Graham: When concerts come back, what tune will they sing?

An industry based on large groups paying top dollar to congregate faces big questions going forward

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

A reunited Rage Against the Machine. A reunited My Chemical Romance. Huge shows from Janet Jackson, Halsey, Elton John, Harry Styles and Billie Eilish. Stadium concerts from the Rolling Stones, Billy Joel and Guns N’ Roses.

This year was shaping up to be a top one for concerts in Metro Detroit. After a light 12 months for stadium shows in the city in 2019, Comerica Park and Ford Field were running at full clip, with seven concerts booked between the two venues.

The band Korn performs at DTE Energy Music Theatre on August 13, 2019.

Everything was looking great.

Then coronavirus hit.

Now the concert industry is on pause, as is the rest of the entertainment world, as is the world at large. As we anxiously await a return of the live concert experience — or any experience that will get us out of our pajamas, really — a big question lingers: what will the concert industry look like when things get back to normal?

For starters, there may be a new normal to adjust to.

Concerts are massive gatherings, packing thousands of strangers into a confined or open space. In festival settings or in general admission spaces, fans press tightly against one another, moving in sync with the music or trying to get as close to their favorite performers as possible.

You’ve been in a mosh pit. They’re sweaty, gyrating masses of humanity. And if they didn’t seem gross or worrisome before, well, they definitely do now.

As social distancing becomes the norm — we’ve never known a time when we’ve been more wary of our fellow neighbors — how will that affect the willingness of crowds to gather together? Concertgoers across the board, at least at first, will need to adjust their attitudes toward societal behaviors that are becoming our quarantine realities.  

It’s odd — and frankly, a little bit scary — to think that just one month ago, more than 70,000 fans filled Ford Field to see country superstar Garth Brooks. The night set a concert attendance record at the Detroit Lions’ home. How long before something that big happens again?

Garth Brooks performs at Ford Field on February 22, 2020 in Detroit.

The Garth concert had across-the-board pricing at $94.95, which was right around the $94.83 average ticket cost of a 2019 concert. That number was up sharply from 2015’s average ticket cost of $73.86, and prices were set to go even higher in 2020.

But now, with millions of Americans out of work as a result of the health crisis and a recession either looming or already here, what will that do to concert ticket prices and the industry’s bottom line?

Will acts slash their rates? Doubtful. Artists rely on concert revenue more than ever now that album sales have been leveled due to the streaming industry.

Will they be forced to cut production costs? Maybe. How will that shake out for fans? The economics of an industry where VIP “experiences” can reach into the thousands of dollars will have to be reconfigured to adjust to the new reality.

And that’s just for the big guys. Independent promoters and small clubs, where the margins are much smaller than they are with the major players, face a much harsher outlook.

Fans enjoy the performance of Cage the Elephant at DTE Energy Music Theatre in Clarkston, Mich.

And aside from the crowds, how will fans feel about going to concerts? With the financial belt-tightening that will result from the country’s shutdown, will concerts still be deemed an essential experience and expense? The must-see superstar acts might be fine, but what about a tier or two down, those stalwart bands that tour every summer and play the same hits, year after year? Will they survive? Or will those acts, with the cheaper tickets and nostalgic familiarity, hold strong while big ticket arena acts falter?

Right now, there are more questions than answers. But for the concert industry as a whole, it’s anything but the same old song.