Are You Ready To Rock? Music Festivals Prepare For A 2021 Comeback

Mar 30, 2021
Originally published on March 31, 2021 12:26 am

James Donald Estopinal — also known as Disco Donnie — has been putting on electronic-music shows for nearly 30 years, and knows that they take a long time to put together. "You can't start a month out," Estopinal says. "You really have to be going full bore is going to happen in the end." Earlier this year, when he saw how vaccinations and hospitalizations were trending, he decided that April would be the time to put on Ubbi Dubbi.

Spring is usually the beginning of the music festival season — but things are different once again this year. The giant behemoth SXSW was online-only again this month. Coachella reportedly has been moved to 2022. No word yet on whether Lollapalooza is happening at all.

Still, many festival organizers hope that the vaccine rollout will make people comfortable enough to attend large gatherings this year — in a decidedly not socially distanced sort of way.

"It's gonna be a real festival," Estopinal says about Ubbi Dubbi, which presently is scheduled to take place April 24-25 at the Texas Motorplex in Ennis, Texas, 40 miles south of downtown Dallas — making it among the earliest music festivals set for this year. "You're going to be moving around, but you'll also have space if you don't feel comfortable," he adds.

To assure safety, Estopinal is promoting a reduced capacity, partnering with CLEAR for health-tracking services, and requiring masks. He plans to have masking reminders played over the PAs, and will ask artists to make similar announcements to the audience. But, he admits, with a crowd this size, enforcement will be a challenge. There'll be a portion of the audience who won't wear masks, he concedes, "but we're gonna try."

That's what worries Dr. Bijal Balasubramanian, epidemiologist and dean of the UTHealth School of Public Health in Dallas. Ubbi Dubbi likely will draw a younger crowd, with dancing, singing and drinking involved. "Those are the sort of things where it's much harder to get people to follow the rules after a little while," she says.

"It doesn't seem safe to do it just yet," she cautions, "but we're so close."

Steve Adelman is vice president of the Event Safety Alliance, a trade group that provides safety education and resources. April is a little hasty, he says, but he understands the urge to get live events up and running. "It's just an aggressive opening at a time when we know every event professional has been sidelined for at least a year, and we need to get back to work," he says.

Texas recently opened vaccination up to all adults, as of March 29. Adelman says the level of risk involved with Ubbi Dubbi will depend on how many attendees will be vaccinated, come show time.

Chad Johnson is keeping a close eye on vaccination rates, as well. He's co-founder of Furnace Fest, a punk and hardcore festival scheduled to take place in Alabama in September. Johnson is banking that by that time, the CDC will have given the green light for non-socially distanced live gatherings.

"There's no way to do this festival socially distanced," he says, "at least not in a way that anybody would remember enjoying this kind of music, jumping on each other, screaming over each other, crawling around each other's bodies."

Should things not proceed as anticipated, Johnson is fine with postponing again. "We told all of our customers this: we will postpone again, we'll offer you full refunds again," he says. "Yes, it would suck; we'd be disappointed, we'd be discouraged. But we've overcome a lot more."

The live-music industry obviously has been hit hard by the pandemic — but so has everyone else. That's something Chamie McCurry has been thinking about. She's the chief marketing officer at Danny Wimmer Presents, which puts on a number of festivals throughout the country. Some DWP events already have been pushed until next year; others are slated to go on, such as Inkcarceration in Ohio, planned for September.

McCurry says she and her colleagues think constantly about two issues: "Number one, what is the consumer's emotional state going to be coming back to large scale events? And number two, what is their financial state going to be?" she says. While sales have been going well, it's unclear whether audience members will be mentally prepared to throw down like they used to at fests like the ones DWP puts on.

Estopinal, meanwhile, is worried about the opposite: that people will have so much pent up energy, they'll overextend themselves. "My concern is people partying like it's 1999," he says.

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NOEL KING, HOST:

Spring is usually the start of music festival season. Of course, things are different this year. SXSW was online again. It's unclear if Coachella is actually even happening. But vaccination rates are going up. And some festivals say they're going to bring back live music faster than they expected. Here's NPR's Andrew Limbong.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: James Donald Estopinal - also known as Disco Donnie - has been putting on electronic music shows for nearly 30 years. And he knows they take a long time to pull off.

JAMES DONALD ESTOPINAL: You can't start a month out. So you really have to be going full bore no matter what you think is going to happen in the end.

LIMBONG: So earlier this year, when he saw the way hospitalizations and vaccinations were going, he decided April would be the time to put on Ubbi Dubbi in Texas.

(SOUNDBITE OF KASKADE SONG, "LOOSE")

LIMBONG: Currently scheduled to play include big electronic acts like Illenium and Kaskade. And Estopinal says this isn't going to be like some other outdoor concerts that have gone on throughout the year where people are sequestered into their own distant spaces.

ESTOPINAL: It's going to be like a real festival. You're going to be moving around. But you'll also have space if you don't feel comfortable.

LIMBONG: It's going to be outdoors at the Texas Motorplex, 40 miles outside of Dallas. For safety, Estopinal is promoting a reduced capacity, partnering with the company CLEAR to track the health of audience members and is also requiring masks. But he admits, with a crowd this size, that'll be a challenge to enforce.

ESTOPINAL: There's going to be a certain portion of the crowd that, you know, will not wear a mask. And we already know about that. But we're going to try.

LIMBONG: Which is what worries Dr. Bijal Balasubramanian. She is an epidemiologist and dean of the Dallas campus of UT School of Public Health.

BIJAL BALASUBRAMANIAN: It's a younger group. There's dancing. There's singing.

LIMBONG: There's probably going to be some drinking involved.

BALASUBRAMANIAN: Those are the kinds of things where it's much harder to get people to follow the rules after a little while.

LIMBONG: Steve Adelman is vice president of the Event Safety Alliance, a trade group promoting safety at live events. He says while April may be hasty, he understands the urge to get live events going.

STEVE ADELMAN: It's just an aggressive opening at a time when we know every event professional has been sidelined for at least a year. And we need to get back to work.

LIMBONG: But Adelman says the level of risk will depend on how many people going will be fully vaccinated come show time, which is something Chad Johnson is keeping an eye on. He's the co-founder of Furnace Fest, a punk and hardcore festival set to take place in Alabama in September. He's banking that the CDC will give the go ahead for large gatherings by then.

CHAD JOHNSON: And, of course, we could be wrong. And so if we're wrong - and we've already told all of our customers this - we will postpone again. We'll offer you full refunds again. Yes, it would suck. We'd be disappointed. We'd be discouraged. But we've overcome a lot more.

LIMBONG: It's been over a year without concerts being back the way they used to be, much less the kind of shows that would inspire the type of dancing and moshing that would normally go down at fests like Ubbi Dubbi or Furnace Fest. Chamie McCurry is chief marketing officer at Danny Wimmer Presents, which runs a number of festivals throughout the country. Some have been postponed. Others are set to take place starting September.

CHAMIE MCCURRY: Two things that we think about constantly is, No. 1, what is the consumer's emotional state going to be in coming back to large-scale events. And No. 2, what is their financial state going to be?

LIMBONG: Will people be ready to throw down like they used to? Will they even be able to afford to, considering most festivals are multiday affairs? You got to travel, get a hotel room, all that stuff. But it is something to look forward to.

Andrew Limbong, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ONI AYHUN'S "OAR003-A") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.