue this year due to COVID-19. Looking at the numbers, investors and analysts have an optimistic view of live music and firmly believe that the industry will rebound as soon as people can safely gather once again. While it’s easy to say that live music is simply hitting a slight bump in the road from a bird’s eye view, this temporary hold on live shows is slowly changing the live music scene and testing what consumers are willing to pay for when it comes to watching their favorite artists perform.

At the start of the pandemic, artists were quick to get creative and utilize the limited tools they had to engage with their fans. As artists canceled shows, many took their talents to social media where they’d host livestream performances from their living rooms. We saw big acts like The National host weekly livestream shows, Miley Cyrus’s Instagram talk-show “Bright Minded” and we even saw smaller artists like Jordy Searcy take a similar approach through his weekly livestream shows as well as his surprise “house shows” where he would perform for fans in the Nashville area at their doorsteps. As the pandemic dragged on, however, the artist community realized that live streaming free performances was not going to pay the bills, and suddenly ads for paid livestream “concerts” emerged on many artists’ platforms. 

In fact, we can look to some of the strategies implemented by artists and see how this new situation is changing the way we think of live music and how artists run their brands. At the start of the pandemic, Erykah Badu took her music to her own platform, Badu World Market, where she set up her own virtual concert experience independent of any venue or concert series. What’s fascinating about Badu World Market is that it was set up by Badu and her team exclusively and also incorporates merchandise and music sales. Badu’s website, which enables her to keep every aspect of her brand centralized and under her control, offers a model for other artists to follow in which they can own more of what they make instead of dividing their brand among various streaming platforms, merchandise vendors and concert venues. 

Strict limits on social gatherings also raise the question of when big artists will be able to return to large stadiums and concert halls. Prior to COVID-19, big names in music —Taylor Swift, Drake and Harry Styles, to name a few — were selling out massive stadiums and arenas, but whether fans will be able to return to those venues in the foreseeable future remains uncertain. While these artists have had to take a break from performing, there may be a new opportunity for smaller artists to take advantage of this lull.

Quinn XCII jumped on this opportunity to expand his following by performing “drive-in” concerts in Cleveland. Videos on his Instagram show dozens of cars spread out across a parking lot with fans singing along from the trunks of their cars. While watching a show from your car is nothing like a true in-person concert experience, it’s clear that fans will jump at any chance to go to an in-person show in whatever form that might look like. Quinn XCII’s drive-in shows sold out quickly, and other artists have jumped on the bandwagon and scheduled outdoor, socially-distanced concerts like Lauren Daigle’s  “Autumn Nights,” a drive-in concert experience in Nashville.

While artists seem to be finding their way amid the chaos, concert venues themselves have not been faring well. In fact, The National Independent Venues Association predicts that 90 percent of their 3,000 members will go out of business by the end of the month. We’ve already seen the harsh effects of the virus on the live music industry as major music venues have closed their doors permanently, including the Majestic Theater in Detroit

Though artists have some flexibility and creative liberty to find new ways to generate revenue, the closing of live music venues could be devastating to the music industry in the future. Already, artists are competing for spots at venues booking all the way into 2022, making it difficult for up-and-coming artists to catch a break and have the opportunity to perform live. Like everything else we’ve seen through this pandemic, the music industry is becoming increasingly competitive, and as artists fight for their time on stage, the smaller, less-well-off acts could get left behind or have to work harder to build a following and make those in-person connections with fans.

Yet at the same time, artists have already surprised us with their resilience and creativity when it comes to engaging with audiences, and perhaps the challenges that lie ahead will be opportunities for them to get creative and evolve the music industry as we know it even further. 

Daily Arts Writer Kaitlyn Fox can be reached at kjfox@umich.edu.

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