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Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States, live music has changed drastically and musicians, promoters and venues have all had to get creative. Livestreams are everywhere. There is even the drive-in concert, which is sort of like a drive-in movie, but substitute a DJ for the movie.
Here in Washington state, a few services and artists have put on these events, including Covert Bat, which was co-founded by lawyer Neil Juneja and lighting designer Joe Cole. Juneja was inspired by an all-night, socially distanced party in Germany.
“What we did was that we looked at the Berlin drive in rave concept,” says Juneja, referring to the German city’s drive-in raves where cars congregate, five feet apart from each other, in an empty parking lot. A DJ plays on a stage in front of the cars and the audio goes out over the pre-world wide web live streaming platform known as FM radio. People only leave their cars to go to the bathroom.
Juneja saw this and wanted to bring it Seattle with a few modifications.
“We looked at shorter format, so we didn’t have an intersection of people in bathrooms,” Jeneja says. “So, we did a one hour format with a DJ so there’s only a single musician. We did 20 cars and nobody was allowed out of their cars. Feet never touched the ground.”
An hour later, they rotate the parking lot and another 20 cars come in.
Juneja’s partner, Joe Cole, is the co-founder of R90, a lighting design company in Seattle. It gave him the opportunity to use equipment that was gathering dust after venues closed their doors in March.
Cole had also been missing something about seeing live music. He wasn’t necessarily a fan of livestreams and found that drive-in shows were a way to connect with musicians and other people in the audience. Cole wanted camaraderie.
“Being able to look over at the car next to you and see them rocking out,” says Cole, “and hanging out their sunroof and having a good time. Seeing the DJ in front of you and knowing that the DJ sees you back. That feeling of being at the live show and everything you take away from a normal live show, but you’re confined to your car.”
Covert Bat had put on nine shows and we’re planning more in mid-July, but Washington Governor Jay Inslee banned drive-in concerts, effective July 20, 2020.
Drive-in movies were still allowed, even drive-in concerts are still allowed many other places in the United States, though a concert on Long Island by the Chainsmokers became infamous when video emerged of large crowds gathering at the stage. The event was billed as a drive-in concert but people had left their cars and congregated in a large pack.
Cole says that it was just bad booking.
“Like with any concert, if you give someone a microphone, it doesn’t really matter what the promoter wants anymore,” says Cole. “Once that performer has the microphone and they decide that they want the crowd to do something, you’re going to be hard pressed—even with the best security—to prevent that from happening. So, there really needs to be a certain type of vetting for the artist to make sure the artist is safe and on board with masking and encouraging people to stay in their car.”
Mike Faulk, Governor Insee’s press secretary, wrote in an email to the Seattle Times that the reason behind the ban on drive-in concerts versus a drive-in movie is the belief that people are less likely to stay in their cars during a live show, saying, “whether they see a movie in a theater or a parking lot, people typically stay in their seats unless they have to get up.”
Cole wanted drive-in concerts to provide a bit of work in a normally busy festival season. In a pre-COVID world, Cole had been a lighting designer for Sasquatch, Bumbershoot, Thing Festival, and Watershed.
“We’ve been doing all the major festivals for years,” says Cole, “that’s our bread & butter and that’s kind of what we do. In the off-festival season, we do corporate parties and events for Microsoft and all the tech firms around here. So, we have the gear, we have the equipment and that’s literally what we do. So, being in lockdown kind put a damper on our summer.”
When thinking about the future of performances in the city, Cole says not having any work is going to be devastating, it will be difficult for people who work jobs like lighting and sound engineers to make rent.
And the state of Washington continues to record more cases of COVID-19 per day than in those tallies in late March and early April. It seems almost assured that live events won’t be coming back anytime soon.
As a ban on large gatherings in Washington state inches toward it’s eight week, venue owners fear for the future of independent venues in Seattle.
Sound & Vision host Emily Fox spoke with festival organizers and artists about the new law, which limits non-compete agreements to three days.