What does the Future of Concerts Look Like?

How SXSW is leading the charge in virtual festivals

Maxine Como, Contributing Writer

As America surpasses six months of restrictions due to COVID-19, many are wondering what the future of large-scale events looks like. Since March, facilitators of populous events have been required to modify or cancel such events, from high-profile award shows and concerts to local graduation ceremonies and proms. One possible way to prevent the spread of coronavirus is by making events virtual. South by Southwest (often abbreviated as SXSW) in Austin, Texas is one of the first to propose an online festival scheduled for March 2021. SXSW is unique in that it features conference keynotes and sessions, screenings, showcases, networking, and exhibitions as well as musical performances. The creators of the event are hoping that it can be both virtual and in-person, but at the moment, large in-person gatherings are still prohibited in Austin due to COVID-19 restrictions.

In March 2020, most major corporations pulled out of the event after the first coronavirus cases appeared in the U.S. The organizers of the event tried to continue until officials stepped in and canceled it, though there were zero coronavirus cases in Texas at the time. This was a huge loss for the Austin economy, causing them to lose $355.9 million according to SXSW. As for 2021, SXSW’s persistence is proof that American business is able to adapt and overcome any obstacle. 

SXSW says that they believe now more than ever it is necessary to foster innovation and solutions to the problems that plague our nation. According to their website, “2020 has amplified issues like racial injustice, poverty, nationalism, and the climate crisis amidst a global pandemic. The future depends on the business, non-profit, government, science, and technology communities all working together.” The organizers of SXSW emphasize the importance of the festival as a facilitator of conversation and new ideas, as it brings together great minds and informed audiences to discuss important issues. SXSW is also giving attendees the option to use PanelPicker to choose which speakers and acts they would prefer to see.

While it is unclear how the virtual component of SXSW will be made available to the public, many theorize that it will be arranged through a larger streaming service and sold as an add-on to the subscription. This method of purchase may become more prevalent for virtual or hybrid events in the future. Disney’s “Mulan”, which was released in early September, became available on Disney+ exclusively but subscribers must pay an additional $29.99 on top of their monthly subscription fee. The same approach can also be applied to concerts, music festivals, and award shows in order to make up for lost revenue in ticket sales. Some streaming services are also struggling economically because of the lack of new music, TV, and movies so hosting events could compensate for that.

SXSW plans on definitely having an online option but it is still unclear if an in-person component is possible and what it would look like. In other countries where COVID-19 restrictions have relaxed, concerts are organized to socially distance viewers. In the UK, the Virgin Money Unity Arena was set up as the first socially distanced, outdoor concert this August. The venue consisted of spaced platforms where up to five guests can enjoy the concert maskless and have food and drink delivered to them. Before arriving at the platforms, fans must wear a mask at all times and park six feet away from each other in the parking lot. This model allows for more guests than using an indoor arena at partial capacity. It will be interesting to see what approach SXSW takes, but nonetheless, it will be the first large-scale festival of its kind in the U.S. since March 2020.

SXSW’s website says that “Great art often thrives in times of turmoil and chaos.” 2020 certainly has been a year of turmoil and chaos, but it also has proven how companies and individuals prevail nevertheless. SXSW is a prime example of prevailing, and should their 2021 plans become a reality, they could be used as a model for other high-profile events.