Are concerts, festivals, and live events ever coming back? Here’s what 6 experts say

Insiders at Burning Man, Broadway, Meow Wolf, and more describe how the live events industry, hit hard by the pandemic, will emerge onto a new stage.

Are concerts, festivals, and live events ever coming back? Here’s what 6 experts say
[Image: syntika/iStock; lu_lettering/Pixabay; rawpixel]

For Fast Company’Shape of Tomorrow series, we’re asking business leaders to share their inside perspective on how the COVID-19 era is transforming their industries. Here’s what’s been lost—and what could be gained—in the new world order.


Marian Goodell, founding board member and CEO of Burning Man Project, the nonprofit that organizes the annual Burning Man event in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert every year. 

From a live events standpoint, the question to ask is, Where do we want to be? And I don’t think one should just assume that the place to be right now is digital. We’ve come to feel fairly strongly that the experience at Burning Man and Black Rock City really is only in person. It grew up very deliberately in the late ’90s as technology was growing up, and partly because technology creates such isolation. We need the counterpoint of how we build and create together, so I don’t believe there’s any sense in leaning into building any kind of virtual Black Rock City. When we canceled the event, I announced that we would be virtual, but I was very careful not to define what that is.

We’re going to encourage people to exist and engage like you would at Burning Man. So that might be in your community.”

Marian Goodell, founding board member and CEO of Burning Man Project
Virtual Black Rock City, for us, means it’s not happening in person. If you really think through “virtual,” it doesn’t necessarily mean online. It means, it’s a different kind of reality. It’s virtually—it’s almost. As an organization, we’re going to encourage people to exist and engage like you would at Burning Man. So that might be in your community.


We’re all over the world—20%, 22% of the people come to Burning Man from overseas, and a bunch come from the West Coast. Our shelter-in-place stuff in California isn’t going to be lifted until the middle of July, and for some, the middle of August. So the freedoms by which we’re all going to engage are changing. I don’t know what’s going on in North Dakota, versus what’s going on in Ohio, versus what’s going on in Italy, and I really don’t want to tell people that in order to get a Burning Man experience that you should only go online.

I’d rather amplify the storytelling around how those Burning Man experiences can be manifested in any number of ways, including community service, bringing food to the homeless, helping healthcare workers get access to resources. It could be these things that are called reverse parades now, where people drive up the street and the neighborhood does delightful things . . . There’s a Burning Man group that was doing fire pyrotechnics in their yards, so people could drive up the street and see them.

I would prefer to encourage that kind of behavior, either community service or creative self-expression, real time and in person . . . The whole point of society is to be person to person. One of the best things that Burning Man gives people is a sense of safety and connectedness. I don’t want to drive people to the internet and fool them that that’s a place where they’re going to find safety and connectedness.


Charlotte St. Martin, president of the Broadway League, the trade association that represents the Broadway industry, including theater owners, producers, presenters, and general managers.

I think [Broadway] is going to be one of the most challenging live events to bring back, if not the most challenging . . . One of the best things that has happened for us is that the governor of New York created a task force for mass gatherings and connected us with some of the top medical minds in infectious diseases and vaccines in the state, and we are working on plans. We don’t know what they look like, but I would say there’s cautious optimism that some solutions will be found.

In order to socially distance, we would have to completely break the Broadway model.”

Broadway League president Charlotte St. Martin
Broadway will not be able to socially distance. It’s just a physical impossibility—the same with the Metropolitan Opera. Our financial model is so [dependent upon] attendance and revenue. In order to socially distance, we would have to completely break the Broadway model. That would mean lower wages, lower rent at theaters, lower fees from designers and specialists. And that’s going to be coupled, of course, with lower ticket prices and lower attendance, and I don’t think anybody thinks we can do that.


In addition to our 41 theaters in New York, we have Broadway tours that go to 240 cities in our country. And every city is different. Their local laws are different. Every building is different. The theater owners, the presenters, and those people who take Broadway around the country—just getting them to all agree on something is difficult. I lovingly say the farmers and the cowhands can’t be friends. So that’s the landlord and the tenant. But during this crisis, we have formed the best community. [Everyone] is working closely together to find solutions together, which is exciting.

There’s cautious optimism about 200 million vaccines being ready in January. And if that were the case, and was found to be cost effective, and you put that with mask wearing, and more contactless services, and different way of cleaning, we might be back up soon and with good audiences.

David Korins, creative director, David Korins Design. The multimedia studio for theater and television events has built sets for Broadway juggernauts including Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen. More recently, Korins designed the sets for the Broadway adaptation of Mrs. Doubtfire, whose opening was sidelined by the coronavirus.


In the back of my mind, there’s a part of me that’s wondering if we’ll ever be normal again. The general feeling about theater is that we’re not going back until there is some kind of a test by which every cast member, crew member, and musician can be tested daily and then somehow register that on an app that can be submitted to management or whatever . . . There are a lot of theories about staggered seating and things like that. I think that in the theater, because of the finances of it, it probably [won’t] work that way.

I think it’s safe to say that premium priced tickets will be a thing of the past for a while.”

David Korins, creative director for David Korins Design
And we’re not even really talking about the massive financial crisis, and people [not] having expendable income. I think it’s safe to say that premium priced tickets will be a thing of the past for a while.

We’re seeing people turn, obviously, to digital experiences. The problem is that the DNA of theater, is about live live . . . I can’t tell you how many people have come to me and said, can you [just] create a new Zoom background? And it’s like, listen, that’s not the wave of the future. That’s like a Band-Aid . . . But I’ve also heard about theatrical productions happening in cars, in wide open spaces, or in big, huge buildings but you only have 10 people in it—where you get to deliver something that is truly magical and transformative.


I’m reading carefully trusted sources, and what I’ve seen is that the virus hasn’t changed since February or March. It’s just as scary out there, unfortunately . . . Anybody who’s saying, “Oh no, I think we can get a thousand people in a room and everyone’s going to be okay,” they’re not being realistic. We have to pivot completely and think about entertainment in a whole different way.

Victoria Siddall, global director, Frieze Fairs, which produces the Frieze Art Fairs in London, New York, and Los Angeles.

We’re looking ahead to our fairs in London—Frieze London and Frieze Masters—which are due to go ahead in October, and we’re looking at two scenarios. One is that we can stage the fairs in their physical form, which we hope very much is the case. Then also, we’re thinking about what happens if that’s not possible.


One of the reasons fairs exist is to support galleries and artists. At their core, they’re places where galleries bring works by artists to sell to collectors, and that money goes back to the gallery and the artists. If we can make sure that part of it happens in October, that’s an important part of keeping the wheels turning and supporting everybody through this period.

Art has been slower to go [fully] online than almost every other sector, and there is a good reason for that.”

Victoria Siddall, global director, Frieze Fairs
Art has been slower to go [fully] online than almost every other sector, and there is a good reason for that, which is that these works are meant to be seen in person. You can’t replicate the experience of seeing an artwork in person on a digital platform. That’s why people will get on a plane to fly to Paris or Florence or New York to see the works in those museums.

The logistics are different from a sporting match or music concert, because you don’t need everybody to arrive and leave at the same time . . . So something we’ve been in conversation with other event organizers and the government is about not making this about a maximum number of people who can be at one place at a time. If we can say that everybody who’s there will have a 2-meter distance around them at all times, then it shouldn’t necessarily be a cap on numbers.


Sydney Baloue, writer, activist, and producer on the HBO Max show Legendary. Baloue is a chronicler of New York’s ballroom community and a member of the House of Xtravaganza.

One of the things that is interesting about ballroom, which is probably unique compared to some of the other [live events], is that because ballroom is rooted in Black, POC, LGBTQ culture, it’s embedded in the way we live our lives and our support systems and our kinship networks. This isn’t just, like, an event that you go to. It’s like, No, this is me bonding with my chosen family. Part of why the community has continued through the virtual space is because people still need those support networks. They still want to feel loved.

There’s been a growth of virtual balls via certain apps. There’s this app that’s very popular in the ballroom community called Bigo Live, and that has opened this portal, in a way. There’s been such an enormous growth of the culture in the past couple of decades that there’s a community around the world. There are people voguing in Siberia, New Zealand, and everywhere you can think of. So it’s opened the doors to allow people who can’t get to New York to participate. What’s interesting is that when I interview people, they’re, like, “Oh, I think virtual balls are here to stay.” There’s still definitely room for the live balls that happen in person. The question is more a question of timing—like when will we all feel safe?


This isn’t the first time a virus has affected the community. Still, ballroom has continued to thrive.”

Sydney Baloue, House of Xtravaganza member, writer, and producer
Part of what makes ballroom special, particularly when you look at voguing, is the energy from the crowd. The crowd is feeding you that energy while you’re dancing or walking the runway with whatever category. So with the virtual balls and—I’ve witnessed a few—it’s a very different feeling. You’re not getting that energy from other people, and that’s actually something that is crucial to the whole form itself. It’s all about being seen, literally.

We’ve already been through so much with the AIDS crisis, and still the community has persevered. So this isn’t the first time a virus has affected the community. Still, ballroom has continued to thrive. So I’m very optimistic about ballroom exploding with full force after we emerge from these questions about COVID.

Ali Rubinstein, chief creative officer and co-CEO of Meow Wolf. The Santa Fe, New Mexico, artists’ collective and events company is known for its large-scale psychedelic installations and festivals.


Live events are going to come back, and they’re going to come back in a big way. If I could personalize it a minute and look at my own reaction to where we are, I see myself craving human interaction, being social, experiencing something in a group setting. That’s a craving, and it’s a craving that I don’t normally have . . . If this is how I’m feeling, I think I can multiply this by a thousand for people that do, on the reg, want to participate on large-scale in live events.

Live events are going to come back, and they’re going to come back in a big way.”

Meow Wolf, chief creative officer, Ali Rubenstein
I’ve spent most of my career living in Asia, and in Asia, mask wearing is the norm. Was it always? No. It became that way as a result of having experienced more epidemic and pandemic situations. I was in Hong Kong during SARS—wearing a mask became absolutely normal. So there’s one possibility here, which is that mask wearing is going to become completely normalized. And if it becomes normalized, then what’s the difference? We’re not going to let things like wearing masks or having to stand 6 feet apart for a while and be appropriately socially distanced stop the craving to get back out and experience live events, human interaction, exhibitions, entertainment, all of those things.

More from Fast Company’Shape of Tomorrow series:


About the author

Christopher Zara is a senior news editor for Fast Company and obsessed with media, technology, business, culture, and theater. Before coming to FastCo News, he was a deputy editor at International Business Times, a theater critic for Newsweek, and managing editor of Show Business magazine


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