By Anne Steele
Concert promoters -- and fans -- haven't given up on live music, even with most summer shows wiped out by the coronavirus pandemic.
The stadium shows and festivals that had been expected to make this year the biggest ever for live music have given way to virtual tours and drive-in shows. The performances don't come close to making up for scores of canceled or postponed events, but they are finding eager audiences so far and providing a financial lifeline for some artists and bands while tours are on indefinite hiatus.
More than 350,000 fans rolled into over 300 drive-in theaters across North America on June 27 to watch a Garth Brooks performance taped without an audience at a Nashville soundstage weeks before the viewing. Cars were parked in every one-and-a-half or two spots to allow space for concertgoers to maintain their distance from one another, even while tailgating. Promoters are tracking the results of the show -- which priced admission at $100 per car -- as a potential test case for future events.
Walter Kinzie, chief executive of the company that produced the Garth Brooks concert, Encore Live LLC, declined to say how much the show made, but called the event "overwhelmingly successful on all accounts." Since then, he said, artists and their representatives have been calling nonstop. "The amount of interest from major headliners has been unbelievable," he said.
He also said most of the drive-ins that screened the Garth Brooks show are now signed up to distribute prerecorded or live-streamed shows exclusively from Encore. The company hasn't announced specific plans for future shows.
Caryn Gullifor packed her Toyota Highlander SUV with her mother, aunt, best friend and 10-year-old son -- plus a tent, chairs, table, coolers and bug spray -- for the show at the McHenry Outdoor Theater in northern Illinois. The 33-year-old sales manager, who had seen Mr. Brooks in concert once before, said the ticket price was worth it, and she will go again if another artist she likes does something similar. Without the artist there onstage, and with sound coming through the car radio rather than a massive speaker bank, it wasn't a true substitute for a normal live show, Ms. Gullifor said.
"Seeing Garth at the drive-in still had some of those things from a concert I love, though," she said. "The audience singing and dancing together, and spending quality time with friends and family."
Before the onset of the coronavirus, the global live-music business had been expected to generate $28.8 billion in ticket sales and sponsorship revenue this year, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, a 3% increase over 2019. Now, the live business is forecast to fall 75% to about $7 billion this year, according to media and tech analysis firm Midia Research.
Across North America, shows in the six-month period ended May 20 grossed $1.61 billion, 55% less than they did in the year-ago period, according to trade magazine Pollstar.
Alternative singer-songwriter Andrew McMahon is performing live for three sold-out nights later this month in the parking lot of a concert venue in Anaheim, Calif. Most tickets were priced at $200 a car, with front rows going for $350. At 236 cars per show, the event will gross over $50,000 in ticket sales each night, according to the organizers.
Cars will be parked first-come-first-served in a staggered pattern, with at least 10 feet between them to allow tailgating. Concessions and merchandise will be available for order through a mobile app and delivered directly to attendees' cars; restrooms will be managed via virtual queue.
Last week, promoter Nederlander Concerts began selling tickets to watch a live stream of the July 11 show for $20, or more with merchandise.
The limited capacity and enhanced health precautions mean drive-in concerts don't represent a sustainable business model for the long term, said Jordan Harding, general manager of the venue, City National Grove, adding that the three-night duration should help offset some fixed costs, such as installing staging, sound and lighting equipment -- all appropriately distant from the audience.
"We're looking forward to reopening the main venue," he said. "But this is a nice way to bridge the gap."
Electronic musician Marc Rebillet's 13 drive-in shows in nine markets last month grossed $523,000 with 12,132 fans in attendance altogether -- and double the number of fans per show he was seeing prepandemic. Mr. Rebillet's merchandise sales quadrupled to about $13,000 a night, according to the shows' promoter, Matt Feldberg.
"There's definitely a huge 'I was there' zeitgeist element," said Mr. Feldberg.
Virtual tours, with fans watching online from home, are proving financially viable to some degree.
Ben Baruch started promoting his clients' paid streamed performances in March. The Denver-based artist manager decided early on that free online shows, viewed by some in the industry as a good way to reach new fans and maintain contact with older ones, wouldn't help pay the bills.
"Exposure is great," he said, but "we wanted to make sure our artists and crew members were able to live."
Now, he is sending some of the bands he manages on "tour" -- in one case to empty venues -- with tickets, and premium-priced options such as VIP merchandise packages and Zoom meet-and-greets. One of Mr. Baruch's clients, Connecticut jam band Goose, ran a five-night "Bingo Tour" with fans purchasing boards to play bingo with the set list to earn prizes.
Without the expenses of tour buses, fuel, lighting and production rentals that would be involved in traditional touring, the net income from one of these virtual events is consistent with what a band might expect from a night on the road, Mr. Baruch said. Between tickets, VIP and merchandise, the acts are netting $10,000 to $20,000 a night.
"Unfortunately, we can't do this for 20 to 30 nights like we might on a traditional tour because the demand just isn't there," said Mr. Baruch, adding that as long as coronavirus-related restrictions continue, any touring act is going to register a drop in revenue over the course of the year.
Nevertheless, he said digital events will cover overhead such as band and crew pay.
Some fans were disappointed to discover that the Garth Brooks performance they paid to watch at drive-ins had been prerecorded, so it could be shown at a convenient hour in multiple time zones, rather than simulcast live.
"I could have had the same experience at home on YouTube," said Garrett Allen Sr., 34 years old, who watched from the back of an SUV with his wife and three children at the Starlite Drive-In in Wichita, Kan. "And wouldn't even have to wear pants."
Write to Anne Steele at Anne.Steele@wsj.com
Corrections & Amplifications
This article was corrected at 3:35 p.m. ET to reflect that fans won't be able to bring food and beverage to the upcoming Andrew McMahon drive-in concerts. The original version incorrectly said they would be able to.