One year ago I was drinking my Argentine mate, likely touched by the saliva of thousands of strangers, at the Bahidorá Carnival, a Mexican music festival in a gorgeous natural reserve. This event opens a key live music series in Mexico that includes Nrmal Festival, the Vive Latino, and the Ceremonia. We are still in the innocent and hopeful beginning of 2020, and I am covering for KEXP, without knowing it, what would be the last few concerts with a live audience in our pre-pandemic reality.
International borders closed days after the end of Vive Latino, that refrained from joining the wave of international cancellations that accumulated in my inbox, with hurried and even hopeful press releases. Instead, the festival implemented the first temperature control to enter the event, which gathered around 70,000 people each day. All the same, the lineup changed and the casualties accumulated. Black Pumas, Enrique Bunbury, Ambar Lucid, She Wants Revenge, All Them Witches, Biznaga, Fangoria, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, Usted Señálemelo, Vetusta Morla, Gustavo Santaolalla, and Portugal canceled their performances at the festival. The rest is history.
After 12 months, I think we are in a position to look at the first photos of the new world. A world that never stopped, that only expelled states of emergency and endless inequities. But beyond my experience as a spectator, and as a human who forged her personality, work, and way of relating to the world from the audience of live concerts, I wonder how the live-show circuit is adapting to bring back those unforgettable memories, that band that changed your life.
I called some live music workers from Argentina, Chile, Spain, Guatemala, and Mexico to get a general picture of how this new world is being constructed in those countries.
When the borders closed, I was stranded in Mexico City while beginning what was going to be “MY YEAR” of covering international live music festivals. SPOILER ALERT: NOT. I couldn’t get to Seattle, so I returned via Panama to my country, Argentina, when it seemed like the world was ending. Fortunately, I was able to spend over a month enjoying one of the most musically intense cities in the region and I got to know, among other things, the Indie Rocks Forum, the “live” branch of the Mexican music and culture scene.
Comments from Cynthia Flores, journalist and cultural manager at Indie Rocks, Indie Rocks Forum, and Artistic Director of the Hypnosis Festival:
“For the Indie Rocks Forum, prior to the pandemic, the venue’s programming was pretty frequent along with the alliance with independent promoters from the city and other states. It is a very central and vast space for these concerts of all musical genres. We were on a very good streak up until the virus arrived and we had to close completely. This forced us to cut down on many people who worked there in security and cleaning, all the staff was reduced. It was a pretty sad situation for us, as an independent project, a family of people who are in constant union with everyone who is part of Indie Rocks.
At first, we tried to do some concerts through streaming that taught us a lot about technology and production. We really loved doing them with María Daniela and her laser sound, Sailor Fag, Los Guadaloops. We did about 8 concerts and we were actually one of the first to come up with this initiative. What happened is that the public in Mexico is not so used to investing in remote shows. I think there is still a lot of work to do to achieve an online concert consumer culture. With Festival Hipnosis we had a series of shows of this type and they were very cool too.
In conclusion, we stopped for a while and spent a long time reflecting on what to do. Situations push us to make desperate decisions but not negative decisions, on the contrary, positive for the entire Indie Rocks team. We decided to open a barbecue restaurant in our backyard. This was a new venture for the entire Indie Rocks group. We are working on it now, opening a restaurant that is going well, it’s called Stone Rex BBQ and from the first day that we opened we related it to music. We have vinyl selection activities, vinyl sales, activities that keep the spirit of music alive. Since its beginnings in 2006, we seek to be a self-sufficient project and not depend too much on brands, although we do work with some. This is a fundamental axis of our existence, being independent, self-sufficient and maintaining our musical spirit.”
Comments from the Managers of 316Centro in Mexico City, Gibrana, José, Gusi & Iván:
“There haven’t been any live concerts in Mexico City since March 2020. Our work had been opening every weekend for almost 2 years, with full billboards over 6 months in advance. We wanted to adapt to the new circumstances and adopt these digital ecosystems and platforms that allow you to broadcast live concerts and interact in real-time with the audience.
In some way, the pandemic helped bring to light latent aspects that already existed and that were difficult to recognize. We refer to the condition in which our Mexico is in. It has been possible to expose the existing vulnerability within the artistic community, and the lack of artistic and digital education throughout society. Excluding certain institutional and academic niches, the economic promotion of artists and aspiring artists is almost non-existent.
This visualization has given us reason to reflect on the role that we must take as an artistic community to support each other by strengthening the autonomy of our existence.”
Spain is host to one of the biggest festivals of the live music circuit, Primavera Sound. The festival maintains the announcement of its 2021 edition while simultaneously beginning to produce different concerts with reduced capacity. It has also been one of the first countries in the region to hold concerts with some regularity, despite constant changes in regulations, economic losses, and the failure of government aid to entirely save the musical community.
Comments from Spanish Producer and Manager, Joan Vich Montaner. Founder of Ground Control Management and Monkey Week Pro:
“The panorama for live concerts in the country changes constantly because public health measures can change at any time. However, since the summer of 2020, a concert circuit with reduced capacity and social distance has been consolidated in theaters and auditoriums with available seating that allows this distance. This has generated an appearance of continuity in the management of live shows and a certain optimism for the Spanish summer in 2021.
The world assumes that the great festivals are not going to be held this year, although most continue posted and on sale. At the same time, smaller events began to appear, boutique festivals and open-air concerts that have been taking place since last summer and that, for this year, more extended and less improvised versions are projected.
At the moment, no international artists are coming to Spain on tour, so the local circuit is getting stronger, and the public’s response is overwhelming. The problem is going to be that many of the concert halls that have been closed for a year are on the verge of bankruptcy. At the same time, theaters, that are now scheduling concerts, will revert to their regular musicals and plays with much higher ticket prices. This situation will generate a serious lack of spaces/ venues for live music in the near future.”
The South American country has been generating waves and calls for social justice from the Chile Despertó movement, which was joined by the voices of artists calling for a more egalitarian society. The pandemic did not help at all to achieve greater societal transformation, and the total paralysis of the live music scene is one more ingredient in the current economic crisis, according to Diego Sepulveda.
Comments from Diego Sepúlveda, Francisca Valenzuela’s manager, founder of Sello Cazador:
"In Chile, the situation is quite delicate as far as live music is concerned. Government aid to artists and music workers has not been sufficient, and the response to the demands of the sector is practically null. A large percentage of my colleagues have been forced to open up to other sectors to survive. According to the organization ANFUCULTURA, only 2% of cultural workers managed to access the Employment Protection Law, only 7% received COVID bonus and only 8% received the emergency family income, allocated by the government.
The best example of the precarity of the situation can be seen in the union of show technicians, the most affected. Organizations such as the Association of Arts and Entertainment Workers (Asociación Gremial de Trabajadores de las Artes y Espectáculos), AGTAE, have had to create their own initiatives such as virtual festivals or events to receive donations and raise funds for their union.
The venues in Chile are still closed and without the possibility of opening in the medium term. The regulations dictate that only recreational activities can be carried out in open space but does not involve live music. Live concerts have been relegated to generating income only through streaming performances.
For the government of Sebastián Piñera, culture and the arts are not a priority. In recent weeks, the only measures taken in the cultural sphere were: banning music in restaurants in order to avoid people singing, and targeting artist Mon Laferte for painting a mural in the city of Valparaíso.”
If you have ever been to the City of Buenos Aires, it is very likely that you have visited Niceto Club, one of the most attractive and established venues in the city with local, national, and international shows every day. Of course, at this time, it is completely closed to the public. In Argentina, as in many other countries that have a strong live music and entertainment scene, the process of finding alternatives that allow live music has been accelerated. Mainly because the community of workers that makes a living from this industry is much larger.
What has been exposed through all of these conversations is the job insecurity that live entertainment workers have had to deal with historically. Argentina also has financial aid promoted by the Government for both venues and music workers, but it is not enough. The global health crisis wiped out the scene beyond prognosis. On the economic crisis and Niceto adapting to new stages, Curating Producer Sabina Conti comments:
“After 12 months of the pandemic, applying almost total quarantine for the entertainment industry, the activity had to be rethought and sustained with the aim of losing as little as possible, assuming that it was not going to be won. Niceto tried to keep going through streaming and interviewing musicians from our platforms on a daily basis.
Later, the government permitted opening the activity with open-air musical concerts with a 500 person limit. This allowed producers and bands to go out to work even more. Clearly, it is not enough to survive and taking into account the situation of the increasing poverty rate in the country, the public has sustained these practices by paying tickets with an increase of almost 100% compared to last year.
This has caused culture to be limited to a select few, not only because of the amount allowed in spaces but also because of the economic barriers.
Niceto Club has been closed since March 2020 due to its qualification as a dance venue. At this moment, we are inaugurating a new outdoor space called “Al Río” with a capacity for 200 people and we will try to work with an agenda of national bands that can collaborate with us.”
While we compare official protocols for live shows in “the new order” and are waiting for our favorite music festivals, there are countries like Guatemala where the conversations are happening on very different terms.
Journalist and Cultural Manager Julio Adelso, from Guatemala, comments:
“The panorama of the return of live concerts in Guatemala is a very distant idea. Our confinement began on March 22, 2020, and almost a year later, not much has changed.
Despite the confinement becoming more flexible, to the point that there is much more freedom in the street, the idea of producing a live concert is still unimaginable. Many bars that had live music as an attraction closed, they could not continue because of the pandemic. The same happened with some venues, such as El Abejorro, which was one of the points for the realization of concerts, shows, and events in the independent and mainstream environment.
The laws have been manipulated in favor of large companies, who are behind the decisions made by the government. They have been for the benefit of businessmen and their profits, so there was no aid or cultural policies to support small, independent, or large-scale concerts. This happens because in Guatemala we still lack any concrete plan in terms of sanitary measures to deal with the virus.
Those of us who are most involved in the cultural scene find it very difficult for live musical life to begin again. It is very likely that it will take us a few more years.”
Without the intention of making a complete map but trying to find some answers, these could be the first photos of the new world for live music.
The KEXP/Caffe Vita coffee collaboration is aimed at helping to keep independent stages alive, with $2 from every bag of the new coffee blend donated to Keep Music Live, a COVID-19 relief fundraising campaign established by music lovers to support small, independently-owned venues across Washington…
Martin Douglas chronicles nearly half a lifetime of live music healing the wounds of life.
For Live Music Heals, KEXP's Dusty Henry reflects on the little moments of concerts that end up mattering the most.