America’s Unsung Gift to the World—Saving Live Music
A tribute to the bands, venues, crews, and fans who posted a fantastic run of post-pandemic shows.
In the scope of the world’s problems, a lack of high-quality rock shows is probably far down on the list of priorities. But two years ago, the future of live music was in serious jeopardy—along with all the bands, venues, crews, and support staff who keep America’s top-notch concert industry humming. Music venues were among the first businesses forced to shut down in March 2020 when Covid-19 lockdowns started and were among the last to get financial support and reopen nearly a year later. Although an estimated half of total music revenue globally comes from touring, all bands were forced to stop playing live basically everywhere (except places like New Zealand and Taiwan) and all the bars, nightclubs, small venues, theaters, and record shops that contribute to their success, and benefit from their musical performances, turned out the lights.
At the start of the Covid pandemic, fans and musicians thought maybe the viral storm would pass and the summer and fall shows would still be on. No such luck. The pandemic worsened and the economic impacts deepened as hospitalizations and deaths grew steadily across the U.S. and in other countries.
Understandably given this massive public health threat, there were almost no live in-person concerts for an entire year. Tightly packed gatherings of music fans singing along to their favorite bands were not in the cards until a critical mass of immunity could be achieved through vaccinations and other natural processes.
Many smaller concert spots permanently closed, and others barely held on until public grants, loans, and private donations helped to shore up their finances—almost a year after lockdowns began. Bands broke up or retreated into songwriting and online performances with no real income or assurance that things would ever get back to normal. Paltry streaming payments and stripped-down virtual performances by artists could not replace the revenue—or excitement—of regular touring in front of real fans.
Then through the valiant efforts of scientists, governments, public health officials, manufacturers, and regular citizens, America’s vaccination program was successfully rolled out during the first half of last year. The stage was set for live music to start again.
But the process was slow, and it was far from certain that concerts would return in force. New York City, for example, did not allow small shows and other live performances to restart until April 2021, and even then only with strict limits on the number of fans allowed to attend indoor and outdoor venues. Lockdowns in other countries were even more extreme—particularly in Europe, save a short laissez-faire period in countries like Sweden—further complicating the possibility of a return to normalcy for most touring acts.
If live music could not fully restart in the world’s strongest market for concerts and bands, how then would the global music industry—built on both big tours and established acts and many small venues and local scenes—survive? Could bands tour again? Would fans return?
Fortunately for music lovers everywhere, the American live music scene did start again in earnest after the vaccine rollout with an outstanding string of concerts from summer 2021 to summer 2022. Despite some fits and starts at venues, precarious finances for many bands, and more canceled gigs due to Covid, America’s great rock and roll machine roared back into action helping to revive the live music scene across the world.
As a music nut myself, I saw it as my duty to support as much live music as possible over the past year. I figured that if no one showed up to these shows, more bands and more venues would fold. We’d be stuck with streaming services and their algorithms as the only source for finding new music with all but the biggest players in the industry shriveling up from a lack of income. There’d be no more cool dives and perfect music clubs like The Ottobar or First Avenue to explore. The music landscape would be a wasteland of commercial bands and lame venues with no soul or local charm.
Employing the self-serving logic of the diehard music fan, I decided to do my part to preserve live music by trying to see as many shows as my middle-aged brain and budget could handle. And what a great run it has been! According to my scrap paper journal, from summer 2021 to summer 2022, I hit roughly 35 individual gigs plus opening acts and saw another 25 or so bands at 3 different music festivals—basically a couple of live shows per month for an entire year.
Some of the highlights of the past year include: catching one of Yo La Tengo’s legendary Hanukkah shows with Low; seeing Guns N’ Roses in Baltimore and Metallica in Pittsburgh with my heavy metal loving daughter; standing up front for Spoon, Built to Spill, and Dry Cleaning shows with my indie rock loving son; enjoying 40+ hours of jazz, classical, rock, and experimental performances at Knoxville’s incredible Big Ears Festival; packing in for a Golden Smog reunion show in Minneapolis; watching Wilco play Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in its entirety on the album’s 20th anniversary and then playing a full album of new country songs at the band’s Solid Sound Festival one month later; smiling along as Baltimore greats Future Islands and Beach House played to huge crowds in D.C.; and taking my entire family to see Paul McCartney, at the spritely age of 80, play three hours of Wings and Beatles songs to a nostalgic crowd at Camden Yards.
I feel quite fortunate to have taken in all this music—live and in person. But none of this would have been possible for me or anyone else without the tremendous efforts of the bands who create the songs and catchy riffs and the clubs that put on the ace shows. To all the artists, band members, producers, record labels, bookers, tour managers, sound/stage crews, drivers, poster designers, merchandise sellers, venue owners, bartenders, cleanup staff, security personnel, and music fanatics young and old—this past year is for you.
America saved live music, and it sure sounded good.