‘Nothing can replace that’

Live entertainment events, venues face grave threat from pandemic; Cullman on forefront of response

Across the country, entertainment industry eyes were on Cullman this summer when country music superstar Alan Jackson took the stage in an experimental drive-in concert. (Martha Needham for The Cullman Tribune)

CULLMAN, Ala. – Every business field and industry in the country has suffered from the effects of COVID-19 and the accompanying shutdown and restrictions, but the live entertainment event industry, which relies on revenue from packed arenas and theaters, has felt a particularly harsh impact from which portions of the industry may never recover.

Rock the South Founder and Premier Productions Owner Shane Quick told The Tribune, “I doubt there’s an industry in America that has been more affected in a negative way by COVID than (the live entertainment event) industry. There can’t be. I mean it’s absolutely been decimated. Most people in the live entertainment industry have been affected; no less than 90-95% of their business is gone. 

“Now, when I say event industry, it’s near 100%, and the music industry, I would say, the only thing left right now is streaming music like Spotify, iTunes, things like that. Most artists in our industry would make anywhere between 70 and 80% of their income from live events, and that income is completely gone. One of the main problems is there’s no way to social distance inside of an arena or a theater or a club. Your traditional music venues have no way to facilitate a 6-foot social distancing protocol.”

“You would be surprised how many venues are closing their doors permanently across the country. Before this is said and done, there will be hundreds if not thousands of venues- event venues from large to small- that close their doors forever.

“I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the live entertainment industry has been probably affected more than any other industry. So Premier Productions, we’re one of the top five event promoters in the country, and we do somewhere between 600 and 700 events a year. Our next event is in April of next year, currently on the books. We had to reschedule around 600 events from 2020 to 2021. We’ve had to lay off quite a few people, waiting on everything to start back.”

Virtual events filling a gap, but not solving the problem

Some performers have been putting music online through services like iTunes, and musical and theatrical performances can be found through paid access services and on platforms like Facebook and YouTube. For Quick, the efforts are worthwhile but still do not have the power and draw of in-person experiences.

“A lot of us in the live event industry for many years have been trying to figure out how to have virtual events, streaming events where people actually watch a concert online. I don’t think it will ever come close to replacing the live concert, the live event. There’s just something special that happens when people come together. We feel it at church, we feel it at a football game, we feel it at a concert, and you just can’t replace that action on your computer screen or on your phone,” he said. “But it has been one outlet that artists have been able to have, to stay engaged with their fans, and I’ll say that, for a lot of people that never would have done something like that have found themselves doing live music that way, because that’s the only option we have, currently.

“But yeah, I think that industry’s going to grow. There’ll be more and more virtual events, virtual concerts, but it’ll never replace the live show.”

Alan Jackson Drive-In Concert an experiment that could go nationwide

The Alan Jackson Drive-In Concert in June was something of an experiment to find a way to restart the concert industry, and not just in Cullman.

Said Quick, “The Alan Jackson event in Cullman was one of the bright spots in the entire live event industry in this country, that we did in Cullman. It was a success story, and there’s been very few of those since March. We’re hoping that there can be more of those, but right after the Alan Jackson event, the cases exploded. After the Alan Jackson event that we did in Cullman and Fairhope, we were looking to do several more, but right after that the cases exploded, and we started to see a lot of pushback from different cities about doing events, and resistance from ticket buyers as well.”

Despite the bad timing of the spike in cases, Quick and his team have continued to brainstorm ways to bring live events back to venues here and nationwide, coming up with their own ideas and reaching out to other promoters to see what might be working for them.

Slowly turning the corner, maybe

“To me, it feels like we’re getting back to a place where the numbers are dropping, people are being smart- wearing their masks, social distancing- and the numbers are dropping,” noted Quick. “We’re hoping that, very soon this fall, that we’ll be able to see more events happen, even here in Cullman. We’re talking to several artists from many different genres. Some of the most well-known names in the country would like to come to Cullman and different cities, and try to entertain some people in a safe way.

“We’ve been working for the last several months to find ways to have safe events, because our number one priority is the safety of the fans. But there’s no question that if we could put together some world-class events- safe events- it could make a huge impact, a huge positive impact on our hotels and on our tourism dollars that are so greatly needed right now in our local economy.

“We’re working around the clock to find a way to produce safe live events in Cullman and around the country. We’re putting our heads together to figure out how to bring some events to Cullman, to help boost the local economy here. Premier has nearly 20 employees in Cullman, and a lot of those people are laid off, and we sure would love to find a way to get them some work and get them back to Premier.

“You know, these are people we consider family, and we would love to have some work again to get going. It’s been one of the hardest seasons in the history of live events in the world. It’s not just America; it’s all around the world. But we’re excited to try to figure out how to get something back to Cullman.”

The final word

Quick finished by saying, “We’re all in this together, and nobody in our industry wants to start back before we should. All of us want to keep people safe. We love what we do, and we can’t wait to get back to work, but we’ve got to do it safe. We’re hoping (for) a vaccine and after the election that we’ll see people willing to get back out, venues opening again, and festivals starting back and people getting back to being together again. I don’t think that’ll ever change, no matter what happens. I think people will come back together, and nothing can replace that. 

“There’s absolutely nothing greater than people connecting to music together, even movies. There’s one thing to watch a movie together, a new movie release, watching at home versus watching at the theater. They’re both great, but different. We think that will come back, and we’re excited and can’t wait for that to come back. We hope it comes back soon.” 

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W.C. Mann