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Bringing back concerts in Madison this spring is reckless

All the precautions in the world can’t make it safe or responsible.

When the COVID crisis hit home for Wisconsin last March, the vast majority of Madison’s live entertainment venues and event organizers did the right thing. From the city’s largest concert bookers to the Wisconsin Film Festival to local bands with modest followings, people worked quickly to call off their upcoming events, follow public-health directives from state and local government, and encourage people to stay safe. 

This is not the time to change course. Some venues have aimed to get back to live events in the fall, which at this point at least sends a contingent, wait-and-see message. But people revving up to bring back concerts this spring are making a mistake. They include Madison’s largest concert promoter, FPC Live, which this week began rolling out details of a socially distanced concert series that will begin in May at Breese Stevens Field. Attendance will be capped at 1,512 people, according to a press release. 

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Tone Madison will not be covering or previewing these events, at least not in the way that we used to preview shows pre-COVID. I refuse to give people the impression that such large in-person events are safe or acceptable. More than 6,000 Wisconsinites have died of COVID-19, and of those, more than 1,000 died after the beginning of the new year. Events on this scale are jumping the gun, no matter how spread-out, even if it’s outdoors, even if you’ve outlined a number of precautions, as FPC Live has. The more serious we are about taking precautions and restraining ourselves now, the sooner we can get back to live music and all the other things we miss—and here at Tone Madison, we will keep thinking about our coverage plans as conditions improve. We as a society have been trying half-measures for most of the last year, and it has only dragged things out.

It sends an especially bad message when these events happen at a venue the City of Madison owns. Breese Stevens is a City of Madison park, and a private company, Big Top Events, operates it under an agreement with the city. FPC Live is majority-owned by Live Nation, the biggest concert player in the world. If it’s OK for these events to go off, why wouldn’t other venues and businesses in the area see a green light to hold big in-person events of their own?

We can’t accuse the organizers of these events of flouting public-health guidelines, or of meaning to do any harm. Rather, those guidelines are already watered down because the business community has too much influence on them. Throughout most of the pandemic, flawed policy and lax social attitudes have encouraged people to cut corners. It’s not shocking that people would make flawed decisions within a bad paradigm, and I don’t think concert bookers want anyone to get sick—it’d hardly be in their interest, and the organizers of these events are doing a lot of messaging around safety, intending to strike a balance. Fair enough—but anyone in their right mind knows that this is at best a calculated risk. 

After being deprived of live shows for all this time, I think most of us would like to believe there’s a safe way to get back to it. But there is still no way the risk is worth it. We are way too good at kidding ourselves, and it’s well past time to stop. 

Build in all the rules and precautions you want. Spread the audience out into distanced pods, stagger entrance and exit times to prevent crowding, require masks, provide a contactless ordering system for food and drinks. Wipe down surfaces. Check temperatures. There’s still no accounting for the risks people’s behavior will create. These events are guaranteed to attract the kind of people who’ve been playing fast and loose with indoor drinking and dining all along, the kind of people who constantly let their masks slip, people who rush through the aisles at the grocery store without an inkling of other people’s personal space. In a press release, FPC Live touts a series of socially distanced concerts it held last fall in Charleston, South Carolina. That doesn’t make it a good idea to replicate here.

Will people attending these concerts make unnecessary trips in from other areas of Wisconsin where people are really cavalier about the virus? What’s to stop them from bouncing around to nearby bars or restaurants before or after the show, possibly widening the risk? All the precautions simply cannot possibly prevent people from either unwittingly making a dangerous mistake or doing something stupid and reckless out of a sense of drunken entitlement.

In an audience of up to 1,512 people, someone at some point will take a risk, on behalf of themselves and everyone nearby. I’m not even getting into the finer knowns and unknowns of how the virus spreads—the point is that the human factor alone is too much of a wild card. I hope, for the sake of the broader public, that everyone at these events gets through them safely, but even if you emerge unscathed, that doesn’t make a dangerous situation acceptable to create. 

Why are we even having this conversation before we know when the service workers staffing such events will be able to get vaccinated? Service workers will bear the brunt of the risk at these events, as they have this whole time. They will be the ones who have to make sure people follow the safety rules, and anyone who has worked in a service job can tell you that that is difficult, often unpleasant work. For this to work, you have to be able to trust every single person in the place, because it only takes one careless person to get someone else sick, to get a bunch of other people sick. After the past year, I absolutely don’t trust everyone to do the right thing, and I especially don’t trust people who will pounce at opportunities like this.

For all but the least self-aware show-goers, these experiences are likely to be stressful and muddled. I miss that sense of release and connection that a good show provides. I can’t imagine recovering it while having to worry about the potentially lethal carelessness of others. I want to be seeing bands I love. I want other people to be seeing bands they love, no matter what I think of them. Great bands, terrible bands, who cares—it’s tragic that people are cut off from these experiences. Then again, maybe it won’t feel so strange at Breese Stevens, where concerts often feature a vibe-murdering VIP area right in front of the stage.

The mere existence of these events so soon on the horizon will also muddle public perception around the severity of the pandemic and whether it’s safe to go out to public events. People looking for excuses to go out to bars and restaurants and have in-person hangs and venture out into public spaces more often than necessary will only take these events as evidence that their behavior is normal and socially condoned. I wouldn’t be surprised if more business owners and elected officials take a cue from these, and push for even looser restrictions. Place your bets now on loony right-wing state legislators pointing out that “even liberal Madison is having concerts again.” 

As much as the pandemic has sucked for even the biggest live-music businesses, FPC Live is perfectly capable of hitting the ground running when it’s really and truly safe to have concerts once more. The company knows how to book big shows that will be popular with the local market, go off successfully, and make money. Neither FPC or Big Top is going without relief, either. Big Top has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal Paycheck Protection Program money. The state of Wisconsin’s grant program for music venues gave FPC Live more than half a million dollars in the form of two different awards, and gave Big Top $295,568.18. FPC Live made significant staff cutbacks over the summer and fall

No one is happy to be in this situation, and no business is in a good place without revenue, but do these concerts have to happen this May? Certainly there are other venues and arts groups hurting even worse, continuing to sacrifice in the name of safety. As are literally tens of thousands of people in the Madison area who dearly miss concerts and festivals and other large public events. 

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Of course people want to find a way to have shows again, very understandably. For a lot of us, live music is both immeasurably rewarding on its own and a central factor in our social lives. Throughout all of this, performers, venues, and event promoters have had to place one excruciating bet after another, attempting to reschedule things and guess at when live events might be safe or feasible—all in a country where the botched government response to COVID amounts to negligent mass homicide, and where millions of people have lost income without much to fall back on. Shuttered venues still have bills to pay. Out-of-work musicians and artists still have to eat. The countless creative types who work the bar or door or soundboard at the show can’t safely go to work. Live-streamed events, while sometimes pretty fun, just aren’t the same.

No one is happy about this. Everyone is desperate for it to end. Last summer and fall, some venues experimented with outdoor shows or reduced-capacity indoor events. I really, really wrestled with how to cover them, and didn’t go to any of them. The only things that really struck me as a happy medium were drive-in concerts and screenings.

In New Zealand, a civilized country, live music has been back for several months, thanks to an aggressive government response. In the United States, a barbaric country with lots of money, we still have no clear sense of when we’ll get there. Wisconsin is doing relatively well on vaccinations, but there’s still a long way to go. Vaccination won’t compensate for all the dangers of poor (or non-existent) policy and individual recklessness. Republicans in the legislature continue to try and swat down mask mandates and play political games instead of hammering out relief legislation that Democratic Governor Tony Evers would actually agree to sign. Democrats in Congress are showing their usual fecklessness, hemming and hawing about amounts and means-testing as we await the $2,000 payments President Joe Biden promised us. Add in uncertainty about new variants of the virus, and it’s clear that we’ve got god knows how many months of this still ahead of us. Stop it. Don’t go.

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