The Festival Collapse that Forewarned of COVID-19’s Impact on the Global Economy

by | Apr 16, 2020 | Essay | 0 comments

The month of March, 2020 will be remembered by most of the world as the time that COVID-19 escalated from a distant concern to an all-consuming menace permeating through nearly every aspect of everyday life. Just as the virus that causes the disease rapidly moves through systems of the body, so too has it spread from one metropolitan center to the next at a fast enough rate to compromise economies across the globe.

At the time of writing, travel bans and gathering restrictions have crippled countless industries and left untold millions unemployed. Such concerns pale in comparison, however, to the state of affairs in regions where surges of hospitalizations have overburdened healthcare facilities and forced medical professionals to leave some patients to die in the interest of saving others. Even more unsettling to some is the question of how restrictions imposed to curb the spread might catalyze a longer-lasting erosion of democracy.

As wide as the footprint of the pandemic has grown, at one time music festivals were among its few economic casualties. Their abrupt chain reaction of cancellations provided an early indicator of the turmoil to befall countless markets in the following weeks.

As of late February, the true threat of the virus remained a topic of debate in much of the western world – the music community included. Most were aware that the first outbreak was thought to have originated in Wuhan, China in the later months of 2019. It was also widely publicized that regions of the country had been placed under quarantine – although a World Health Organization (WHO) report claimed that its outbreaks had been successfully contained. By the end of the month confirmed cases in Italy crossed the 1,000 threshold, prompting lawmakers elsewhere to pay more attention to the warnings of epidemiologists.

Up to that point only a handful of organizers had called off live music events, primarily in East Asia. On March 1st, Tomorrowland Winter issued a statement announcing that a relatively proactive French event ban stemming from coronavirus fears would not affect their event. On the 3rd, however, Ultra Abu Dhabi called off their debut festival two days before it was slated to take place citing travel restrictions imposed by United Arab Emirates officials.

The latter gathering’s cancellation gave social media commentators cause to question the fate of Ultra Music Festival’s flagship Miami event. In an attempt to put the rumors to rest, Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos A. Gimenez tweeted on the 4th that officials didn’t plan on “canceling any major events in Miami-Dade County, such as Ultra, following the guidance from Florida’s Surgeon General on coronavirus.”

Gimenez’ tweet backfired, eliciting a cavalcade of emails from concerned residents accusing Miami officials of placing profits before safety. The very next day, the City of Miami commissioners met with Ultra’s organizers to discuss the 2020 event, which was slated to take place from March 20th-22nd. After concluding the meeting they shared plans to announce their decision to the public the following Friday, March 6th. Shortly after the meeting adjourned, however, Commissioner Manolo Reyes told the Miami Herald that “The decision was made to postpone it.”

Ultra’s cancellation convinced few in the music community of COVID-19’s dire implications. Some speculated that the city used the spread of the coronavirus as an excuse to oust the festival based on long-standing tensions between organizers and officials. Others suggested that the event brand’s own financial issues made the spread of the disease a convenient excuse for them to pull out of the 2020 event. Drowned out by mixed messages from politicians regarding the severity of the virus, the development scarcely moved the public to take the virus more seriously.

Time would tell that Ultra wouldn’t be the first – and not a great length of time, either. On Thursday, March 5th, Tomorrowland Winter postponed as well – a complete change of tune from their statement of only a few days prior. Shortly after Ultra issued an official statement announcing their plans to reschedule on Friday, the 6th, South by Southwest joined the list of festivals called off on account of COVID-19 concerns. 

Over the weekend, rumors percolated that Goldenvoice had informed contractors that Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival would not go on as planned. Ultra may mark the unofficial start of festival season for electronic music fans, but Coachella’s mainstream influence makes it an annual signpost of what will follow at festivals in the following months. On Tuesday, March 10th, Goldenvoice confirmed that the 2020 edition of Coachella would be postponed until October 9th-18th.

With the 2020 festival season looking all the more questionable, members of the younger, more pop culture-savvy generations began to grasp what lay ahead for other industries. Right on cue, the WHO officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic the following day. After U.S. President Donald Trump banned European travel in an address to the nation later in the same day, only fringe conspiracy theorists continued to deny the severity of the virus.

What followed was a whirlwind of event bans, cancellations, and market contractions that made the novel coronavirus an unavoidable reality of life. As acts from all walks of the music industry cleared their tour schedules, gatherings like Movement Electronic Music Festival and Lightning in a Bottle made their postponements official as well. Live Nation’s stock value plummeted by 16%, accounting for a single-day loss of $1.8 billion prompting the promotional giant to cancel all of its arena tours.

That same week, officials in cities throughout the world imposed event capacity restrictions that displaced those in countless industries outside of music events and trade conferences. As regulations grew stricter, restaurants were forced to shutter their doors and lay off millions of workers. At the time of writing, most local and national governments have banned all businesses deemed “non essential” and issued stay-at-home orders to their citizens.

According to the WHO, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases has now surpassed 2 million worldwide with a resulting death toll of over 134,000. By this point it’s common knowledge that the true catastrophic potential of the disease lies not in how its flu-like symptoms endanger the elderly and those with pre-existing medical conditions, but in how its aggressive spread forces hospitals to operate far over capacity. One must simply look to the heart-wrenching dilemmas faced by healthcare professionals in New York City to understand how much is at stake for the rest of us. Area hospitals are forced to implement the same triage procedures as many in Italy and Spain did earlier in March, where the patients less likely to survive are refused treatment in the interest of saving others.

Lawmaker attempts to keep the spread from overwhelming the healthcare system have stripped citizens of liberties once considered fundamental in the developed world. Southern Italy lies on the brink of collapse as mass burglaries of supermarkets beckon military intervention. Two weeks ago, Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo granted the United States National Guard the authority to conduct house-to-house searches for New Yorkers crossing the state border without quarantining first. 

As for electronic music, COVID-19 has prompted artists and event organizers to go virtual. 2019 had seen an uptick in digital events hosted in games like Minecraft and Fortnite appealing to EDM fans, a younger subset of the greater fan base. Although the trend soon died down, it’s seen a resurgence as stay-at-home orders and other calls for social distancing increase the average festival goer’s time spent online. Time may tell that digital events come into their own during quarantine months as the result of a race to advance the technology facilitating them.

Just as members of the arts community more exposed to the cutting edge had been afforded a unique vantage point through which the dangers of the coronavirus were visible early on, so too may those who belong to it point one another to a light at the end of the tunnel. Electronic music has long fostered a collectivist culture, and its enthusiasts have demonstrated a willingness to come together even when required to remain physically apart. The state of affairs has placed a greater responsibility in the hands of festival brands. In an effort to minimize their losses, organizers of events like Movement, Coachella and EDC Las Vegas have postponed their events to the fall in lieu of calling them off for an indefinite period of time.

Health experts estimate that event bans could extend into the fall of 2021, however, meaning that the messaging of such influential tastemakers should better reflect the uncertainty of the years ahead. Social distancing has proven effective at flattening the curve of outbreak in many areas, and until treatment methods are sufficiently tested it’s an unfortunate reality of everyone’s day-to-day life.

The next actions taken by promoters will reveal whether their intentions reflect the communal ethos apparent at their gatherings. As with the rest of the public, their day-to-day decisions are now a matter of life and death.
Image credit: Matthieu Thoer

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