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Interviews, Music

Interview: Dr. Chris Gibbs Talks Return of Live Music, Socially Distanced Concerts, & The Future of Entertainment

By: Sasha Lindsay

TORONTO, ON – SEPTEMBER 21: Jimmie Allen performs at Budweiser Stage in Toronto on September 21, 2019. (Photo: Ryley Dawson/Aesthetic Magazine)

Dr. Chris Gibbs, Chair, School of Creative Industries, Faculty of Communication and Design at Ryerson University discusses the roadmap to recovery for live events, touches on nostalgia’s role in increased digital revenue, the theatrical side that is emerging in live events, how music and community will still thrive with safety measures being met and the future of live entertainment post-COVID-19.

Your approach to rebuilding the live entertainment music industry involves issue-specific strategies and practices.  The roadmap to future recovery includes 5 key areas of focus. Can you tell me a little about them?

I’ll tell you an example of one of the projects we’ve undertaken is we’ve started working with the live theatre community and specifically with venues. We’ve met and spent a lot of time with them and we’ve figured out the number one thing that venues need is operating procedures to be able to be reopened. We work with a group of elected venue managers that we found who wanted to work together and we developed a guide, so that can be updated and used throughout this because the procedures are going to change. We’re in red zone, we’re in yellow zone, we’re in this zone so the procedures are going to change and adapt so we have a framework that we have now published and it’s available to them and they can refer to that as one tool to keep them up to date as things change.

What is the most important area of focus right now?

There’s two things. The first one is just making sure you have procedures and protocols ready for when the province moves us from one zone to another. The decision of when it’s going to reopen is going to come, you don’t know when it’s going to come, right? You need to be prepared for it. You need to have all the procedures and everything in place before. While we’re in lockdown you need to go over these procedures. When they say we’re going to be ready to reopen, they’ll make the decision on a Tuesday. Everybody’s expecting for us right now to go into the next phase for Toronto. So we are completely reactive. I think it’s just preparation, you just need to be prepared. While we’re in lockdown, prepare for the moment that the province pushes the button and says we can reopen.

How are social media companies like Twitter and companies like Rogers helping artists? 

I’m not familiar with specific examples of how companies are working with artists, with their social media platforms. There are some great examples of how artists are using social media to continue the engagement. You see artists doing regular weekly shows, some of them, right? You see artists doing different things and their social engagement basically is to be connected with the fans because it’s the only way they can stay connected with the fans and provide a behind the scenes look into their lives and into their creation. I think social media is a way for them to maintain a connection directly to the fans and they need to maintain it for two reasons. One is, eventually we’ll be back live and in-person and it’s a way for them to talk to them again and promote their live shows and the other reason is the way to maintain connection to potentially grow their audience for a new digital business. What we’re doing is we’re shifting, what’s happening, what is going on right now is if you look at the musicians…the musicians used to rely on album sales and now they rely on live ticket sales, right? So what used to make twenty to thirty percent of their revenue and seventy percent of it was the royalties from their album sales, that was 80’s and 90’s. Now, they make seventy percent or more of their revenue from live concerts and live events. But now that’s dried up, they need to focus on their digital revenue.

What do you think about companies like Ticketmaster leaving it up to the discretion of the event organizer to test for COVID? 

Well, the role of Ticketmaster isn’t to run the show or the venue, right? The role is to specifically market and attract an audience to buy tickets. That’s their role. It’s got to be up to the event organizers in their different jurisdictions because there’s going to be different rules and different places to have the guidelines to follow and operate safely.

Your online guide is about the safe reopening of live performances. It was last updated on November 11th and has 10 sections. Section 3 gives information about the government. With Toronto in the Red Control category, how has the City of Toronto continued to support #Lights-On?

The city works with us to help us interpret the new regulations of the province so that we can communicate with the venue managers. So we’re in pretty regular contact every time there’s a new venue restriction. We work with them to help us interpret it and make it easier for our venue managers and event producers to read. The City’s been awesome at helping to work with and support businesses to respond to the changes in the different zones. But it’s province controlled.

TORONTO, ON – JUNE 22: Arkells performs at Budweiser Stage in Toronto on June 22, 2019. (Photo: Joanna Glezakos/Aesthetic Magazine)

Focusing on Socially Distant Performance Arts, in track four of your five part project, mental health is mentioned. Aside from the economic side, how creatives are affected mentally is a huge concern. Can you speak on mental health supports and how they’re working?

We haven’t actually started to work in that track yet. We’ve got five different sort of areas we still have the ability to impact for change or that we can help with. Up until now we’ve focused on two and one is helping the venues and then the other one is around the music business, around digital and we’re starting to do work in that space.

I just want to understand it better. When mental health is mentioned, is that something that later on you would potentially tap into or is it something that was just mentioned? So, you’re not pushing anything about helping anyone with mental health concerns? More specifically, artists, not mental health as a whole.

Each one of these tracks is a research project where when we take it on and we attack it, we work within that community. We do focus groups and research related to it and then we develop something that responds to that community. We’re at different stages with each track. We’ve been trying to get more funding to try to go after this track. We are there to research and develop tools to help.

Can live performances truly be enjoyed with social distancing?

Absolutely. You can see the story of drive in theatres but covered, what a great solution, you get to go to a concert, you get to be with the people that are in your bubble, right and you get to experience something outside. Now, the fan enjoyment can still happen, the emotional feelings can still happen and you can enjoy the event. When you’re at a concert, a lot of the experiences and feelings you have come from being in a closed environment with people all experiencing it together.

Right. It’s the community aspect.

It’s different, but you can still have an experience. I just don’t think it’ll be as intense as it is when you’re basically arm in arm with people. Yeah, because you look at some of the different music festivals. There are not always people jumping on each other.

The COVID Research Taskforce is part of your Future of Live Entertainment Lab. With the “Rise of Nostalgia” being highlighted, “streaming and gaming are in higher demand than music.” With more media consumption, how can you boost nostalgia with live entertainment?

You need to try to use things that people can feel nostalgic in their past and build those into your show and your experience. A silly one, like lighters. Those behaviours that people have, you have to try to build those in. With video games as an example, you’ve got some of the older games that are coming back. And nostalgia isn’t exclusive to COVID. It’s a trend that’s being more enhanced. People want to remember the times before.

It’s coming across as more of a surge recently.

Oh, for sure. It’s been surging more in the last three or four years.

What do you think the live music industry will look like five years from now? Will the effects of COVID still be felt?

Let me say this first. The effects of COVID will be felt for many years to come. And I can say that confidently because if we look back to SARS and you look back to the countries that were hit bad by SARS, places like Hong Kong and stuff like that, it’s going to change human behaviours, right? So the biggest solution to COVID is actually changing human behaviour. It’s about our proximity to people. In five years, those human behaviours that have changed, will it change life from before? Some of the things that people are discussing coming out of COVID has to do with a focus on local communities, local events. That’s how we’re going to come out of this because bands aren’t going to be able to travel for a while, they’re not going to be able to tour internationally for a while. You say five years and I think it’s difficult to predict five years. What’s going to come out, to get out of this, there’s going to be smaller performances, less international touring, so there’ll be a focus more on local experiences.

If events will be a bit smaller, maybe things will change slowly after two years?

There will be a trend that will come out of this about, and it’s been going on in society before but it’s going to be even stronger and it’s around intimate customized experiences versus masked gatherings. The business model for concerts is pack as many people in a venue as you can to have an experience. There will be coming out of COVID, experiences that have less people in the room but have more elements to the experience. For example, instead of a thousand people in a venue with a band, you might have one hundred people in a venue with a band but instead of the band just performing, they have a discussion with the audience. The experiences coming out will need to be more intimate.

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