Tours are finally getting back on the road, with major artists kicking off fully routed, bi-coastal runs after a year and a half of virtual concerts and drive-in shows. But a condensed outdoor season, staffing shortages and pricing problems are creating a few speed bumps.
“It’s going to be a slow rollout. What I see in the industry recovery is a condensed history of the last 30 years of how the entertainment industry was built,” says PRG Music CEO Randy Hutson, whose company handles logistics, crew and production solutions for major tours across the world.
That means a lot of regional tours and outdoor events, according to Hutson, who says PRG just closed a deal to handle the upcoming Twenty One Pilots tour and has major clients hitting the road soon including Dan + Shay, Carrie Underwood, James Taylor and others.
With an insatiable demand from artists and fans, there’s an urgency to get back on the road, but also a bottleneck in labor and supplies.
“Right now, you can’t find tour buses or trucking for tours, they’re so booked up,” says Hutson, adding that he’s also seeing about a 30% reduction in available personnel across the board, with his company supplying everything from rigging to audio to lighting and the crew itself. “We’re seeing a tidal wave coming at us, and we’re almost going to have to wait until it breaks for things to really get back to ‘the new normal.’ … Right now we’re looking at, I think, 60-120 days of a very vicious pricing cycle that we hope will subside, and that we’ll come out of better as a community and make the industry a better place.”
Country is largely the first to hit the road as traditional, multi-city, coast-to-coast full-capacity tours. Luke Bryan’s “Proud To Be Right Here” 35-date trek kicked off July 8, and he’s just one of many artists and fans alike who are used to significant hard-ticketed events nearly every touring season – and eager to get back out if at all possible. Fellow country touring groups including Zac Brown Band, Chris Stapleton, Thomas Rhett are being joined by touring staples like Dave Matthews Band and Phish with significant runs kicking off in late July or August.
Although a difficult situation figuring out the calendar and supply chain, Hutson says the industry is resilient, a relationship-driven business that resides in people’s blood. He’s confident many who left the business will come back and newcomers will make the most of opportunities.
“I don’t think it’s just my opinion, but it’ll be difficult to slow the animal once the machine starts rolling again,” adds Hutson. “I know we may take some lumps, but there’s such a strong population and need for entertainment to get back out there. It’s missing from all our lives. I long for the day we don’t have to discuss [the pandemic], but I think we’re smart enough to survive and master this and come out of it stronger.”
Some have kickstarted into gear all at once, such as the Foo Fighters June 20 Madison Square Garden gig that saw a full house of 15,000-plus, although the band’s July 17 gig at the Forum was postponed after someone in the band’s camp tested positive for COVID-19, showing another potential speed bump as things ramp up. However, most venues and markets are seeing the “slow rollout” in real time.
“A couple months ago we started cranking back up because we had a show in June,” says Simmons Bank Arena general manager Michael Marion, whose venue in North Little Rock, Ark., is a regular secondary market tour stop.
Marion notes challenges in venue staffing after the shutdown but has been able to build back up as the touring productions grow with the calendar. The venue’s first shows were socially distanced performances from comedian Mike Epps and Disney On Ice, with upcoming full-capacity shows coming soon from the Harlem Globetrotters, children’s show Blippi, rising hip-hop star Lil Baby and classic rockers Foreigner.
“We did a job fair back in May that was poorly attended, and that caused us some concern,” says Marion, adding that unemployment assistance ended in June in Arkansas, “but with the numbers we were doing for shows like Mike Epps and Disney On Ice, it didn’t require the number [of people] you would require for something like Elton John.” At least for right now, Sir Elton and Eric Church are scheduled as the venue’s first major post-COVID productions, both taking place after the New Year.
Some arena managers have noted full-time staff leaving for other opportunities at other venues as well, creating a shortage of experienced professionals in specialized positions.
With his particular venue in a less-populated, secondary market, stagehands become a concern as well. “If we had a huge show this month that had a call for 90 stagehands, I’m not sure our stagehands union could put that together,” Marion adds. “That’s another area of concern but, by the time we get to something really big, I believe we’ll have enough people to work them.”
Right now, that seems to be about as good as anyone can predict.
“These days, you have to end every conversation with, ‘I just don’t know,’ and I am still holding onto that,” Marion adds, jovially. “My other comment is, ‘I’m going to be optimistic until I can’t be.’”