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How the Coronavirus Pandemic Is Crippling the Entertainment Industry

on March 14, 2020, 1:45pm
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By the time you read this, your life has been meaningfully affected by the global outbreak of coronavirus (COVID-19). Maybe the concert you were looking forward to this week got canceled. Maybe you’re terrified to travel to your friend’s now-imperiled wedding. Maybe you’re trying not to go full The Shining while working from home in self-imposed quarantine with your spouse and a doomsday supply of toilet paper. Maybe your relative or loved one has already become ill.

Or maybe you’re a working musician whose primary source of income—touring—has been abruptly cut off for the next, well, who knows how many months. While it’s far too soon to know the full impact, the ongoing pandemic—and the resulting shutdown of the daily rhythms of public life—has already crippled the entertainment industry for the indefinite future. It’s bleak. Festivals are postponed. Arena tours are canceled. Broadway’s gone dark. The NBA is on hold. Movie theaters are now half-empty caverns of disinfectant wipes. Italy is on lockdown. Colleges are sending their students home. The financial impact on arts and culture scenes nationwide is likely to be severe.

The reason is simple: The coronavirus, like the flu, spreads very easily, traveling through the air in the form of tiny respiratory droplets produced by a sick person. It is significantly more contagious than SARS. Crowds and public gatherings provide the easiest settings for mass transmission, and, of course, crowds and public gatherings are the engines of any arts and culture scene. In cities around the country, performances and gatherings have ground to an unprecedented halt.

As of this writing, the virus outbreak has spread to 48 U.S. states and has been formally declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization, with approximately 150,000 known cases worldwide. More than 2,000 Americans have tested positive for the virus, including a beloved Hollywood icon; experts say that many more likely have it but haven’t been tested. (It can take five days or more for symptoms to appear.) Most people who contract coronavirus experience routine flu-like symptoms and recover fairly easily, but more vulnerable individuals (particularly the elderly and anyone with a major underlying health condition) risk serious symptoms or even death.

William Schaffner, an infectious diseases specialist who serves as Professor of Preventive Medicine in the Department of Health Policy at Vanderbilt, says he’s astonished at how quickly the country’s cultural institutions have responded to the pandemic.

“The social distancing recommendation has been remarkably accepted across the country,” Schaffner says. “It’s been absolutely stunning. And I hope and wish that it will have some impact in reducing the spread of this virus in our communities. Because that’s the whole purpose of these activities. But they do have social and economic costs. And some people are gonna get hurt. And that’s not a good thing. So we’re going to want to get back to normal as quickly as possible.”

 How the Coronavirus Pandemic Is Crippling the Entertainment Industry

“The other side of the coin is that we have not organized ourselves as a public health system and as a clinical system to provide the extent of testing that we should be doing,” Schaffner adds. “And we’re slowly gearing up with all kinds of moans and groans to do that.”

Here’s an overview of the various sectors of the entertainment industry that have been most affected by coronavirus and what’s been shut down.


Concerts and Tours

pearl jam 74 lior phillips wrigley field How the Coronavirus Pandemic Is Crippling the Entertainment Industry

Pearl Jam, photo by Lior Phillips

In the realm of arena tours, Pearl Jam was the first domino to fall. On Monday evening, the veteran band announced that it was postponing the North American leg of its long-awaited Gigaton tour. Seventeen shows, slated to begin March 18th, were postponed indefinitely. The news wasn’t entirely a shock: Health officials had already been urging people to avoid large crowds and nonessential travel, and Pearl Jam is from Seattle, one of the early hotspots for COVID-19 spread in the U.S. “As residents of the city of Seattle, we’ve been hit hard and have witnessed firsthand how quickly these disastrous situations can escalate,” the band wrote in a series of tweets. “Our kids’ schools have closed along with universities and businesses. It’s been brutal.” Still, Pearl Jam’s decision to call off a massive tour promoting its first new album in seven years—jeopardizing millions of dollars of revenue—signaled the severity of the situation to the rest of the music industry and guaranteed that more major cancellations were imminent.

It’s also worth noting that Pearl Jam has a legendarily dedicated fanbase, and many fans’ travel arrangements have been thrown into chaos. Manish C. Bhatia, a Chicago lawyer, tells Consequence of Sound that he was scheduled to attend eight shows on the North American tour with his brother. “We’ve both been fans since the initial days,” says Bhatia, who has attended 99 Pearl Jam or Eddie Vedder concerts since 1995. “We were gonna fly to Denver and then do the whole tour from Denver—Phoenix, San Diego, two in L.A., two in Oakland.”

Over the years, Bhatia has befriended many fellow fans from the road. On Monday, when the announcement was made, his phone started blowing up with texts. Despite his anguish, he knows the band made the right decision. “I posted a couple places that my heart is crushed but my head understands,” he says. “And then obviously you’re scrambling. We had all these flights and hotel reservations. You have to scramble and try to get any refunds you can.”

Pearl Jam, photo by Lior Phillips

Pearl Jam, photo by Lior Phillips

Andrew Staniforth, a diehard fan from Australia, says he already traveled to the U.S. for a business trip and extended his stay to catch the first show of the tour. “A first show of a new tour is something I have always wanted to see. It was such a coincidence that it became possible,” Staniforth says. “Australia had a shocking summer with bushfires and other weather events. Having a chance to see Pearl Jam after my work trip seemed like an answer to prayer to have some proper downtime and take in a band I have been a fan of since 1994.”

On Monday, he learned about the postponement. “Disbelief and disappointment and frustration and sadness was probably the flow of my emotions,” he says. Worse, he won’t be able to attend the rescheduled gigs, and he says the whole situation has financially impacted him by about AUD$2,000.

Within days of the Pearl Jam news, dozens of other bands and tours followed suit. On Tuesday, Zac Brown Band and Carlos Santana postponed major scheduled tours. On Thursday, the newly reunited Rage Against the Machine did the same. The list goes on; tours from My Chemical Romance, Third Eye Blind, Thom Yorke, Green Day, Sturgill Simpson, Madonna, They Might Be Giants, Pixies, and Bikini Kill have all been canceled or otherwise disrupted. On Thursday, Live Nation took the drastic step of halting all tours around the world until the end of the month. Many acts have issued statements expressing disappointment, promising to prioritize the safety of fans, and vowing eventual rescheduled dates. Promotional plans (tours are often scheduled months in advance to coincide with an album release cycle) have been thrown into chaos.

Live Nation Ticketmaster US Justice Department Consent Decree 2025 Settlement

Live Nation

While Eddie Vedder probably won’t have trouble paying rent, the financial loss is severe for countless smaller bands and artists, many of whom have been left without expected income. As Deerhoof tweeted on Friday, “Thinking of a lot of people I know who eat and pay rent from touring. These are not people who can now live off of savings. They don’t have savings. In fact they typically have large amounts of debt, usually from student loans.”

Some acts have been near-stranded on the road, far from home. Mackenzie Scott, the musician widely known as TORRES, was in the middle of a European tour when Trump announced a European travel band. On Wednesday night, TORRES publicly asked fans for financial assistance getting home. “I’m going to lose every penny I made on tour booking emergency flights for my band,” she tweeted. “I’ve never experienced anything like this.”

Given that Europe is now the epicenter of the pandemic, European bands—like Poland’s psych-rock group Trupa Trupa—have also been heavily affected. “On March 10, Trupa Trupa was supposed to play a big show in Warsaw with Mura Masa,” says the band’s lead vocalist, Grzegorz Kwiatkowski in an email. “We packed our equipment and started to drive from Gdansk to the capital, and just 10 minutes later we had information from Live Nation that this show is canceled because of the government’s new coronavirus policy. So we stopped our van and returned home.”

Although the situation is frustrating, Kwiatkowski is hopeful. “We’ve got one song called ‘Only Good Weather’, and in some ways it means that even if it’s bad nowadays, we know it will be better,” he says. “If we are not playing gigs, we are using our time on composing and having more rehearsals.”

Fans can help their favorite artists by supporting them in every realm outside of touring—buying music, ordering merch, joining a musician’s Patreon. As many have noted on social media, there has never been a better time to buy merch:


Festivals

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Broken Social Scene, SXSW 2019, photo by Heather Kaplan

For 33 years, South by Southwest (SXSW) has brought thousands of musicians, fans, techies, and filmgoers to Austin every March. Nothing could disrupt the annual tradition, until coronavirus. On March 6th, shortly after Austin’s mayor declared a “state of disaster,” SXSW formally canceled the festival. It was perhaps the first massive virus-related blow to the music industry—and devastating to Austin’s local economy, which relies upon an influx of tourist cash every spring. Now it seems like Austin was patient zero for both the crippling of the event industry and the larger nationwide economic downturn; ominously, within days the festival had laid off one third of its staff.

Given that SXSW often functions as a promised land for up-and-coming bands seeking their first taste of buzz, many young artists plan their national tours around the festival. Many such tours have now been canceled, or have taken a huge financial blow.

“We just took a hit with a festival cancellation in Santa Cruz come April,” says the Austin-based folk singer Possessed by Paul James in an email. “Yes, I have seen numbers decline somewhat on shows. I think the biggest hit for a lot of Texas musicians was the SXSW cancellation. Right now I’m just keeping my hand sanitizer stocked and at the ready, less hugging, more elbow bumps, I’m using my own mic for vocals, etc.”

YG.COACHELLA.Debi .DelGrande How the Coronavirus Pandemic Is Crippling the Entertainment Industry

YG at Coachella 2019, photo by Debi Del Grande

Within days, rumors swirled that Coachella would be postponed. It’s hard to imagine 250,000 horny teens, twenty-somethings, and Rage Against the Machine fans converging in the Coachella Valley next month as a pandemic swirls across the country. By March 10th, those rumors were confirmed: Goldenvoice, the producer of Coachella, announced that the festival would be postponed until October. Since then, countless smaller festivals and gatherings have been canceled or postponed: Afro Nation Puerto Rico, Stagecoach Festival in California, Ultra Music Festival in Miami, Treefort Music Fest in Boise, Big Ears Festival, and so on.

In most cases, the artists scheduled to play canceled festivals likely won’t get paid because of what’s called a “force majeure” clause, a common contract provision which basically removes both parties from contractual obligations in the event of significant unforeseen circumstances or “Act of God.” (If you’re curious about this subject—as many lawyers probably are—this thread is for you.)

As for the financial hit on the festivals themselves, it all comes down to insurance, as Pitchfork notes: “Lacking insurance, a festival’s organizers may incur expenses out-of-pocket for things like staffing and marketing, even if its payments to performers are covered under force majeure.” And SXSW’s insurance policy did not, alas, include viruses, pandemics, and communicable diseases. Although it’s hardly the most significant legacy of COVID-19, it will be interesting to see how this disaster impacts festival contracts for years to come.

Film

50 Anticipated Movies of 2020

No Time to Die (United Artists Releasing)

The first indication that coronavirus would impact Hollywood came in early March, when we got word that the new James Bond film, No Time to Die, would be pushed back from its April release all the way to November. Since then, Disney has delayed the releases of Mulan, The New Mutants and Antlers, with release dates still unknown. A Quiet Place Part II (which has already premiered in New York) and Fast & Furious 9 have also been temporarily pulled.

The reason is obvious: Even as most American movie theaters have kept their doors cautiously open (not the case for China and Italy), moviegoers are hardly in the mood to buy tickets when health experts urge quarantine. Which means it’s a troubling time to be in the movie business. As The Hollywood Reporter notes, “Theater stocks for the major chains, like AMC, Imax and Regal owner Cineworld, have been hit hard amid a broader downturn for the market in recent weeks.” Meanwhile, more than a third of U.S. adults support a temporary shutdown of theaters.

The whole situation is bad news for high-quality recent releases like The Invisible Man and First Cow, which are already in theaters but likely to see their box office performances dwindle due to quarantines. On the festival side of things, the Tribeca Film Festival—scheduled to hit Manhattan next month—has also been postponed as the great hum of New York’s cultural life grinds to a half amid a state of emergency. Whether the Cannes Film Festival will take place remains to be seen.

Cast of Stranger Things 3 (Netflix)

Stranger Things 3 (Netflix)

Meanwhile, the global film industry as a whole stands to lose billions of dollars from the coronavirus outbreak. On the streaming side of things, Netflix has just halted production of all scripted TV and film projects. It will likely be months before anyone can comprehend the full scale of damage.

Rumors that Daniel Radcliffe had tested positive for coronavirus proved false. On Wednesday night, however, the Internet flew into concern when Tom Hanks became the first celebrity to announce that he’d tested positive. Hanks and his wife, Rita Wilson, became ill while in Australia for pre-production of Baz Luhrmann’s new Elvis Presley film. It’s a strange coincidence, perhaps, that Hanks already won an Oscar for portraying a man afflicted with a frightening virus during a national epidemic (see: 1993’s Philadelphia). Just as that film was the first major Hollywood release to address the AIDS crisis, Hanks could help lift the stigma on coronavirus testing by being the first celebrity to address his status.

But coronavirus isn’t AIDS, and the good news is that Hanks appears to be doing well while in quarantine. “We are taking it one-day-at-a-time,” he informed the world in an upbeat missive. Hanks will likely be the first of many celebrities to become ill, given how often famous people travel and interact with crowds. We’re praying for a full recovery.


Theater

Hamilton on Broadway

Hamilton on Broadway

There’s no theater without an audience, and this public health crisis has imperiled the very concept of an audience. On Thursday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that the state would ban gatherings of more than 500 people in a desperate measure to slow the spread of the virus. This doesn’t just impact sporting events and concerts—it deals a stunning blow to New York City’s largest and most prestigious tourist industry, Broadway. (There are 41 Broadway theaters in the city, all of which have a capacity exceeding 500.)

By early afternoon, all Broadway performances had been canceled for an entire month, including the new musical Six, which was slated to celebrate its opening that evening. As the city’s storied Theater District flickers into a ghost town, other major Manhattan cultural institutions—The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Carnegie Hall—also closed their doors. Even NBC’s late night shows are momentarily going dark.

Among members of the theater community, the Broadway closure prompted shock and sadness mingled with recognition that it’s the right choice:

 



The Collateral Damage

Coronavirus canceled postponed events

So what should you do? Stay home from the movies all month? How much of a risk is it to go to that one small show that wasn’t canceled?

Schaffner, the infectious diseases specialist, says that the level of risk really depends on your age and health condition. “If you’re young and you don’t have a serious underlying illness—even young people occasionally have heart disease, lung disease, diabetes—if you don’t have one of those, you’re much more likely to have a less severe form of [the coronavirus]. Uncomfortable, no fun—but you’re gonna get better. Now, you can be a vehicle of transmission to somebody who’s more seriously ill. Your aunt Susie who’s 72 and has diabetes. And nobody wants to be a dreaded spreader.”

The bottom line is, be careful. If you go to the movies, “sit off a little by yourself, or only with your group of friends,” Schaffner says. “Even if you’re young and strong, be careful about minimizing your contact with people face-to-face and in enclosed spaces for prolonged periods of time.”

“Nobody’s asking everyone to be a hermit: to go home, lock the door, and crawl under the bed,,” Schaffner adds. “Should younger people go to the movies and concerts? If they’re healthy? Of course. Should people who are 60 and older—particularly if they have some lung disease and diabetes—go? No. Stay home and rent a movie.”

Coronavirus Report

Better Call Saul (AMC)

The good news? While this unprecedented interruption of cultural life may seem shocking and grim (and it is), it could have a considerable effect on slowing the pandemic spread in the U.S., saving countless lives, and preventing the worst-case-scenario estimates from coming true. Yet the effects will be devastating for the arts community. And it will be months before anyone can begin to grasp the full scale of collateral damage. As Rolling Stone reported earlier this week, the concert industry is likely to lose billions, with promoters likely experiencing much of the financial carnage.

As panic, and respiratory droplets, both spread rapidly, hope remains crucial—and nothing inspires hope quite like the arts. Kwiatkowski, the Trupa Trupa singer, urges us to remain optimistic. “I think the next four weeks should be really restricted time and I hope these four weeks will minimize the spreading of disease,” Kwiatkowski says. “We should all remember that from this kind of tragic moment, great things are born and established. The Solidarity worker movement was established in Gdansk in a very dark Communism era.

“I hope this tragic moment will improve USA and Europe and the whole world as a community,” Kwiatkowski adds. “What is most important: that we save as many people as we can, ’cause this is all in our clean hands now. We are responsible for others.”

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