With government-ordered COVID-19 pandemic restrictions beginning to lift, the burning question for the performing arts sector is: will audiences come back?
When the lockdown is over, will audiences come back to live concerts and events?
It’s the multi-million dollar question that the entire performing arts and entertainment industry is grappling with right now. The COVID-19 global pandemic has affected daily life in virtually every respect, from how we work and buy necessities to how we pass the time. The concert and performing arts sectors have ground to a halt.
Some businesses are already opening again in a multi-phase relaunch of the economy. But, with the specific risk factors involved in live music performance, logically it would be included among the last set of industries to return to anything like normal. And, the question remains, even if the doors reopen, will audiences come back in the same numbers?
According to a survey commissioned by Music Canada and completed by Abacus Data, live music, among other entertainment choices such as going out for dinner, may suffer not just a bigger hit, but even a permanent one. Depending on the venue, between 21% and 25% of respondents said they would “probably never” go back to attending a live music event, even once physical distancing restrictions were lifted. A full 50% of respondents said they would probably never go to another live concert in the USA.
Even many those who want to go back to a live concert want to wait. Over 40% said they wanted to wait at least six months after physical distancing restrictions were lifted.
Classical music presents its own set of challenges in this mid-pandemic world. Opera and classical music thrive on live performances, with a demographic that skews older than the national average of 40.8 years, placing them squarely in the higher risk group. The risk to musicians and performers is also significant, especially in large ensembles like orchestras, or opera, theatre and dance where there is physical contact.
Ludwig took the step of asking our readers and extended social media family what their own responses were to the situation as it develops. Our survey took in 619 responses from people age 12 to 85+, with the majority of them (57%) between 55 and 74.
Perhaps not surprisingly, given our readers’ focus, a mere 1% didn’t miss live concerts at all. Just under 11% miss them slightly, with an overwhelming 88.2% saying they missed them very much or “I can’t imagine a world without them”.
That’s where our hearts lie. But, when it comes to the post-COVID-19 musical landscape, other considerations come into the picture. The majority of respondents — 62% — said they were at least somewhat concerned about going to live concerts even when government recommended restrictions are lifted, and they are allowed again. While a solid 42.5% feel that the government’s okay is good enough for them to begin snapping up tickets again, more than half — 51.2% — want to wait for a vaccine.
What’s perhaps most chilling to music presenters and performers are the minority 2.6% who say they will never go to a live event again.
As to when the live concert circuit might come back, the opinions of survey respondents range from a minority who anticipate going to a concert in the summer of 2020 or summer 2021, and in the middle range, an almost even split at just under 20% each for fall 2020, winter or spring 2021.
That’s a long time to wait, not just for audiences, but the musicians who miss their audiences and fans as much as the actual experience of live performance and the livelihood it generates. It could be closing in on 2022 before live concerts, theatre, and other events ramp up to anything like what we were used to in those heady pre-pandemic years.
Ludwig writers are just as divided on this topic as anyone else. There’s no question that live concerts and theatre are missed. Will you go back?
No Camp — Joseph So
I have a little confession to make.
As the writer of Critic’s Picks, I have been recommending “virtual concerts” via streaming since the COVID-19 lockdown. Every week, I come up with a slate of delectable videos one can watch, for free, in the comfort of one’s home. What more could a music fan ask for?
If truth be told, I found myself watching very little of these streamed performances. Complete operas? Almost none. The bits and pieces that I have watched are the short and funny ones of musicians performing at home, including the mega-sized composite videos of several hundred musicians joining to perform inspiring and spiritually uplifting pieces.
In preparation for this article, I question my own lack of enthusiasm. Since I started attending live classical events as a teenager, I have attended close to 4,000 performances of operas, ballets, symphonies, oratorios, recitals, you name it — yes, I am a classical music omnivore! Since the lockdown, I have come to realize that while first and foremost is the great music, I also miss the actual live experience. Music to me is both cerebral and experiential, one that involves all the senses. It’s an individual as well as a collective experience.
Yet, despite suffering terrible live performance withdrawal symptoms — my last one was University of Toronto Opera’s Mansfield Park on March 12 — I don’t see myself attending live concerts any time soon. The reasons are simple. I belong to the high-risk age group. I live in Toronto, a city where the rate of infection is still rising. Social distancing remains paramount, and concert attendance simply does not figure into the equation.
I had wanted to see Parsifal in Canada for a very long time, and it’s finally here, scheduled to open the COC season on September 25. But the chance of it happening is not good. It breaks my heart to say that even if it does go ahead, I cannot, as someone in the high-risk group, sit in an auditorium with 2,000 other high-risk people — opera audiences are famously old — for a five-hour show.
All the talk about social distancing in the auditorium by reducing the size of the audience simply will not work in opera, especially one as expensive as Parsifal. A 25% house would mean imminent bankruptcy within months. Also, what protection would the singers and the orchestral musicians have? It’s simply not fair to put their lives in jeopardy.
My sad conclusion is that unless there is a vaccine, to go with widespread testing and effective treatment, I simply do not see the performing arts — or any large group activities in a confined space, for that matter — returning in our world anytime soon.
Yes Camp — Paula Citron
My answer is an unequivocal yes. As soon as the first theatre opens, I will be there.
I am in the highest risk group of the highest risk group, but this is not some gonzo, cavalier, suicidal statement I’m making. The performing arts are my life. I cover theatre and dance, with an additional passion for opera, and Toronto being the culturally rich city that it is, critics can keep very busy. Pre-COVID-19, I was out almost every night attending some live performance or other, and more often than not, I had a four-event weekend, with performances on Friday, two on Saturday, and a Sunday matinee.
Early on, I certainly was aware of this novel coronavirus because I’m a news junkie, but throughout February and the first two weeks of March, I blithely went to performances, even taking the odd jaunt on public transit. In fact, I only stopped going to the theatre because they closed down around me. My March calendar is filled with crossed-out events as one by one, live performances were cancelled. As of Sunday, March 15, I began to stay indoors because Canada raised the risk level of catching the virus to high, and, as stated before, I’m in the greatest risk group. Throughout February and early March, the risk level was low.
Perhaps this is putting a lot of faith in our public health system, but I believe what Dr. Tam & Co. tell me. If the government of Canada says the risk is low, I accept this as fact, which is why I felt comfortable attending performances up until mid-March. I am not a fool, and I do appreciate the dangers of COVID-19, and so, post March 15, I announced to all and sundry that I would only emerge from my condo under three conditions — that I had a very important in-person medical appointment, that a vaccine was available, or that theatres were open.
Stadium and live performance events are going to be the last venues that kick in because they are the most dangerous with people jammed together in confined spaces. Thus, if public health opens them up, I will be in attendance. I have to believe that the government would not risk the lives of its citizens by bringing these venues online too early. I refuse to sit in my condo waiting for a vaccine if theatres are deemed low risk.
There is another reason why I will attend a live performance at the first opportunity. My heart is breaking for the artists who have been ravaged by this lockdown. If they are willing to go on stage, I am willing to be in the audience.
Whither The Future
While the pandemic lockdown halted public life as we know it, perhaps ironically, it’s music that has played and continues to play an enormous role in easing the loneliness and boredom inherent in the quarantine lifestyle.
The classical music industry, in particular, has made leaps and bounds forward in embracing virtual technology that can provide an outlet for performance that unruly viruses can’t disrupt. Audiences are getting their first taste of virtual concerts on a large scale, and the massive experiment has seen promising developments.
The concert and performance biz is in a state of flux overall, it’s clear, with audience behaviour a key element whose parameters cannot yet be known.
Written with contributions from Paula Citron, Joseph So, and Michael Vincent.