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Penny Fractions: Live Music's Long Coronavirus Pause

Hello! I’d like to first mention that my old internet friend Casey Newton launched his newsletter Pla
Penny Fractions
Penny Fractions: Live Music's Long Coronavirus Pause
By David Turner • Issue #142 • View online
Hello! I’d like to first mention that my old internet friend Casey Newton launched his newsletter Platformer on Substack, which if you’ve read Casey’s excellent reporting on Facebook over the last few years you should certainly check out. (Also, his beautiful face appeared in the New York Times talking about his new career pivot). On October 17th at 10am EST / 3pm BST, I’ll be hosting another reader call, which will hopefully be at a time that’s a little more accommodating for European readers. Sign-up for the call is here. Finally, if you enjoy this newsletter, please do recommend it to a friend or perhaps subscribe via Patreon. Now, let’s check back in on the live music industry’s continued struggles with the coronavirus.  

Stop, Start, Stop: Live Music in the COVID-Era
Back in March, the American live music industry completely shut down in a matter of weeks starting with the early cancellations of SXSW and Ultra Music Festival. Early press around the shutdown centered on workers suddenly without work and not sure how to process the sudden disruption. However, only a couple of months into the massive closure, there was certainly itchiness for some kind of return to live music, but the spike of cases across the country in July kept live music off the plate. The picture looked a bit different globally, as certain countries re-opened in half-steps and then walked back as coronavirus cases started ticking back up.  
It’s the fall now, which some early reporting tentatively hoped would provide a better lay of the land for live music. Instead, the reality was borne out in a Pollstar write-up from mid-September: “It’s a milestone for the concert industry, considering the pandemic has eliminated thousands of jobs and cost tens of millions of dollars in lost revenue from postponed and canceled shows.” This sentence is describing a socially distanced 1,000 person Josh Turner concert in Iowa. Perhaps it’s not worth quibbling over the word “milestone” but it’s hard to find the through-line of that single concert representing a meaningful step towards the return of sustained touring. Otherwise, many of these pop-up concert efforts, as I wrote back in late May, are public relations efforts to give the illusion of music’s rapid return.   
A quick peek at Live Nation’s website shows an endless promotion of virtual events with few hints of traditional concerts being on the near-term horizon. Outside of the United States, the effects of the coronavirus on live music at this point vary country to country, and even on a region by region basis. Even the headline-making concerts, like Van Morrison’s London shows, can be best summed in this Pollstar quip about his late September shows (emphasis mine): “The capacity on each night was 1,200, just over half the theater’s regular capacity, making the shows creatively successful but not financially viable.” The elimination of large scale festivals across the globe, arena touring, and sustained international touring means that the full-scale return of the live music industry keeps getting kicked further into 2021. 
A number of bands (Tame Impala, Guns N Roses, Green Day-Fall Out Boy-Weezer, My Chemical Romance) rescheduled their tours into mid-2021 with an unspoken assumption music fans will be crowding inside arenas by the summer. Elton John pushed his tour till 2022 to hopefully avoid that question, but as some college and professional football teams play to fragmented live audiences, artists may pursue a similar route. Nearly all economic incentives are encouraging this behavior if the government doesn’t provide help to the venues, staff, road crews, and the thousands of people out of work in the live music industry. Even still, for most acts who haven’t reached that scale of success, they’re looking at yet another season off the road with little clarity on where and how venues can reopen.
Does Anyone Want to Save the Live Music Industry?
Some industry observers would say the core issue with live music is the coronavirus, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people and infected millions across the globe. However, according to Shawn Krauel, the CEO of the Central Florida Fair and Orlando Amphitheater, the main issue is “cancel culture”, as he told Pollstar (emphasis as always mine)
But right now it’s about perception in our industry/world. Drive-in shows have been happening across the country – social media doesn’t go crazy cancel culture for it, artists don’t get put on TV or Instagram bashing them for hosting those shows…There are ways to host shows right now cause we have the same risk you take going into Walmart/Home Depot on a Saturday if you’re looking at capacity standpoint – just have to get past the perception that Venues can’t safely do shows! 
Perception! It’s all in our heads! While the head of major music venues is just trying to think away coronavirus, others are mobilizing for government relief and support without needlessly putting their peers in danger. 
The National Independent Venues Association that got started earlier this year has quickly been able to rally and create the Save Our Stages act, a $10 billion bipartisan (!) bill that would go towards helping sustain live music venues. While the American Federation of Musicians has given a voice to other entertainment union demands on the government, the Save Our Stages act is the most specific demand articulated by a music organization in the United States. In other countries like France and the United Kingdom, there’s a familiar refrain that the government isn’t doing enough to support live music and that unless the government steps up, it’ll be ruinous for these industries. 
Without an ability to see into the future and know the trajectory of the coronavirus, it’s unnecessary to try to predict the return of live music. Still, the recklessness of some live events and increasingly fragmented semi-return of concerts will likely make the return of live music even more muddled. This moment of crisis shows us that Live Nation is eyeing contracts to put more liability onto artists for whenever normal concerts do return, despite its still fresh $500 million investment from Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund. 
At the moment, Even a number of entertainment unions are seeing financial strains on their funds to help provide health insurance for working artists. This would explain why across the globe live entertainment industries are desperately asking for government assistance through this pandemic. If venues cannot fully open, and more importantly if folks aren’t going back to spaces they know to be potentially unsafe, it’s out of their hands, or the market’s, to make this work. The rest of the year will be seeing how, or if, the government responds to a crisis that’s right in their footsteps. 
Corrections
A few readers reached out about my crediting the creation of 360 deals with Live Nation. It was pointed out that EMI and Atlantic Records, engaged in 360-like deal structures with Robbie Williams and Paramore respectively, prior to the live music giant. There is also the fact that bad record industry contracts certainly weren’t invented in the last fifteen years, so I just wanted to clear that up a bit. 
Unheard Labor
Last week, Spotify and Epic Games, both partially owned by Tencent, announced the Coalition for App Fairness. The two companies, along with a several others, are taking a stand against Apple’s wholly unreasonable 30% rent collection on apps placed on its store. No reason to mince words: Apple’s app store practices are horrific and governments should curtain the exploitation of smaller apps. However, I can’t say that Spotify or Tencent are looking out for the interest of consumers, small developers, and certainly not digital tech workers affected by Apple’s policies. Even the usage of the word “coalition” is frustrating but hopefully sustained pressure forces Apple to change its practices.  
The other bit of concerning media consolidation news is that MRC, the owner of Billboard, The Hollywood Reporter, and others, recently announced a joint venture with Penske Media, owner of numerous media publications including Rolling Stone and Deadline. The struggle of entertainment journalism isn’t a new story but, hopefully, these workers can organize to protect themselves from any consolidation fallout. Perhaps they can take inspiration from the just officially recognized Parcast Union, which along with Gimlet and the Ringer, are showing that unions can even break into this particular world of digital entertainment media. 
A Note of Financialization
I don’t hold deep, or even shallow, knowledge of the Russian music industry but that a Russian state-owned bank, Sberbank, bought the streaming service Zvuk is fascinating to me. Billboard’s coverage highlighted that consumers would be able to set up direct payment for the platform through their bank accounts. I’m curious about whether a state bank-backed streaming platform can pay artists better than a Spotify potentially, so if anyone with a bit more familiarity knows, please let me know!
Otherwise in the news: the Hipgnosis Song Fund raised over $300 million selling its own stocks; the private equity-backed Concord Music Group is investing $10 million in “underrepresented communities” within the entertainment industries; and Round Hill Music, again supported by endowments and pension funds, signed Rob Thomas to a publishing deal. 2020 continues to be a great year for funds, of all colors and stripes, investing in song catalogs.  
6 Links 2 Read
Cat Zhang’s check-ins on viral TikTok memes remain some of my favorite music writing this year. Here she goes deep into the mash-up/remix artist Tiagz and the intra-TikTok battle between Straight and Alt TikTok, the former utopian hopes in 00s mash-up culture, and the aesthetic overload that defines so many contemporary youth trends. Absolutely wonderful. 
The podcast Money 4 Nothing, which I was on in the summer, recently did an episode around the Music Modernization Act, a rare piece of bipartisan legislation that passed during Trump’s presidency. The act addressed a number of issues within the record industry but the story highlights many ways that artists can fall through the cracks of receiving payment. All this makes me wanna look more closely at the American government’s regulatory approach to the music industry. 
Earlier this year I wrote an entire newsletter highlighting that Triller’s public statements user growth didn’t quite add up. Now, another report is out saying its numbers may not be legitimate. Who knew a company that trades on aggressive anti-Chinese sentiment to attack TikTok might fudge its own numbers. Who! 
Nearly a year after Deezer’s initial announcement about pursuing user-centric streaming, a few folks sat down to talk about where the effort stands in 2020. It was a fascinating conversation even if the short-term prospect of user-centric streaming from Deezer’s point of view isn’t too bright. 
The on-going questions about Twitch’s relationship to music continue to be raised. This is the company’s second attempt at a music library, so it’ll be interesting to see if this effort finds more success.
There’s a lot about international music regulation I don’t know a ton about but this story was a fascinating reminder of how glacially slow these structures can move. 
Blog Roll
My name is David Turner and I started Penny Fractions back in November 2017, as a way to think through various topics within the world of music streaming. Since then, the newsletter, which is delivered every Wednesday morning (EST), has grown to reach over thirty-nine hundred subscribers with an archive that can be found right here. I’m currently the Emerging Creator Lead at SoundCloud, so all thoughts here represent me, not my employer. Prior to this, I wrote for Music Business Worldwide, Pitchfork, the New Yorker, Noisey, Rolling Stone, and Spin. I also create content on Patreon to help cover email billing costs and to compensate my copy editors, Mariana Carvalho and Taylor Curry. The artwork is produced by graphic designer Kurt Woerpel. One can join our monthly reader calls by signing up here. If curious, here is the newsletter’s budget sheet. Any comments or concerns can be sent to pennyfractions@gmail.com.
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