Will the Summer of 2020 be a Concertless Experience?
I work as a booker for a rather small cultural center in Germany. We do concerts, readings, theater performances, the occasional comedy show, and an indoor skate park is also part of our house. Our staff is very small, and we rely heavily on volunteers to run every event, be it shows or parties. In the course of a year, we do about 160 events on average.
The pandemic appeared very slowly on our radar. We’re usually closed for two weeks after Christmas, and that’s about the time when the news about the CoVid-19 outbreak in Wuhan broke but we did not think about it too much. There have been several virus outbreaks in the last decade but even though they were all reported on, the direct impact on Germany was relatively small.
For the month of January it still seemed to be limited to China, but major news outlets started reporting about the development in Wuhan, and eventually about the lockdown. (I have a couple of news magazines from that time in late February here at home. Today, those magazines seem to stem from a totally different period of time. Nobody imagined that something like a lockdown could even be considered in Western Europe. Now, I have friends who are already talking about the concert-free summer of 2020.)
In February, when the virus started spreading, and the first cases were reported in Germany, the awareness also seemed to increase. People started making jokes, so whenever somebody sneezed you’d hear somebody else say, “Corona”. As stupid as that behavior was, the disease had come closer and even making jokes about it acknowledged that fact. Apart from that, all events took place as planned during that month, and even events in the first weekend of March took place (weekends are of course the focal point for parties). We did register a slightly smaller turnout for a Saturday party than we would have normally expected, but we shrugged it off as being a normal anomaly, and there was no way to know for sure if some people had stayed home due to a spreading fear of the virus. I had an Israeli band cancel their tour for mid-March because they were ordered by their government to return home, but that was all so far.
In the middle of the week, the state banned all events over 1.000 people, and that did not affect us, being a 200-capacity venue. However, the knowledge that the government would be taking steps in the immediate future to prevent the spreading of the virus and that theses would be even stricter, was omnipresent. We knew it would be coming, but we were unsure when this would happen.
We had shows on March 11th and 12th, and those took place as planned, but luckily, we did not have anything scheduled for the 13th, so that gave us a bit of time to think. On that Friday, March 13th (quite the coincidence), many bigger regional venues announced they would cancel all events until the end of Easter vacation (April 19th), thereby anticipating a directive that would come the week after anyway. I had a day off that Friday and visited my parents, so when I read the news about all these cancellations I was on the train home. My complete FB timeline was just cancellations, postponed tours and news on Corona (I have a lot of musician friends on FB). I then had a telephone conference with our chairperson and we decided to cancel all the events for the weekend and wait for further restrictions from the government on Monday. That way, we would be secure in regards to existing contracts with bands and agencies, i.e. if the government shuts down all live events, even a usually binding contract with a booking agency gets voided.
Monday brought a ban on all public events and gatherings until April 19th, and even stricter regulations rapidly followed, such as only allowing two people to go out in public for grocery shopping (people living in a household together and families are exempt), and in some states you are only to go out alone. All shops and restaurants closed, and only essential businesses remained open (pharmacies, grocery stores and supermarkets, post offices) but all now had some kind of protection for their employees, be it plastic screens for cashiers, and long queues outside as people keep the suggested distance of 2 m from each other.
So suddenly my job as I knew it came to a stop. As I usually prepare events to take place at the venue, run a show or book future concerts (we usually book shows six months in advance), this part of my job just ceased to exist for the time being. At first, I had to cancel shows and events, postpone dates and communicate those changes, and adjust presales. As the restrictions continued and time progressed, more and more events scheduled for future months got cancelled, tours planned for May got postponed (in one case until March 2021) and the calendar for summer is slowly looking very empty. Apart from those communications about rescheduling, my inbox was as quiet as it is only on January 1st.
Of course I have that list of stuff to do that I never get around to, but also that list will eventually be exhausted. After that, there is only uncertainty. And this is the thing that affected me most during the initial period of cancellations and restrictions: I just didn’t know what was happening, and I still don’t. It is my job to book events and plan ahead, and I like my job. At the moment, I just cannot do that. There is no way to know for sure how this worldwide pandemic will play out, if and how the live music business will recover and what restrictions will continue to be in effect until the outbreak is officially completely over.
I am very aware that I am lucky to be living in Germany, and despite all its flaws, the German state has a pretty solid economy and health-care system. Public funds have been allocated to businesses in need, the state will take out a lot of new loans, and the venue I work for is in no immediate danger of having to close down. So I am in a better position than a lot of my friends who are either musicians, work as sound engineers, tour managers etc. Additionally, I personally do not yet know of anybody within my immediate circle of family, friends and colleagues who has been diagnosed with the disease, and I am grateful for that. I cannot do much more at the moment than be patient and hope that time and social distancing will do the trick. But until then: I really want to book a punk rock show.
Originally published in Solomon Mag in mid-April 2020.