Graphic by Taron Joyner for Okayplayer.com
In a COVID-19 World, What's the Future for Black Unsung Heroes Who Make Tours Happen?
COVID-19 has ripped the touring industry open, putting hundreds of Black professionals out of work and exposing the interconnectivity required to make a single show. Now Black creatives and professionals are forced to adapt.
When Ari Lennox, Baby Rose, and Rapsody needed to cancel their respective shows across the world on March 13th and return home, it was Chris Patterson who stepped in. Patterson, founder of The Big Fantastic touring company, coordinated his team across multiple time zones to arrange flights, cancel months of hotel and flight reservations with booking agents, and break the bad news to the artists.
Before COVID-19 (coronavirus) was declared a pandemic — effectively putting the music industry in a coma, putting hundreds of Black professionals out of work — The Big Fantastic was set to support at least one artist at every major festival. This included Coachella, Essence Music Festival, Dreamville Festival, and Something in the Water. At Something In The Water Festival alone, Patterson and his company were going to be supporting 6LACK, Jidenna, and Baby Rose.
“If you put this roster together and the next four months disappearing, I’ll say $75-$100,000 is gone,” Patterson told Okayplayer in late March.
On March 12th, Live Nation, the world's largest concert promoter, suspended all live concerts and events. In the proceeding weeks, all major tours and festivals were either canceled or postponed, inciting a chaotic scramble for fans to get refunds and come to terms with the new normal; there would be no concerts during the music industry’s spring and summer festival season.
COVID-19 has ripped the touring industry open, exposing the interconnectivity required to make a single show, let alone an entire festival, happen. There are production crews, tour managers, DJs, promoters, and an industry of other Black professionals whose livelihoods are predicated on the inevitability of festival and touring season. COVID-19 has exposed how interconnected the music industry is and how pausing just one festival can change the future of the unsung heroes who make these shows happen.
DJ Ohso, creator of the Bounce Dat party, says she lost between $15,000-$18,000 on canceled gigs up to July. Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images for Refinery29
The financial burden of the pandemic is widespread among Black creatives. DJ Ohso, creator of the Bounce Dat party, says she lost between $15,000-$18,000 on canceled gigs up to July, including a DJ set at the BUKU Festival in New Orleans the week after everything shut down. When we spoke to her in late March, the pandemic had cost her more than money; it took away her inspiration. “I haven’t created anything. I’ve had brands hitting me up to do mixes for them, go on [Instagram] Live, and Im sitting here like, ‘I don’t want to do any of it,” Ohso said. “It doesn’t excite me. I’m not happy.’ But, I’m trying to work through it.” (Editors note: Ohso's father would pass away while under quarantine weeks after she talked us.)
Ohso isn’t alone in feeling the financial brunt of the loss of shows. Veteran rapper Smoke DZA said he knows a rapper who has already lost $200,000 in potential show money. DZA himself had live shows canceled, including a show with Jay Electronica at Sony Hall in New York City in April. Luckily for him, he has developed a career not solely dependent on the next time he’ll rock the crowd.
“God bless my situation of being truly independent and being able to profit off my music. I’m not really hurting," DZA said. "If this was two or three years ago, I’d be devastated to not get out and go tour. We still lost money, but streaming didn’t stop and features didn’t stop. There’s still money circulating.”
"If this was two or three years ago, I’d be devastated to not get out and go tour," Smoke DZA said. Photo Credit: Scott Dudelson/Getty Images
Record label Cinematic Music Group saw artist revenue decline by 10-15% due to the pandemic, according to the president of Cinematic Management Hovain Hylton. “[Cinematic Music Group rapper] Luh Kel had a tour that was sold out besides two dates. It was his first headlining tour. We had the Smokers Club show in LA, a two day festival. It fucked up a lot of money,” Hovain said. “Hopefully, when everything opens back up, everybody’s schedule realigns and we can get that shit rocking again.”
Adam Blackstone is one of the most accomplished people in the live production industry with decades of experience working as a musical director for Eminem, Justin Timberlake, Soul Train Music Awards, and numerous Saturday Night Live performances. He is also the co-founder of BASSic Black Entertainment live production company. Blackstone says he has lost a considerable amount of potential income as a result of the pandemic. Before the shutdown, Blackstone had his music director hand in a few tours that got put on pause including Megan Trainor with Maroon 5, Rascal Flatts’ Farewell Tour, and Camila Cabello’s The Romance Tour, which was set to start on July 29th.
Adam Blackstone is one of the most accomplished people in the live production industry with decades of providing jobs for Black professionals. Photo Credit: Bennett Raglin/Getty Images for BET
When a tour is canceled before it begins, there are Black professionals losing money for work fans would never see.
“Rehearsals for Camila were supposed to start in March and [her team] said, ‘Hey, guys, we’re not going to rehearse now because we don’t even know when our first show would be. Her tour was starting overseas and there were travel bans,” Blackstone said. “People weren’t just excited to go to rehearsals to be creative, they were excited to go to rehearsal for work and get paid. It’s been rough.”
Blackstone has been able to pivot into working on scores and music production for TV during the pandemic working on the soundtrack for the Power spinoff Book of Kanaan for Starz. But, even that isn’t safe from COVID-19. “They told me to halt on my music, which I make at home, because they had nowhere to record the vocalists,”Blackstone said.
The pandemic took away the venues, but not the fans.
There have been Black professionals who have reimagined the music festival based on that immutable fact. On April 18th, One Music Fest hosted At The Crib Fest, a seven-hour virtual festival live streaming performances from 15 different acts on those performers’ individual Instagram Live streams. Yusuf “Yuie” Muhammad, Programmer/Artist Relations Coordinator for One Music Fest, was the mastermind behind the IG Live festival, likening the At The Crib Fest to “a virtual Spotify playlist.” When we talked to him before the festival, he highlighted the fact that, since performances were happening on artists’ individual Instagram pages, the virtual festival would give a similar sense of music discovery as roaming around a 28,000-square feet festival would.
Muhammad says all the artists agreed to perform without pay — performing for the love or the exposure. Dyme-A-Duzin was one of the performers and At The Crib Fest was his first festival performance in support of his upcoming Ghetto Olympics2 project. “It was smooth. It felt like people responded well and my energy translated,” Dyme said. “Setting up for this wasn’t much different besides it being in the crib.”
At its best, At The Crib Fest was a suitable alternative to traditional music festivals and even improved on a few issues live shows usually present. Going from stage to stage was as easy as typing an account name into Instagram and removing the need to cycle through different stage setups for different artists helped each performance start on time, a festival feat as rare as Beyoncé performing. The artists gave entertaining performances and were creative with their aesthetic. Festival opener Beano French opted for a simple green sheet background with his mask-wearing DJ backing him, letting his crooning of the ease of loving someone be the center of the performance. Festival closer Sebastian Mikael had two lovely women canoodling on his bed with the sunset befalling them; a visual that made his soulful singing connect deeper than WiFi can provide.
At its worst, At The Crib Fest demonstrated the disconnects of digital. Artists imploring the crowd to raise their hands at a live show inspires call-and-response unity that connects the crowd to the performance. But, At The Crib Fest performers asking the crowd to fill the comments with fire emojis and hashtags felt vapidly promotional rather than genuinely engaging. Artists also took the comfort of performing at their place of choosing a bit too far with some stopping entire songs to lounge around. MK XYZ was charming throughout her performance, but I doubt she’d stop performing an entire song because she lost a nose cuff if she was on stage and not in her room.
The music industry has somewhat adapted to the new reality created by COVID-19. On the same day of the At The Crib Fest, South African rapper Kwesta launched Jameson Irish Whiskey’s Jameson Connects: The Stay Inn IG Live show, and international advocacy organization Global Citizens held a six-hour live stream of live performances and inspirational videos for One World: Together At Home on Tidal, Instagram and almost any other digital platform you can imagine. Later that evening, Teddy Reily and Babyface tried (and failed) to square off in a Verzuz Instagram Live battle that was plagued with technical difficulties. (The two were able to get it together and square off successfully on Monday, April 20th.)
While these innovations show promise and have become a source of distraction for the music public, Black professionals in the touring industry are still plotting for a future that may not come anytime soon. Patterson has plans to institute contingencies for him and his staff on The Big Fantastic in future contracts that will guarantee some payment even in the event of event cancellation. Whether those contingencies are in the form of a retainer or memorandum of understanding, Patterson doesn’t want the show stopping to mean the money does too.
“The learning moment here for myself, touring, and Black businesses, in general, is the music industry needs more safeguards, especially on the touring and crew side,” Patterson said. “I want to reevaluate what contracts look like and put plans in place for there to be contingencies for people that are my team for when they can’t tour. I want to find a way to maybe advance money or maybe a fund we can tap into, and just being more prepared.”
Live concerts probably won’t resume until Fall 2021 at the earliest. Photo Credit: Vickey Ford for Okayplayer.com
Everyone in and out of the music industry is dying for life to return to normal, but Black business owners in the live event space will undoubtedly enter a new normal worse than before the pandemic. Instead of massive Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) and Live Nation sponsored festivals and tours being spread out over 12 months, the prevailing thought around the music industry is all of those big-budget live events will be condensed into a small window of time in order to make up for the money lost and to avoid canceling festivals completely. Fans will be able to pick and choose from the hundreds of live shows that will almost instantly pop up once business is back to normal, but the condensed schedule could squeeze out the Black professionals already grasping for what they can get.
“Independent promoters, specifically those of color, are usually the ones who are tapped into the culture of each of these cities,” Muhammad said. “They’re going to be wiped out and that’s something these bigger companies have been wanting and doing for a long time.”
Live Nation and AEG can offer more money for artists to perform and offer more clout to artists by having their company names associated with those shows. If those companies impose a standard radius clause which would prohibit artists from performing within a certain radius of Live Nation or AEG’s shows for a certain period of time, then it could be impossible for smaller promoters to book acts, completely leaving them out of live events for some time.
On May 4th, concerts were allowed to return to Missouri. Part of Missouri Governor Mike Parson's Show Me Strong recovery plan, fans will be allowed to go to concerts as long as seating is "spaced out according to social distancing requirements." Event organizers are required to keep fans six feet or more apart. But don't expect to see any shows soon. Local officials from major Missouri cities like St. Louis, Springfield and Kansas City indicated that they would not be opening up and that stay home orders were still in place.
\u201cThis is an important reminder.\n\nThough portions of the state will begin to slowly reopen Monday, @STLCityGov will not. While we are developing a phased approach for our own reopening, the City\u2019s #StayHome orders remain in place.\n\nWe will continue to be guided by data, not dates.\u201d— Lyda Krewson (@Lyda Krewson) 1588361833
Even in smaller cities that are reopening, there seems to be hesitation, with many venue owners calling the order "unrealistic."
Generally, people interviewed for this article estimated live concert events would resume in the summertime. Those predictions were widely optimistic and made before Zeke Emanuel, director of the Healthcare Transformation Institute at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times that he believes live concerts won’t resume until Fall 2021 at the earliest. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti both have shared the same sentiment of concerts not returning until 2021. On Monday, May 4th, California Governor Gavin Newsom and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced vague four-phase plans to reopening their respective states. In both plans, Concerts and live shows were part of phase four, and Newsom said his state's phase four is "months away."
For Hylton, who says he’s in constant communications with booking agents in preparation for the return of shows, if Emanuel’s suggestion becomes reality, it could have long-lasting effects.
“It really pushes all your plans back so you have to figure out new and innovative ways to get your artists in front of their fans,“ Hylton said. “Whether it’s live shows from their IG, holograms, etc. You have to figure out a way to keep the fans engaged until we can get back on the road.”
DJ Ohso plans to add disinfectant wipes on her performance rider and Patterson Hylton sees artist meet-and-greets ending. DZA sees live performances having to account for health-conscious measures as much as possible. “From my end, I think we’re going to be super hygiene-conscious. We’re not going to be performing with masks on, that’s impossible,“ DZA said. “But, we’re going to take every precaution possible to give that artist his six feet of space.”
Muhammad has plans to showcase 85 more artists in At The Crib Fest showcases on IG Live over the next couple of months. Whenever a better tomorrow comes for the Black professionals in the touring world, it won’t look anything like the yesterday they built their careers on.
“The world before March 2020 is gone forever,” Muhmmad said.
Keith Nelson Jr. is a journalist who has covered hip-hop, technology, and movies/TV for VIBE, Revolt, Digital Trends, Flaunt Magazine, and more. Follow him @JusAire