AUSTIN (KXAN) — Before March 2020, downtown Austin danced to the rhythm of live music, with guitar riffs and drumbeats spilling out of bars and venues, providing the soundtrack of the city.
But over the last year, the Live Music Capital of the World has fallen silent.
Austin’s many musicians and much-loved venues have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, and though there are reasons to be optimistic as vaccination rates increase, the future of live music has never been more uncertain.
During a SXSW panel Wednesday morning, music industry experts discussed what will happen when live concerts finally return, how they may look different, and potential long-lasting changes to the music industry brought about by the pandemic.
In his SXSW keynote later on Wednesday, Willie Nelson spoke of his own caution about live concerts in a post-COVID world.
“I don’t know what it will feel like because I don’t know what kind of comeback it will be,” the country star said when asked how returning to the stage will feel.
“I don’t know who will be able to come to the show and I don’t want to do a show anywhere, any time that has a danger of somebody getting sick,” he added.
Increased ticket prices and strict COVID-19 protocols may be in place when concerts do return to society, the panel speculated.
“The music industry is in real pain right now,” said Adam Shore, general manager of the livestream firm Driift, who moderated the discussion.
They discussed how musicians have suffered huge hits to their income over the past 12 months.
“The bottom line is everyone is impacted by this in the world, but especially in the live entertainment business,” said Michelle Cable, a booking agent and manager for Panache Booking.
“We were the first to shut down and we’ll probably be the last to open based off what we’re seeing.”
Cable, who manages musicians in Australia, where some elements of life are beginning to return to normal, suggested that artists, venues and talent agencies will need to introduce more specific, less relaxed protocols.
She said that the Australian music industry has seen success with strict contract tracing, while some venues pay a ‘COVID marshall’ to act as an additional security guard who ensures people are wearing masks and following safety measures.
“We’re going to be expecting a full overhaul of how we work in the live touring industry,” Cable said.
“Hopefully we’ll all be in a concert even if it’s masked and socially distanced watching live music, because I sure miss it,” she added. “It’s the longest time I’ve gone in my life without seeing a show.”
Tom Windish, senior executive for Paradigm Talent Agency, said that when concerts return, they may come with inflated ticket prices due to venues increasing their expenditure on staffing and protocols to protect against COVID-19.
“I don’t know that bands will say ‘sure, I can play for half as much as I used to make, no problem’,” he said. “Another obvious place to get that money is from the fans.”
He compared ticket prices to movie theaters, saying they have been “kind of low for a long time.”
“I think it’s reasonable to charge more for tickets,” he said.
While Windish noted that the pandemic has been financially “devastating” to performers, he said that for some, spending less time touring and more time with their families may be here to stay.
“Artists need to step back and get off the hamster wheel,” he said.
“I know financially it is devastating, but they do appreciate not being on the road all the time, and seeing their family more often is really important,” he added. “If they can figure out how to do that more in the future that would be great.”