Omicron’s Blow to Live Music
My iPhone note “Guster tour, Pros & Cons” was becoming more and more lopsided.
Our impending club tour, booked nine months ago after a COVID-halted March 2020 run, was in peril. We assumed then—it seems like a lifetime ago—that winter of 2022 would allow us plenty of time to present a tour that was safe for both us and our fans. Other bands made similar plans as our industry attempted, once again, to regain a foothold after the crushing Delta wave. Tickets for our shows went surprisingly fast, and a few rooms sold out almost immediately. Despite a pandemic that continued to dominate the news cycle, our workplaces, and our home lives, our fans seemed eager to jump into the mass of humanity that is a rock concert.
Enter Omicron. Early data from South Africa suggested where U.S. case rates were headed, and most experts seemed to predict that the highly contagious variant would be widespread at the time of our tour. My bandmates and I began to ask one another, should we postpone? I was of two contradictory minds: The show must go on and There’s no way we’re gonna pull this off. Hence, the list.
Obviously, top of mind was the public-health concern. Omicron was seemingly everywhere, and we were essentially about to throw a beach party with a tsunami on the horizon. Also worrying was the fact that even if we could gather crowds safely, we could actually lose money if we weren’t able to complete all the shows due to a positive case on the bus. Many current COVID protocols for touring musicians, which are typically self-imposed, involve regular testing; with no redundancies, a band or crew member with a positive test would throw a massive wrench in the works, potentially grinding our touring machine to a halt.
These rules also include a litany of behavioral restrictions on tour personnel. Sample language: “No eating at restaurants / bars / coffee shops. Takeout is OK. Seek to avoid indoor spaces where you’re unmasked and other individuals from outside of your bubble are unmasked.” We’d be expected to stay backstage or on the bus almost every moment, essentially sealing us off from the places we’d be visiting. One of the most sustaining parts of my job is simply being able to explore the cities we’re in. Being sequestered backstage, while eminently doable, felt like yet one more of a thousand cuts.
I was also struggling with what our onstage energy would feel like. Was I going to be able to stand up in front of our fans every night and say with sincerity, “It’s good to be here. I’m glad we’re all here together in this room tonight”? In the weeks leading up to what was supposed to be our first show, I was bombarded with anxious thoughts: This doesn’t seem right. This doesn’t feel like what we or our fans need right now. And if I couldn’t buy into that basic premise—that it was safe to gather together and commune through our music—it felt irresponsible to step up to that microphone and into the aerosol haze night after night.
I couldn’t speak with authority on the most important component of our calculus: How did our audience feel about the prospect of coming to our shows? What started as direct messages to the band (Are you guys canceling your shows? or I have plane tickets and hotels booked, are these gigs happening?) soon turned into requests (I’m hoping you’ll cancel your Boston show; it doesn’t feel safe right now). So I threw it back to our fans, which became the Twitter post that ultimately killed our tour. On January 3, we posted:
On a scale of one to ten, how comfortable would you be attending a live concert in January?
(1 – “I’m never leaving my house again” and 10 – “What’s a Covid?”)
Just trying to wrap my head around this thing… 😅
— guster (@guster) January 3, 2022
The Twitter responses underlined for us the responsibility we held as the catalyst for a mass gathering. As live entertainers, we share a goal of bringing hundreds or thousands of people together for a few hours in one room. Even if most of our fans remained COVID-free, what if one of them brought the virus home to their kids? What if our show directly led to the hospitalization of a vulnerable senior? Concerts earlier in the year became known as superspreader events; is that really what we’re meant to be doing here?
A particularly heavy band Zoom concluded with a collective decision to postpone the tour. We were able to find new dates for the biggest pair of shows in Boston. And we continue to scramble for the rest of the make-up shows.
Watching our peers wrestle with these same dynamics has been gut-wrenching. Our Vermont pals Phish delayed their annual four-night run at Madison Square Garden. Adele postponed three months of weekend shows in Las Vegas the night before her first concert, saying, “Half my team are down with covid.” Elton John, Jason Isbell, and the Fugees all cited COVID in the cancellation or postponement of their shows. Wilco front man Jeff Tweedy summed up the chaos: “A lot of rocks and a lot of hard places.” For bands and promoters, there is no ideal solution. This is not an ideal time.
But performers are not alone in these emotional and practical gymnastics. Every single one of us, whether or not we’re in a band, has been grappling with this mental calculus for the past 22 months. Every time one of us sends our kids off to school, declines or accepts an invite to a backyard barbecue, sits down at a restaurant, visits our parents, or goes on a needed work trip, our math brain lights up. We’ve all become amateur epidemiologists with calculators in hand, tallying up risk exposure x fun quotient x emotional needs x material needs to figure out whether to stay in or go out. When simply coexisting in society becomes an existential threat, who isn’t utterly exhausted by it all?
Still, this pandemic is predictable in nothing but its unpredictability. For now, boosters seem to offer solid protection against Omicron, hospitalization admissions may be starting to wane in some parts of the country, and even Anthony Fauci, never the sunniest of prognosticators, has said that he believes there may be “turnaround” across the country soon. And so a twinge of genuine hope percolates through many of my conversations for the first time in a long while. Perhaps sooner than later, we’ll find ourselves safely in a post-Omicron world, a post-pandemic world, a veritable Bourbon Street U.S.A. Sign me up—I can’t wait to get back to work.