A summer without music? The show must go on for musicians despite coronavirus cancellations

When Johnny “Chops” Richardson heard the annual South By Southwest music festival was canceled last week, he scrambled to set up an acoustic show in Austin to make up for lost performances. Now that Coachella has been postponed until October and other music festivals are in peril, he’s worried about his livelihood.

“Unless it comes to the point where you’re going to die if you go outside, you gotta go to work,” said Richardson, bassist for the Randy Rogers Band, which has a handful of festival appearances on its touring schedule.

Touring is the lifeblood of most bands, which leaves them in a position unlike most other industries that do not rely so heavily on traveling and large gatherings to make the majority of their revenue.

“Definitely, 90% of our income is from playing live,” Richardson said.

Uncertainty around outdoor music festivals in the U.S. is sending ominous ripples throughout the music industry, from hundreds of bands and soloists to the production crews and stage personnel that put on their shows. More than 800 such events attracted an estimated 32 million people last year, according to Billboard, and while organizers of early festivals like SXSW, Coachella and Stagecoach soldiered on as long as they could while tech shows stretching into June were canceled and sports teams emptied stadiums and aborted events, SXSW was canceled and the organizer of Coachella and Stagecoach moved those shows to October from April.

Folk musician Mercy Bell didn’t just miss out on a pay day at SXSW but the chance to sell merchandise and find a potential booking agent or publishing deal.

“The biggest bummer of it all was missing out on people in the industry,” Bell told MarketWatch in a phone interview. She intends to perform at venues of about 100 people in Memphis and Little Rock, Ark., that are unlikely to be impacted by coronavirus.

“We make our money off the road,” Bell said. “For me, it’s all about selling merch. This sucks.”

On a large scale, music festivals bring in a lot of money — Coachella became the first festival to earn more than $100 million in 2017, grossing $114.6 million. The effects are far and wide for those losing potential revenue, impacting events promoter Live Nation Entertainment Inc. LYV, +18.37% , whose shares are down 41% this year, and local economies such as Austin, where SXSW brought in $356 million last year. Corporate sponsors of shows are also impacted. Over the years, brands such as Sephora and Marriott International Inc. MAR, +2.03% have aligned with Coachella.

The prospect of tens of thousands of rockers in close quarters, often camping for three- or four-day stretches, has public health officials advising they not take place. Even as SXSW was canceled, and Coachella in Indio, Calif., and Stagecoach 2020 in Indio, Calif., were postponed six months, several major events are still scheduled. Among them: SweetWater 420 Fest in Atlanta, April 24-26; New Orleans Jazz Heritage Festival, April 23-May 3; Domefest in Masontown, W. Va., May 14-16; Summer Camp Music Festival in Chillicothe, Ill., May 22-24; BottleRock Napa Valley, May 22-24; Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in Manchester, Tenn., June 11-14; Lockn’ Festival in Arrington, Va., June 19-21; and Peach Music Festival in Scranton, Pa., July 2-5.

The implications are dire for festival organizers and the more than 32 million people who attend them annually. The people who will be most damaged, though, are likely the bands who fill the all-day lineups and the support workers that help them put on the show.

“There is real fear that this year could be affected for me,” said Cody Foote, bassist for Aaron Lewis Band, which was scheduled to perform at South By Southwest in Austin, which was canceled last week. He is scheduled to perform Sunday in Austin. “I don’t get paid unless I perform live.”

Complicating matters is insurance. Most bands do not carry it for either cancellations or communicable diseases, Adam Siegel, entertainment manager at American Agents & Brokers Inc., told MarketWatch. Pearl Jam, Madonna, and Mariah Carey have canceled or postponed shows.

See also: Coachella festival postponed due to coronavirus, a day after Pearl Jam puts off tour

SXSW, which does not have insurance to cover its cancellation, is not issuing refunds. In a statement, it said: “Any and all payments made to SXSW are not refundable for any reason, including without limitation, failure to use Credentials due to illness, acts of God, travel-related problems, acts of terrorism, loss of employment and/or duplicate purchases.”

The cancellation has caused SXSW to lay off a third of its employees.

“Multi-day music festivals intertwine music, brands, and a lot of blue-collar jobs,” Siegel said. “A lot of music artists are assessing their — either cancel tours or find alternate spots. In either case, it is daunting.”