Nothing in music was as fundamentally devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic as much as live music. Live entertainment trade publication Pollstar estimated the concert industry lost $30 billion in 2020 after every major tour and music festival was suspended in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19. We never got out of the pandemic, but the music industry got back to business in 2021 as artists like J. Cole, Jack Harlow, Da Baby, Saweetie, and Lil Baby all started or fully completed tours. A few of their stops on tours were in front of thousands of cabin fever crazy fans ready to return to live music as festivals like Rolling Loud, Astroworld Fest, Day N Vegas, Governors Ball, Firefly Music Festival, and Lyrical Lemonade’s Summer Smash returning.
Between August and December, Okayplayer went into the heart of five music festivals during the pandemic to document how fans and artists were adjusting to the new pandemic reality. One thing was abundantly clear: the pandemic was tolerated, not feared.
Nearly every festivalgoer we spoke with freely walked around festivals maskless with little care for the possibility of contracting COVID-19. The prevailing sentiment was the quarantines of 2020 were punishment and the return of festivals were their well-earned rewards. In September, Billie Eilish fan Xavier, 23, took a three hour train ride from Connecticut to attend Governors Ball at Randalls Island in New York City. “COVID is the last thing on my mind,” he said. “The first thing on my mind is the music, flow and energy going on with the crowd and everything that comes with a festival.”
Festival organizers treated the deadly pandemic a bit more seriously, largely because they had to. The biggest concert promoters in the America — Live Nation and AEG — implemented strict COVID-19 rules for entry including either full vaccination or a negative COVID test within 72 hours of the festival before most festivals hit the ground. But, there was no universality among festivals in their enforcement of these protocols. For all three days of Lyrical Lemonade’s Summer Smash Festival in Chicago in August, myself nor none of the media members I spoke with were asked to show vaccination cards or negative tests to gain entry (which was a similar experience with entering Rolling Loud NY in October.) Out of the five music festivals we attended, Governors Ball — held at the same Citi Field location as Rolling Loud NY — had the best COVID screening with security guards frantically flying around to make sure none of the herd of attendees entered without showing proof of vaccination or a negative test. They also gave each attendee a wristband indicating they had passed the COVID protocols, a small caveat that should’ve been the norm across all festivals.
For the most part, you’d never be able to tell the world was still going through a pandemic by how artists performed. JT of City Girls was dismayed by Rolling Loud NY security preventing her and Yung Miami from brining audience members on stage to twerk during the group’s first New York City performance of “Twerkulator.” The surprising turn of events prompted the unabashed MC to remark, “I don’t know about New York, Rolling Loud,” making her disapproval of the festival franchise’s expansion into New York City widely known.
Bfb Da Packman likely shares her same feelings. He was eating donuts off a female audience member’s butt at Rolling Loud Miami in July, but was stopped from bringing any audience members on stage at Rolling Loud New York in October. “Rolling Loud Miami [had] no restrictions,” BFB Da Packman told Okayplayer. “We were going dummy over there.”
During Governors Ball, the imperceptible COVID barrier between artists and fans instituted by Rolling Loud was non-existent as artists like Olu from Earthgang was performing on barricade with fans directly in his face and Cordae brought a random festivalgoer on stage to perform Anderson Paak’s verse on “RNP.” At the same festival, ASAP Rocky peppered the crowd with masked individuals that can only be described as agents of rage who would amp up whatever section of the crowd they were stationed in. Those same men would later join Rocky on stage with no signs of social distancing and no messages to his hometown crowd about staying safe from the widespread virus. Rolling Loud NY and Governors Ball, organized by Live Nation subsidiary Founders Entertainment, were microcosms of how the music festival experience during the pandemic was determined as much by each respective state’s COVID protocols as it was by how each respective festival organizer feared the virus spreading.
While the pandemic limited artists’ on-stage freedom, it was abundantly clear being kept from stages for more than a year inspired artists to over-deliver on their performances. Artists like 24KGoldn and Cordae at Governors Ball, Joey Bada$$ at Rolling Loud NY, Baby Tate and Baby Rose at Day N Vegas, and A$AP Rocky at Summer Smash either performed unreleased music or gave the crowd the first performances of new music released shortly before their respective festival. Rocky’s Summer Smash was a bit overzealous as he decided to perform mostly unreleased records to a crowd eagerly awaiting the hits. In this moment, you got a brief glimpse at the difference between the artists’ experience during 2020 compared to the fans. For an artist like A$AP Rocky — who hasn’t put out an album since 2018’s Testing and hadn’t performed at a music festival since Camp Flog Gnaw in November 2019 — he’s likely been waiting to unveil his new era of music. (Rocky told GQ was he 90% done with his new album four months before his Summer Smash performance.) For fans who weren’t able to see him for two years, they were waiting to hear the playlists they had to settle for during 2020 live on stage. Artists wanted to grow; fans wanted to return; both weren’t going to let much stop them from busting out of quarantine and back into the live circuit.
That pent up eagerness to return to live shows was undoubtedly caused by the pandemic, and that rush to return to shows turned deadly at Astroworld Festival. Fifty thousand people from across the country converged on NRG Park in Houston with the prevailing sentiment — among those who spoke with Okayplayer — that nothing was going to stop them from finally enjoying a music festival, especially one from Travis Scott. Minutes after Roddy Ricch’s electric performance, 22-year-old Mabrur told Okayplayer he had to leave the raucous crowd because he couldn’t breathe. But, he said it with a noticeable chuckle and only after being asked what experience he expects from Astroworld Fest. “Nah, I don’t care [about the pandemic],” Mabrur told Okayplayer. “I’m ready. I had it before. It was bad, but I went through it. This is worth it. It’s a great experience.”
Other festivalgoers at Astroworld Fest had similar stances on enjoying themselves by any means necessary while others expressed that with their actions. Minutes before Travis Scott stepped on stage, the spacious VIP section to the left of the stage was overwhelmed by an influx of general admission patrons hopping barricades to get closer to where Scott was performing, resulting in numerous people visibly fighting for airspace after Scott appeared on stage and sent everyone into a frenzy. Later it was revealed ten people lost their lives as a result of the crowd pandemonium festivalgoers attributed to fans stampeding to get closer to the front of the stage and get a better glimpse of a performer none of them had seen perform live in two years. COVID-19 didn’t kill those people, but it surely caged fans who find joy in raging with Scott, like Mabrur, in their homes long enough for nothing to matter to them when they were released than returning to the hedonistic normalcy Travis Scott was known for.
COVID-19’s effect on the festival experience extended beyond showing an extra card before you entered and the rare mask sighting. Pre-COVID, festival season mostly occurred under the summer sun where vacation travel is abundant and scheduling impediments like school are non-existent. Governors Ball, Afropunk Atlanta, Firefly Music Festival, Global Citizens Live, Astroworld Fest, Summer Smash, Day N Vegas, and Rolling Loud NY all took place within roughly three months of each other. On September 25 alone, Governors Ball, Global Citizens, Firefly, and Afropunk Atlanta were happening simultaneously. In 2019, these four festivals were separated by four months. Artists like Billie Eilish, Earthgang, and Megan Thee Stallion were a few of the artists who were able to perform at multiple festivals over that weekend, but fans who wanted to see artists like Roddy Ricch, Amine, Smino, or Meek Mill and only had the funds for one festival, would have had to have chosen from one of the four festivals they all performed at on the same day.
The full impact music festivals had on the spread of COVID-19 may never be known. While health officials in Chicago only traced 200 COVID cases to the four-day Lollapalooza Music Festival, Michael Osur, assistant Director for the same Riverside County Department of Public Health which reported no positive COVID-19 cases during Splash House music festival’s first weekend, admitting “it’s very hard to contact trace” all the festival attendees. With major festivals like Day N Vegas and Rolling Loud California making major adjustments inspired by the mishaps at Astroworld Fest, and the Omicron mutation of COVID-19 starting to spread across the nation, the lasting legacy of the first-ever festival season during a global pandemic could be exposing how fundamentally flawed music festivals are and how returning to pre-pandemic normalcy may never happen.
Banner photo credit: Vickey Ford for Okayplayer.com
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
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