The Memo: Live music is new battlefield in COVID-19 war

Live music has become one more battlefield in the nation’s culture war over COVID-19.

Americana star Jason Isbell recently announced he would require all fans at his forthcoming shows to be vaccinated or show a negative test result. 

But that’s the kind of move more mainstream country artists have generally resisted. 

One such artist, Jason Aldean, told a Long Island, N.Y., audience from the stage earlier this month, “The coolest thing about all this [is] I don’t see one f—— mask … I’ve had just about enough of that shit.”

The struggles over COVID-19 restrictions are not confined to any one musical genre.

Rapper and producer Busta Rhymes had an anti-masking speech from June go viral just this week. Rhymes lambasted masks and mandates as an infringement on “the God-given right of freedom.”

On the flipside, another rapper, Juvenile, reworked his 1999 hit “Back That Thang Up” last month into a pro-vaccination track, “Vax That Thang Up.”

These struggles come as the live music industry is just beginning to roar back to life having been decimated by pandemic restrictions.

Isbell’s manager, Traci Thomas, told this column that her artist’s decision to require vaccinations for fans was “a no brainer.”

“Jason enjoys his job and he can’t enjoy himself if he feels he is putting his audience in danger,” she said.

But Thomas also put the vaccine move in the context of the vital need to keep live music open, given the devastating economic effects of the earlier shutdown.

“We have got a fair amount of backlash to say, ‘Stay home, just cancel the tour.’ Well, we are not the only ones to consider. There are the people who make the merch, the venues, the bartenders,” she said. “To us, this was the only option. Our industry can’t afford another shutdown.”

The music industry at large has been grappling with the way forward, too.

Earlier this month, two of the biggest concert promoters, Live Nation and AEG, announced new regulations for shows from early October onward. AEG will require fans to be fully vaccinated. Live Nation will have the additional option of showing a negative test. Both companies want to enable fans who are currently unvaccinated to begin the vaccination process now for concerts they want to see in the future.

But even such sweeping moves bring their own complexities — especially given state laws, some of which seek to ban mandates of virtually any description. 

AEG, in its announcement, included a statement from its COO and general counsel Shawn Trell that said in part: “Certain states’ regulations may override our mandate.”

The resulting patchwork of regulations is a source of frustration to many in the music business.

Frank Riley, a prominent booking agent who has run High Road Touring since 2001, told this column that the overall situation was one of “chaos.”

Riley acknowledged that the federal government has limited power to order states what to do, but he added, “There is a lack of political will in states to implement policies that would make their citizens safer. They value dollars more than bodies.”

To Riley, the kind of requirement issued by Isbell — and, he pointed out, by other artists whose choices have received less attention — is the obvious and simple way forward.

Still, the kinds of comments made by artists as diverse as Aldean and Rhymes makes the challenges plain.

On one hand, the need to keep live concerts thriving is obvious. On the other, popular music has often given voice to dissenting, anti-authority sentiments — and that’s the kind of mindset that might easily be skeptical of the powers that be even in matters of public health. 

In addition, country and hip-hop draw a sizable share of their fans from two of the demographic groups most resistant to vaccinations — rural white people and Black people, respectively.

The academic Cornel West, asked about the Rhymes controversy, told this column that vaccine resistance in the Black community “can only be overcome by example.”

While West made clear he disagreed with Rhymes, he added, “Keep in mind that you’ve had musical artists that have tried to call people out to take the vaccine as well as those who do not trust it. You have suspicions of authority across the board — and that is just built into any community.”

President BidenJoe BidenSupreme Court blocks Biden’s eviction moratorium Overnight Defense & National Security: Terror in Kabul as explosions kill and injure hundreds White House: Biden ‘somber’ and ‘outraged’ after hearing of Kabul attack MORE has tried to harness the power of music and pop culture to bolster his vaccination efforts. Last month, pop singer Olivia Rodrigo visited the White House to record pro-vaccination videos with Biden.

But those kinds of moves could be trickier for artists in more conservative-leaning genres — country being the prime example.

Isbell is atypical in that regard, since Americana is considered country-adjacent but its own subgenre. Other artists vying for broader commercial success are more reluctant to touch any cultural or political third-rails.

“I think that a lot of country artists live in fear of their fans — and I hate to say it as a country fan,” said Chris Willman, the author of “Rednecks & Bluenecks,” a history of the politics of country music.

“Most of the artists run scared of doing anything even the slightest bit divisive,” added Willman, who is also the features editor of Variety. “And typically, when someone is going to say anything divisive, they will be erring on the side of the right, not anything that could be seen as liberal or progressive.”

That was a point that Thomas, Isbell’s manager, made even more stridently.

“Unfortunately, a lot of the mainstream country artists are more concerned about losing their audience instead of keeping them safe,” she said. “But if they’re not keeping them safe, they are going to lose them if they die.”

The specter of the Dixie Chicks, who created a crisis in their career almost two decades ago when they criticized the Iraq War and President George W. Bush, still looms large in music business mythology.

Peter La Chapelle, a Nevada State College professor and the author of “I’d Fight the World — A Political History of Old-Time, Hillbilly and Country Music,” said that he did not expect Isbell’s situation to be in any way analogous to the Dixie Chicks, now known as The Chicks.

“If anything, it might improve his album sales. It could maybe hurt him getting airplay on mainstream country stations, but I don’t know by how much,” he said.

He added that through the history of country music, there has been “the more dominant [conservative] side of it, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t individuals who can come along and poke holes in the more dominant ideologies.”

Robert Oermann, the author of nine books about country music, including as co-author to Dolly Parton on last year’s “Songteller,” said that from anecdotal evidence it was “shocking” to him how many artists themselves remained unvaccinated.

But he cited the example of Parton — who contributed $1 million to the development of a COVID-19 vaccine — to caution against oversimplifying the situation.

“Country artists and their fans are not monoliths,” he said. “She has been on the side of the angels.”

The nightmare scenario for musicians and music industry figures of all genres is another shutdown. 

For now, demand is strong. Concert tickets are being snapped up by fans desperate for the communal, emotional experience that live music provides.

Artists and industry figures alike know how special that can be — and, right now, how fragile it feels. So too do fans.

Cornel West lamented “the overwhelming atmosphere of catastrophe” that has afflicted the nation during the pandemic, giving rise to “isolation and alienation.”

But, he added: “Music has always been a fundamental human response to overwhelming catastrophe. It’s how we wrestle with our grief, how we wrestle with our mourning — and how we celebrate both our individuality and our sense of community.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

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