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Bummer summer? Concert industry changes tune amid COVID variant
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Bummer summer? Concert industry changes tune amid COVID variant

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Fleetwood Mac's Stevie Nicks has canceled all of her performances for the rest of 2021 due to rising COVID-19 cases in the U.S.

DETROIT — It's the middle of the summer concert season, and Kings of Leon frontman Caleb Followill is back on the road for what was supposed to be a celebration of the return of live music.

The party is being dampened, however, as the delta variant wreaks havoc on an industry that was just starting to recover from the disastrous effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

"I feel like we're about to be out walking around with landmines all around us," he says, "and to get out without stepping on one, that's going to be a miracle."

His statement is indicative of a live touring business that is trying to make the most out of what's becoming a bummer summer.

After swinging open its proverbial doors to fans in June, the concert industry is rethinking its approach as the delta variant surges across the country. As the numbers worsen, some artists and venues are tightening the restrictions that were dropped perhaps too early as artists and fans started filing back into venues and are now requiring fans to show proof of vaccination and/or a negative COVID test before gaining entry into their shows.

That's the case at this week's Dave Chappelle shows at the Fillmore Detroit. The comic kicked off a run of seven shows at the venue with back-to-back concerts Tuesday, and fans are required to take a rapid COVID-19 test before gaining entry into the venue.

Concert promoter Live Nation announced last week it will allow individual artists to mandate whether concertgoers will need to provide proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test to be admitted into their shows.

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A security guard checks proof of vaccination as people line up to enter the Metro on Aug. 7, 2021, in Chicago.

There were no mask mandates or vaccine requirements at Detroit's Comerica Park at Sunday's Guns N' Roses concert, which drew an estimated 20,000 hard-rocking fans to the Detroit Tigers' home, or at Tuesday's Hella Mega tour stop, featuring Green Day, Fall Out Boy, Weezer and a crowd of around 32,000 fans.

The pair of shows were the first downtown stadium concerts held since Garth Brooks played for a crowd of 70,000 fans at Ford Field in February 2020, just weeks before COVID-19 shut down the live touring industry for more than a year.

Garth Brooks is now back on the road, but is planning to reassess his tour in the wake of the latest health crisis and has put tickets to his upcoming shows on hold.

Meanwhile, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, which was set to be held in October, over the weekend canceled its 2021 event, citing the rise of COVID-19 cases in Louisiana, and touring artists including Michael Buble, Stevie Nicks, Counting Crows, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Limp Bizkit and Detroit-based indie-pop duo JR JR have all shelved individual shows or entire tours either due to positive COVID cases or lingering public health concerns. Last week, Fall Out Boy pulled out of a pair of Hella Mega shows when an unnamed member of the band's inner circle tested positive for COVID.

"In short, the system is still very flawed," Limp Bizkit's Fred Durst tells Billboard. "Even if the performers, crews, staff and promoters do their best to ensure safety on and behind the stage, that doesn't ensure the safety of the audience as a whole. We are all in this together, and we all — individually and as a whole — have to make our best efforts to be as responsible and proactive as possible moving forward to combat and stop spreading COVID."

Some venues are taking matters into their own hands, requiring guests to be vaccinated or to provide proof of a negative COVID test in order to enter.

A handful of performers are following suit. Indie rock outfit Japanese Breakfast was one of the first artists to require proof of vaccination for attendance at its concerts, and singer-songwriter Jason Isbell is doing the same on his upcoming tour. If the venue won't allow it, he won't play the show, and he backed up his words by canceling his concert Tuesday night in Houston when the venue refused to comply with his policy.

"I'm all for freedom, but I think if you're dead, you don't have any freedoms at all. So it's probably important to stay alive before you start questioning your liberty," Isbell said Monday on MSNBC. "It's life and then it's liberty and then it's the pursuit of happiness. Those are in order of priority."

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Miley Cyrus performs with Billy Idol during the first day of Lollapalooza in Chicago's Grant Park on July 29, 2021.

JR JR's Joshua Epstein said the group's four-date 10th anniversary tour was meant to be a commemoration of the band's legacy and the luxury of being able to perform live again, but with recent news the band wasn't much in the mood for celebrating.

"Ultimately we were hearing from a lot of hesitant fans worried about coming," Epstein says by email. "Since it was only four shows and the unbridled joy we hoped to impart seemed like it was less of a certainty, we decided not to ask people to risk anything by coming to see us indoors."

When the group announced the tour, the outlook for live concerts was sunnier, but the forecast has gotten progressively worse over the course of the summer.

"I think in late May we would've felt totally comfortable performing," Epstein says. "It's going to be fluid for a while, but it's not permanent by any means."

Lollapalooza unfolded July 29-Aug. 1 in Chicago and hosted roughly 100,000 fans a day. Officials reported 90% of fans showed proof of vaccination at the site's gates, but COVID cases coming out of the fest will be difficult to trace, officials say, because the fest draws so many out-of-towners.

Next month's Bonnaroo and Milwaukee Summerfest events are following Lolla's lead, and reps for both on Tuesday announced this year's shows will require attendees to either be vaccinated or provide a negative COVID test for entry.

Summer's concert concerns bleed into fall, where indoor arena shows take over as the weather turns and outdoor amphitheaters close shop for the season.

For Kings of Leon's Followill, he says he's a "ball of nerves" as his band is hitting the road for the first time since 2019; Kings of Leon launched its summer tour last week in West Palm Beach, Florida.

The fear of having to cancel individual concerts or writing off an entire leg of a tour will "always" be around now, he says. The band was set to go out in the road in 2020 when the industry went dark.

"It was never a fear two years ago, no one knew this was even possible," says the singer. "But there's also that thought of, let's go enjoy this, because if the tour would end up stopping in the middle of it, I want to make we sure enjoyed every second we had out there. But there's not really anything we can do besides just be smart and not get ourselves in any situations where we have to unfortunately cancel the tour.

"Everyone's been cooped up," he says, "we're just trying to create an atmosphere where people enjoy themselves. Hopefully everyone stays safe and we get to do it and don't have to come back home in the middle of it."

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