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Why are concert promoters already announcing their 2021 festival lineups? 

click to enlarge Riot Fest is giving America 14 months to get over COVID-19.
  • Riot Fest is giving America 14 months to get over COVID-19.

When it comes to live music — or anything else, for that matter — it’s still anyone’s guess what the coming months will look like. As coronavirus statistics break new records on a seemingly daily basis, it’s become apparent that more and more promoters are essentially writing 2020 off.
Next year, however, is shaping up to be a different story. Over the past few weeks, some of the music world’s highest-profile festivals have already begun announcing their lineups for the summer after this one.

In an industry that’s never specialized in long-term thinking, this may turn out to be a bellwether when it comes to live music as a whole, especially in light of the fact that more than 30 million people — nearly half of whom are millennials — attend at least one U.S. music festival a year.
Here are some of the first festival promoters to step up to the plate:

• On June 16, Chicago’s Riot Fest revealed the “first wave lineup” for the four-day event, which will now be held from Sept. 16 to 19, a full year and two months away. The festival’s 2021 headliners will be My Chemical Romance, The Pixies, Run the Jewels and The Smashing Pumpkins. Less rock-centric performers will include Lupe Fiasco, K.Flay, Toots & The Maytals, Gogol Bordello and Big Freedia.

• A week later, on June 24, Outside Lands got in on the act, announcing its own rescheduled dates and lineup. Now, in what would have been its 13th year, the country’s largest independently owned music festival will take place from Aug. 6 to 8 in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. The newly announced lineup includes headliners Lizzo, The Strokes, and Tyler, the Creator, as well as other well-known acts like The 1975, Young Thug, Tame Impala, Vampire Weekend, Angel Olsen, Khruangbin, J Balvin, Kehlani, Burna Boy, Melanie Martinez, Zhu and Nelly.

• Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, Britain’s venerable Isle of Wight Festival announced its June 17 to 20 lineup, which will feature decidedly old-school headliners Duran Duran, Lionel Richie, Peter Tong, Primal Scream, Happy Mondays, Razorlight, Lewis Capaldi and Snow Patrol.

It’s worth noting that this is actually the second postponement for Riot Fest, which was among the first festivals to pull the plug when the pandemic was still in its early stages. That’s also the case for Coachella, which was first moved to October and has since been moved to April of 2021.

By contrast, Outside Lands continued to play its cards close to the chest, not even hinting that the festival was being called off until the June 24 announcement. Why did its promoters drag their feet for so long? Did they honestly believe a three-day festival that drew 200,000 people last year was somehow going to take place next month?

Most likely not. But bear in mind that, until an event has been officially canceled or postponed, no one can get their money back.

Now that the cat is out of the bag, Outside Lands promoters are encouraging ticket holders to hang onto them for next year, in return for which they’ll be “treated to exclusive contesting for upgrades, giveaways and more.”

Here in Colorado Springs, MeadowGrass Music Festival organizers were quicker to recognize the writing on the wall, canceling the Memorial Day weekend event just weeks after the final lineup had been announced.

“Watching the pandemic unfold was like watching a train wreck in slow motion,” recalls Steve Harris, who started the MeadowGrass festival more than a decade ago. “Early on, we were hopeful that things would improve by Memorial Day weekend, and even had the crazy idea that MeadowGrass could be one of the first large gatherings to welcome people back together again. Of course, the information coming from Washington, D.C., was woefully out of touch with reality — and still is. But by April 2, we’d seen postponement announcements from most of the other major music festivals scheduled around MeadowGrass, including the Strawberry Music Festival, DelFest, Summer Camp and the Northwest Folklife Festival. At that point it seemed unlikely to expect that any more tickets would be sold, and out of concern for our audience and artists we made the difficult decision to cancel this year’s festival.”

As it turns out, numerous MeadowGrass fans are hanging onto their tickets, motivated by loyalty to the festival rather than vague promises of possible upgrades and giveaways. “We refunded purchases when requested,” says Harris, “but most people chose to simply let their tickets carry over to MeadowGrass 2021.”

And while MeadowGrass had yet to officially announce its 2021 lineup, don’t be surprised if it ends up sounding familiar.

“Of the 22 acts booked for this year, 20 were amenable to playing next year,” says Harris. “We agreed to let the bands retain any deposits already paid, because we understand how difficult this time is for touring musicians.”

In the meantime, Harris remains hopeful that people will be taking the precautions necessary to get the coronavirus under control and resume something resembling normalcy.

“It’s clearly going to be some time before live music will return to its pre-pandemic intensity, but the music scene will rise again,” he predicts. “We can’t wait to share an amazing weekend of music with the community, so please wear your damn masks, Colorado Springs!”

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