April 13, 2020
Dear Adam (and live music fans),
I’m a booking agent at William Morris Endeavor, and it feels like ages ago when the head of our music department first mentioned COVID-19. Sometime in early January, in big conference rooms with big television screens connecting our New York, LA, Nashville, and London offices, we worked through our weekly meeting’s business-as-usual agenda. As we were wrapping up, the boss added, almost as an aside: “We don’t have to get into it now, but I think this virus is going to have a big impact on our business.”
I take minimal notes during these things, jotting down weird and amusing tidbits on buck slips. I date them, and tuck them away; keepsakes to revisit on the other side of my career. On that day I scribbled something like: “Geiger says Corona is gonna fuck us up bad.” Again, I don’t know the exact date—the note sits on my abandoned office desk, collecting dust—but my boss was early with the warning, the first authority figure I saw send up a flare. At the time, the twenty-four-hour news cycle was still focused on the Democrats’ primary carnival. I had a trip planned to Iowa for Bernie rallies where two of my artists were performing. Canceling wasn’t even discussed.
Several weeks later when our company (along with all the other agencies) mandated we work from home, it was a wake-up call for the industry. The directive set off a clumsy dash to reschedule upcoming shows, tours, and festivals later into the year. Agents and talent buyers across the business were making wild guesses using uninformed calculus to determine how far ahead to push things.
It’s laughable now to consider that on March 13, one of my clients, The Tallest Man on Earth, was in Chicago having made it through two shows of a four-night stand at the Old Town School of Folk Music. His manager and I talked nearly every hour on the hour that day discussing whether the show that night would, could, or should go on. That same morning, in Colorado, The Growlers woke up after finishing a two-night stand at the Boulder Theater and debated whether to drive to Salt Lake City for a sold-out gig or call it off and head back home to LA.
Gatherings at various capacities were being canceled by local authorities in a few states and cities, but there was no reliable rule, no national mandate. Decisions on how to proceed were left in the hands of artists, their managers, and their agents. The sloppy math said that if the acts could get through a few more shows—Can we eek out just one more?!—the number of fans disappointed would be held a little lower, and the crunch on the budgets would hurt a little less. The deliberations over sensitivities (or insensitivities) of the show must go on! were endless.
Those considerations seem quaint now. The Tallest Man on Earth didn’t take the stage in Chicago that night, and the Growlers took I-70 west and turned south on I-15, away from the Great Salt Lake. Several weeks later, and we’re still shuffling and postponing, canceling and rerouting, deeper and deeper into the calendar.
Booking agents route, negotiate, and confirm gigs long before the show plays. Once the venue is selected, the date nailed down, and the deal negotiated, the baton is passed to the promoters and the ticket sellers. Closer to the show, the tour mangers and caterers, stagehands and lighting directors, and of course the fans and the artists themselves take over and carry the true burden.
An agent’s work is about the future, and the dirty secret is that for the most part, we book on hope. We hope the fans will like the new songs and buy a ticket to see them played live, and we hope they remember the old tunes and still hold them close to their hearts. We hope the festival will lock in a killer lineup and sell well so our artists can woo new fans. We hope the local sports team doesn’t make the playoffs if we’re routing arenas during the postseason window. We hope it doesn’t rain if the venue’s outdoors. We hope the guitar player can get along with the drummer for five weeks in the close quarters of a tour bus. We hope the single keeps getting played on the radio or that Colbert’s people offer a Late Show appearance the week of the album’s release. We hope the front man’s voice holds up across that stretch of five shows in a row. We hope the gig sells out, and that the balloon drop doesn’t malfunction so the encore is a smash.
Now, we’re simply hoping the clubs don’t all go out of business. We’re hoping the audience is patient for the rescheduled date. We’re hoping the government doesn’t reduce capacities once we’re back up and running because the magic of a show happens in a full room. We’re hoping anyone has anything left in their accounts when we come to them and say: “Hey! Things are returning to something almost normal, and we’d like to come play. Tickets are on sale now!” We’re hoping it will be safe to gather and sweat and sing and dance in front of the stage.
Can I make a confession? I can’t bear to watch another artist “Go Live” on Instagram or YouTube. It only took a day or so before they were all potato-facing on their phone’s cameras for their followers, and God bless them for mustering up the will to do something, say something, play something as their normal plans for that sacred dialog with fans collapsed.
I can’t blame them, and I’m seeing the comments. Clearly it’s a source of comfort and fun. I wrestled with the impulse, knew well that it was uncool and unfair to judge, but it didn’t take long for me to loathe the trend. Maybe it scares me, the first real crack in the foundation agents and others on the live side of the business have so sturdily stood upon. When much of the industry was disrupted by pirating, and then streaming, we felt job security. You can’t possibly replace the magic of being in the room! Or maybe it’s just discomfort that I’m feeling, the great equalizing power of the virus lowering heroes down to the same level as the rest of us, on the couch with their cats instead of up on the stage above us, amplified.