The idea of attending a live music festival such as Riverbend or the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in Manchester, Tennessee, was not for everyone even pre-COVID-19. Things like heat, rain, large crowds and lots of walking are not everyone's cup of kombucha.
But, for some of us, those events have become far more than just a good time. They have become a way of life — markers that go well beyond the calendar and which are talked about and looked forward to year-round.
Like so many other things these days, the coronavirus pandemic is threatening that, and the reasons are many and deeply layered.
Both Riverbend and Bonnaroo, and numerous other festivals around the country, have passed their original dates in May and June. Riverbend has since announced that it is cancelling 2020 altogether, while Bonnaroo is still holding on to its rescheduled Sept. 24-27 dates (or was, as of press time).
Everyone wishes the decision as to whether to hold a festival this year were as simple as 'yes' or 'no,' but I can tell you the conversations between promoters, musicians, stage crew, food and merchandising vendors, governments, lawyers, health care officials and fans has been intense, and the simple reality is nobody knows what the right answers are. It would be great if someone could ring a big bell and we could head out the front door like everything was the way it was seven months ago, but that isn't going to happen. There are too many uncertainties and unknowns, and more seem to arise daily.
* Will fans show up in numbers great enough to make the events viable financially? Friends of the Festival decided the answer was no, they would not be able to get the 40,000 people they needed there this year, so they cancelled.
* Will fans accept the rescheduled events? Bonnaroo was looking at 80,000-plus after selling out the earliest it ever had prior to the originally scheduled June event. Will those same 80,000 people show up in September, after school theoretically has started?
* If not, what then is the magic number?
* What is the safe number?
* How can you ensure social distancing with a crowd of tens of thousands, especially at a camping festival? Not to get too graphic, but the portable toilet and shower situation at Bonnaroo was janky at best pre-2020. We all dealt with it and figured it was part of the charm in some survivalist way, but the idea of using one now seems almost unthinkable.
* Will there be sponsorship dollars available in the fall, or beyond?
* Will those sponsors have to choose between dozens, or even hundreds of events all looking to recover?
* Will there be enough patrons with enough money, time and desire to get back out to a festival?
There are plenty of other logistical challenges to consider. For example, I can only imagine that every event, whether a festival, art show, church bazaar, birthday party, wedding, whatever, is anxious to get back to normal, and as quickly as possible, but there are only so many patrons, sponsors, weekends, venues, volunteers, etc.
Some of these things may only be noteworthy this year, but some, such as the bathroom situation, may linger for years.
I know we are talking about live music, and on its face — especially as compared to people dying from the disease — it may not seem like a casualty worth discussing. But it's not just about having a good time for a couple of hours. Thousands of people make their living, feed their families, pay bills, etc., because of such events.
And if nothing else, I think this experience has solidified exactly what is essential and important to each of us.