Looking back on a year of music festivals during the pandemic

We went to the heart of five festivals in 2021 to document how music festivals have adapted to the new pandemic reality. One thing was perfectly clear: the pandemic was tolerated, not feared.

Nothing in music has been so fundamentally devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic as live music. Live entertainment trade publication Pollstar estimated that the concert industry lost $30 billion in 2020 after every major tour and music festival was suspended in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19. We never made it out of the pandemic, but the music industry was back in business in 2021 as artists like J. Cole, Jack Harlow, Da Baby, Saweetie and Lil Baby all started or ended tours. A few of their stops on tour have taken place in front of thousands of cabin fever crazed fans ready to get back to live music as festivals like Ride hard, Astroworld-Festival, Day N Vegas, Governors Ball, firefly music festivaland Summer Smash by Lyrical Lemonade return.

Between August and December, Okayplayer went to the heart of five music festivals during the pandemic to document how fans and artists were adjusting to the new pandemic reality. One thing was perfectly clear: the pandemic was tolerated, not feared.

Fans eager to hang out

The prevailing sentiment among festival-goers was that the 2020 quarantines were a punishment and that the return of festivals was their well-deserved reward. Photo credit: Vickey Ford on Okayplayer.com

Almost all of the festival-goers we spoke to wandered freely through festivals without a mask, unconcerned about the possibility of contracting COVID-19. The prevailing sentiment was that the 2020 quarantines were a punishment and that the return of festivals was their well-deserved reward. In September, 23-year-old Billie Eilish fan Xavier took a three-hour train ride from Connecticut to attend the Governors Ball at Randalls Island in New York City. “COVID is the last thing on my mind,” he said. “The first thing that comes to mind is the music, the flow and the energy that comes from the crowd and everything that comes with a festival.”

Festival organizers took the deadly pandemic a little more seriously, largely because they had to. America’s biggest concert promoters — Live Nation and AEG — strict implementation COVID-19 rules for entry, including either a full vaccination or a negative COVID test within 72 hours of the festival before most festivals begin. But, there was no universality among festivals in their application of these protocols. During the three days of Lyrical Lemonade’s Summer Smash Festival in Chicago in August, neither myself nor any of the media I spoke with were asked to show vaccination cards or negative tests to enter (which was a similar experience with entering Rolling Loud NY in October.) Of the five music festivals we’ve attended, Governors Ball — held at the same Citi Field location as Rolling Loud NY — had the best COVID screening with frantically flying security guards to ensure that none of the herd participants enter without showing proof of vaccination or testing negative. They also gave each attendee a wristband indicating they had passed COVID protocols, a small caveat that should have been standard at all festivals.

The artists struggle

For the most part, you could never tell the world was still going through a pandemic by the way artists performed. City Girls’ JT was appalled at Rolling Loud NY security stopping her and Yung Miami from bringing audience members on stage to twerk during the band’s New York premiere performance of “Twerkulator.” . The surprising turn of events prompted the shameless MC to say, “I don’t know New York, Rolling Loud,” which made her disapproval of the festival’s New York franchise expansion widely known.

Bfb Da Packman probably shares the same sentiments. It was eat donuts on the buttocks of a female audience member at Rolling Loud Miami in July, but was prevented from bringing audience members on stage at Rolling Loud New York in October. “Ride hard Miami [had] no restrictions,” BFB Da Packman told Okayplayer. “We were getting silly there.”

During the Governors Ball, the imperceptible COVID barrier between artists and fans instituted by Rolling Loud was non-existent as artists like Earthgang’s Olu performed on a barricade with fans directly in his face and Cordae brought a random festival-goer onto the stage to perform Anderson Paak’s verse on “RNP.” At the same festival, ASAP Rocky dotted the crowd with masked individuals who can only be described as agents of rage who amplified whatever section of the crowd they were stationed in. These same men would later join Rocky on stage with no sign of social. distancing and no message to hometown crowds to stay safe from the widespread virus. Rolling Loud NY and Governors Ball, hosted by Live Nation affiliate Founders Entertainment, were microcosms of how the music festival experience during the pandemic was determined as much by each respective state’s COVID protocols as by how each respective festival organizer feared the spread of the virus.

As the pandemic limited artists’ freedom on stage, it was abundantly clear that being kept off stage for over a year inspired artists to over-deliver their performances. Artists like 24KGoldn and Cordae at Governors BallJoey Bada$$ to Rolling Loud NY, Baby Tate and Baby Rose at Day N Vegasand A$AP Rocky at Summer crash either perform unreleased music or give the crowd the first performances of new music released shortly before their respective festival. Rocky’s Summer crash was a bit overzealous as he decided to play mostly unreleased records to a crowd eagerly awaiting the hits. Right now, you’ve had a brief glimpse of the difference between the artists’ experience in 2020 and the fans’ experience. For an artist like A$AP Rocky — who hasn’t released an album since 2018 Test and hadn’t played a music festival since Camp Flog Ronger in November 2019 – he was probably waiting to unveil his new musical era. (Rocky told GQ that he was 90% done with his new album four months before his Summer Smash performance.) For fans who haven’t been able to see him in two years, they’ve been waiting to hear the playlists they have to settle for in 2020 on stage. Artists wanted to grow; fans wanted to return; the two weren’t going to let much stop them from breaking out of quarantine and back into the live circuit.

The Astroworld Tragedy
Travis Scott

Travis Scott’s Astroworld festival left 10 dead and countless injured. Photo credit: Troy Montes for Okayplayer

This pent-up rush to return to live broadcasts was no doubt caused by the pandemic, and this rush to return to broadcasts has become deadly at the Astroworld Festival. Fifty thousand people from across the country converged on NRG Park in Houston with the overwhelming feeling – among those who spoke with Okayplayer – that nothing was going to stop them from finally enjoying a music festival, especially Travis Scott’s. . Minutes after Roddy Ricch’s electric performance, 22-year-old Mabrur told Okayplayer he had to leave the noisy crowd because he couldn’t breathe. But, he said it with a noticeable laugh and only after being asked about the experience he expected from Astroworld Fest. “Nah, I don’t care [about the pandemic]Mabrur told Okayplayer. “I’m ready. I had it before. It was bad, but I got through it. It’s worth it. It’s a great experience.

Other festival-goers at Astroworld Fest had similar stances on having fun by any means necessary while others expressed it through their actions. Minutes before Travis Scott took the stage, the spacious VIP section to the left of the stage was overwhelmed by an influx of general admission patrons jumping barricades to get closer to where Scott was performing, which which led to many people visibly fighting for airspace after Scott appeared on stage and sent everyone into a frenzy. Later, it was revealed that ten people lost their lives as a result of the mob pandemonium festival-goers credited fans with the rush to get closer to the front of the stage and get a better look at an artist none of them had seen perform live in two years. COVID-19 didn’t kill these people, but it sure has caged fans who find joy in raging with Scott, like Mabrur, in their homes long enough that nothing matters to them when they’ve been liberated than returning to the hedonistic normalcy Travis Scott was known for.

The effect of COVID-19 on the festival experience has extended beyond the presentation of an additional card before you enter and the rare mask sighting. Before COVID, festival season was mostly in the summer sun where holiday travel is plentiful and scheduling obstacles like school are non-existent. Governors Ball, Afropunk Atlanta, firefly music festival, Citizens of the World Live, Astroworld-Festival, Summer crash, Day N Vegasand Ride hard NY all took place about three months apart. On September 25 only, Governors Ball, Citizens of the world, Fireflyand afropunk atlanta were occurring simultaneously. In 2019, these four festivals were separated by four months. Artists like Billie Eilish, Earthgang and Megan Thee Stallion were some of the artists who were able to perform at several festivals over the weekend, but fans who wanted to see artists like Roddy Ricch, Amine, Smino or Meek Mill and only had the funds for one festival, should have chosen from one of four festivals at which they all performed on the same day.

The full impact of music festivals on the spread of COVID-19 may never be known. While Chicago health officials traced just 200 COVID cases to the four-day Lollapalooza music festival, Michael Osur, deputy director of the same Riverside County Public Health Department who reported no positive COVID-19 cases during the first week -end of the Splash House music festival, admitting “it’s very difficult to contact trace” all festival-goers. With big festivals like Day N Vegas and Rolling Loud California making major tweaks inspired by the misadventures of Astroworld Fest and the Omicron mutation of COVID-19 beginning to spread across the country, the lasting legacy of the very first festival season during a global pandemic could reveal just how music festivals are fundamentally flawed and how the return to pre-pandemic normalcy may never happen.


Banner photo credit: Vickey Ford for Okayplayer.com

Keith Nelson Jr. is a journalist who has covered hip-hop, tech, and movies/TV for VIBE, Revolt, Digital Trends, Flaunt Magazine, and more. follow him @JusAire

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