The summer season is usually the time of year for the young and the hip to hit the scene at music festivals and cultural events in the U.S. and around the world. But, as is the case with so many summer staples this year, the festival season seems to have been put on hold.
Austin's Levitation music festival has been canceled, as has Milwaukee’s annual Summerfest musical festival. The U.K.’s signature summer concerts, Reading and Leeds, have both been called off, as has Madrid’s Mad Cool Festival. Bob Dylan’s so-called Never-Ending Tour has, in fact, come to an end – and in Black Rock City, no man will burn on the playa this year, as Burning Man has been postponed.
And that is just a short sampling of the massive number of events that have been called off due to the world catching a case of COVID-19 and suddenly rethinking the wisdom of packing thousands of screaming fans into a venue for a few hours at a time.
One might assume, on first glance, that it will not be possible to keep on rocking in the free world this summer, and that the concert experience will be joining summer blockbusters, trips to amusement parks and baseball on the list of things we used to do in the summer, but will be skipping this year.
But as American poet and Beastie Boys bassist Adam Yauch wrote in his eponymous 1987 opus: “You gotta fight for your right to party.” And, it seems, the world of music is at least putting up a good fight, physical venue cancellations aside.
Burning Man’s Digital Kindling
Since there will be no Burning Man event to bring together a culture of forward-thinking fashionistas, tech billionaires, visual artists and general community-oriented party animals, the Burning Man Project – the nonprofit that supports the global community and produces the beloved annual event in Black Rock City – is experimenting to see whether the spirit of Burning Man can live on digitally via the recently launched digital experience platform, Kindling.
The platform, according to its creators, is built to create an immersive portal for Burning Man enthusiasts to meet and greet in a digital space via specially curated experiences.
"Since we can't gather in person, Kindling is your space to explore live experiences being created by instigators in the BMan community & beyond," said organizers in a tweet.
The portal offers five actions for users: Gather, Experience, Play, Co-Learn and Ignite. All areas are meant to build a unique, shared, live experience. Among the offered events is Desert Arts 3View, a three-segment virtual event designed as a celebration of the Burning Man community's creative vision, which features a series of special panels about art and design. The portal will also host virtual parties, performances, screenings and celebrations curated by members of the Burning Man community.
The Kindling platform is designed to allow any community member to host a live experience. The site also offers a place for users to make tax-deductible contributions to the nonprofit.
And while Burning Man, true to form, is offering a very open platform to enable any participant to be a part of the larger digital event, there are other options for those seeking a more structured variation of the digitized concert experience.
R&B Goes Virtual
When Kyle Sassi founded EscapeTracks six years ago, he was still a high school student who was creating playlists of artists that he discovered on SoundCloud. He has since helped launch many musical careers, and has amassed a following of over one million subscribers who tune in for the playlists he streams across various channels.
And while Sassi noted that he has always been ambitious, he admitted to Fast Company that he never quite envisioned himself spearheading the world’s first virtual R&B festival.
But the now 22-year-old, Toronto-based entrepreneur believes he can use his platform to boost the artists who have boosted him at a time when he needed it the most. Sassi explained that he came up with the idea for building a digital R&B festival after learning that a German charity that has provided $60 million in financial resources to musicians in need had run out of COVID-19 relief funds.
“Everything that I do with EscapeTracks as a brand is about trying to give everyone a sense of happiness,” Sassi told Fast Company. “I’m kind of filling everybody’s pockets in a way, with what they want to see and what they’re hoping for. So that’s my perspective in terms of creating the entire live-streamed concert.”
The festival launched on May 16 and managed to raise roughly $5,000, with a total of about 50,000 participants in and out of the chat. The event will be rerun in early June.
“For me, it was really important that I show support to musicians in need during this time of uncertainty,” says BJ the Chicago Kid, who participated in the virtual concert. “R&B and soul music has always reflected the times, and it was an honor to come together with my peers as well as EscapeTracks to show the power of our genre. It is my hope that we continue to uplift our community of musicians as well as provide a voice to the mainstream for those who truly need help.”
And, according to Sassi, won’t be the last virtual concert promotion, as musicians are looking for alternative ways to reach their fan bases.
“It’s just a matter of how things unfold and how things continue, but I think this really sets it up to do a second and a third and so on,” he said. “This period of time has sparked a lot of innovation and creativity, and is redefining what it means to think outside the box. As humans, we crave connection and experiences, [and] all of this really just fills that void in a way, and … gives people the level of connection and experience that we all want.”
But what about those who simply can’t get the level of connection they crave via digital attendance?
Well, if they have a car, they just might be in luck.
The Rise of the Drive-In Concert
There are some things one just has to see in person – and for diehard fans, music is one of them. And so, music promoters are looking at the typical U.S. concert experience and figuring out how to make concertgoers practice social distancing.
Cars, as it turns out, make for pretty good PPE in the right contexts.
Thus, it seems summer 2020 will be the season of the drive-in concert. Keith Urban, Alan Jackson and countless other underground musicians will light up the scene in greater Los Angeles with drive-in concerts that encourage fans to rock out hard – from the comfort of their front seats.
And the West Coast isn’t the only place seeing an explosion in drive-in concerts: The Jersey Shore will host at least one concert this summer season. It was announced earlier this week that a new drive-in series will launch at Monmouth Park Racetrack in Oceanport, New Jersey, with local favorites Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes set to kick off the first show on July 11.
“The Asbury Jukes and I are so excited that we can play this first-of-its-kind live concert and help get New Jersey started on a quick and healthy return to normal,” said “Southside” Johnny Lyon in a statement. “Why sit at home when ‘We’re Havin’ A Party,’ drive-in style? We’ll safely see everyone July 11.”
The announcement has led to some speculation that the Jersey Shore could see local hero Bruce Springsteen take the stage at a drive-in concert this year, as the Ashbury Jukes are often joined by special guests. Springsteen played with the band one evening on the Jersey shore last summer in 2019, and speculation has been swirling in the Garden State that he might make a special appearance to celebrate music reopening for businesses this summer.
Will rocking out in a car or experiencing the music do it digitally for everyone? Not quite, we imagine, as there is something to be said for singing and dancing in a large physical group that will be hard to replicate in front of a computer screen or in the back of a sedan. Still, if the choice is between modified music and summer 2020 being the season the music died, we imagine an ersatz version will look a lot better than nothing at all.
And for everyone who is content to wait it out, there is always Coachella, which remains on the schedule for October of 2020.