Whiplash for the Concert Business as the Delta Variant Rages On

The concert industry had hoped that this summer would mark its high-decibel rebound after being shut down for more than a year by the pandemic.

It started promisingly, with restrictions being eased and fans snapping up tickets, but as the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant has accelerated in recent weeks, an ominous cancellation blotter has begun to build up.

Foo Fighters and Fall Out Boy have missed high-profile shows. Stevie Nicks and Limp Bizkit have scuttled tours. The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, planned for October, was canceled amid high infection rates in Louisiana.

The pileup of bad news, along with fearful chatter among artists and touring workers on industry back channels, has led to what many in the business describe as a confusing and even chaotic situation over whether — and how — to proceed.

For those moving forward, a loose consensus has taken shape that fans must provide proof of vaccination, or at least a negative test. But anecdotal reports suggest that the rigor of vaccine checks can be lacking, and the question of who bears responsibility for setting and enforcing those rules — especially when governments in major markets like Texas and Florida oppose such mandates — remains a matter of debate.

Last week, Jason Isbell, an alt-country singer-songwriter with decades of critical admiration, announced that attendees of his current tour must show proof of vaccination or a negative test.

“I need to take certain steps to try to ensure the safety of people attending, if at all possible,” Isbell said in a phone interview. “Also, I don’t think our business will be able to function unless we start putting those restrictions in place.”

Three shows in Austin, Texas, went just fine, Isbell said. “It was a different vibe, because everybody felt safer.”

But then Isbell canceled a date at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, an amphitheater outside Houston, because, he said, the venue would not “comply” with his rule.

The aftermath of Isbell’s decision gave a taste of the political fallout and behind-the-scenes finger-pointing that many artists are eager to avoid. On Twitter, one user who called himself a longtime fan of Isbell’s urged him, “DO NOT ALIENATE HALF YOUR FAN BASE over politics and emotions,” and warned, “Remember the Dixie Chicks.”

In an interview, Jerry MacDonald, the chief executive of the pavilion, said that Isbell’s request simply came too late for the venue to implement it.

“We were fully willing to address this and comply,” MacDonald said. “It was an unreasonable request on his part to think we could do this in two days.” Isbell and his manager both said they had made their request more than a week ahead of time.

Latest Updates

Live Nation and AEG Presents, the two global companies that dominate the business, have each announced that, by October, most venues and festivals they control in the United States will require vaccinations or negative tests for entry. Those decisions were applauded throughout the industry, but there are gray areas.

Artists that have touring deals with those companies pass through plenty of venues that are out of their control. (Live Nation set “best practices” for artists to request vaccination mandates at third-party spaces.)

In the case of AEG Presents’ policy, it applies to festivals like Coachella and clubs like Brooklyn Steel in New York — but not to larger venues like the Staples Center in Los Angeles, an arena owned by AEG Presents’ parent company, AEG, which controls sports, entertainment and real estate assets.

“Just a few weeks ago, we were optimistic about where our business, and country, were heading,” Jay Marciano, the chairman of AEG Presents, said in a statement. “The Delta variant, combined with vaccine hesitancy, is pushing us in the wrong direction again.”

Concert promoters, like other arts executives, are hoping that velvet ropes of vaccination requirements around cultural events can serve as an incentive for fans to get the shot. In a survey of attendees at Lollapalooza, which required proof of vaccination or a negative test, 12 percent said the festival was the motivation for them getting vaccinated, with many under age 30.

Understand the State of Vaccine and Mask Mandates in the U.S.

    • Mask rules. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in July recommended that all Americans, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks in indoor public places within areas experiencing outbreaks, a reversal of the guidance it offered in May. See where the C.D.C. guidance would apply, and where states have instituted their own mask policies. The battle over masks has become contentious in some states, with some local leaders defying state bans.
    • Vaccine rules . . . and businesses. Private companies are increasingly mandating coronavirus vaccines for employees, with varying approaches. Such mandates are legally allowed and have been upheld in court challenges.
    • College and universities. More than 400 colleges and universities are requiring students to be vaccinated against Covid-19. Almost all are in states that voted for President Biden.
    • Schools. On Aug. 11, California announced that it would require teachers and staff of both public and private schools to be vaccinated or face regular testing, the first state in the nation to do so. A survey released in August found that many American parents of school-age children are opposed to mandated vaccines for students, but were more supportive of mask mandates for students, teachers and staff members who do not have their shots.  
    • Hospitals and medical centers. Many hospitals and major health systems are requiring employees to get a Covid-19 vaccine, citing rising caseloads fueled by the Delta variant and stubbornly low vaccination rates in their communities, even within their work force.
    • New York. On Aug. 3, Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York announced that proof of vaccination would be required of workers and customers for indoor dining, gyms, performances and other indoor situations, becoming the first U.S. city to require vaccines for a broad range of activities. City hospital workers must also get a vaccine or be subjected to weekly testing. Similar rules are in place for New York State employees.
    • At the federal level. The Pentagon announced that it would seek to make coronavirus vaccinations mandatory for the country’s 1.3 million active-duty troops “no later” than the middle of September. President Biden announced that all civilian federal employees would have to be vaccinated against the coronavirus or submit to regular testing, social distancing, mask requirements and restrictions on most travel.

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