Two Years After the COVID Shutdown: How Rock Music Has Survived
Nothing could have prepared musicians and others in the music industry for the arrival of COVID-19 in March 2020. After the World Health Organization declared a pandemic on March 11, 2020, the industry, like everything else, was forced to accept a harsh reality: Things weren't going to be the same for a long time, perhaps ever.
Two years later, the WHO's declaration leads to a couple of questions: How has the industry been affected since then and where does it stand now?
The answer is complicated. In some respects, it may appear as though things are steadily returning to what fans once considered "normal." Concerts, tours and festivals have been rescheduled, venues rebooked and seats filled, but the journey to get to this point hasn't been easy. And it's far from over.
It helps to look back to the beginning when the pandemic first struck and thousands of artists, venues and industry workers were forced out of jobs. But people adapted. Artists who were used to recording in studios with others found themselves tracking songs remotely from their homes and stitching the pieces together as they stayed physically away from each other. )Many artists have continued this practice, even as in-person studio work slowly resumes, citing the ability to collaborate with musicians from around the world.) Artists also performed livestreams from their homes with virtual tip jars or sat on their porches and performed to masked outdoor attendees.
At the beginning of 2021, as vaccine programs rolled out across the world, in-person shows and events began to ramp up, but it wasn't a return to normalcy. Venues, promoters and artists had to make decisions about capacity restrictions and vaccination requirements, which has caused controversy within the industry, as some artists and fans claim that such constraints against unvaccinated individuals make for a "discriminated" audience (as Eric Clapton, a noted anti-lockdown advocate, said last year).
This has also led promoters and ticket sellers to reconsider their refund policies. Last year, multiple major vendors, including Ticketmaster and StubHub, came under fire after fans struggled to receive refunds for their purchases instead of waiting for undetermined rescheduled dates.
Artists who have returned to live performances have drastically reimagined their policies regarding backstage access, meet-and-greets and other in-person events that could affect the safety of staff. Some bands, like Metallica, even invested in hiring trained dogs capable of sniffing out positive coronavirus cases in tour personnel.
According to industry professionals, this new sanitized version of touring has noticeably changed the atmosphere and the nature of the job. “It’s not as much fun as it was,” Ben Bowers, a guitar tech for the band Rival Sons told The Guardian. “If you spend your time touring, you sacrifice a lot of your friendships at home. Your friendships are all over the world, and the road is your social lifeline. But it was like going to an office job where you have to stay in the office at the end of the night. It was really mentally challenging.”
Additionally, the new safety requirements have created a financial burden on tours, especially those by smaller and independent artists who are still struggling to recover. “For anyone going to shows right now, if they have the means to, they should buy merch and support artists in any way they can outside of just buying a ticket,” Ella Williams, a singer-songwriter who records as Squirrel Flower, told NME. “There are a lot more expenses behind the scenes now.”
As cautious as many artists have tried to be, the reality is that nothing is guaranteed. Several big-name bands have had to reschedule or cancel shows entirely due to positive cases. Aerosmith, who haven't performed live since February 2020, recently canceled their European tour, while John Mayer had to pull out of shows twice — once in January with Dead and Company and again in February with his solo tour.
The industry as it stands now is fragile, but not without hope. Even though the amount of shows and festivals scheduled to be performed over the next few months is still far from pre-pandemic numbers, ticket sales have risen.
“We saw a very strong January in terms of the number of tickets sold - it was twice as many as 2019," Fabrice Sergent, a managing partner for the ticket purchasing app Bandsintown, told NME. "It’s about 100 percent gross in 2022 compared to January 2019. It tells the story that there will be an unprecedented level of demand this year.”