One glance at the packed polo grounds for the recent Coachella Music and Arts Festival was enough to verify that live events are coming back in a big way after two years of pandemic cancellations, interruptions and delays. Here at the start of the traditional summer music festival season, fans are making it clear they’re ready for more live, in-person, but also maybe less traditional experiences.
That hunger is already manifesting in the bank accounts of venue operators and the artists who perform there.
In February, concert promoter Live Nation reported record earnings in 2021, with “a record pipeline of concerts, ticket sales and advertising commitments for 2022,” President and CEO Michael Rapino wrote in the company’s earnings letter. “The two-year wait for artists and fans is over. Never have the tailwinds to our business been so strong, and I believe this is just the start of what will be the strongest multi-year period ever for the concert industry.”
MSG, which operates Madison Square Garden in New York, reported strong quarterly earnings this spring too, as attendance for the iconic venue’s pro sports teams snapped back to historic levels while revenues from corporate suites and TV rights rose.
“We are pleased with how quickly our business has returned to pre-pandemic levels, with our second-quarter results reflecting robust ongoing demand for the Knicks and Rangers,” said President and CEO Andrew Lustgarten. “We will look to build on this momentum through the rest of the fiscal year and remain confident in the value of owning iconic professional sports franchises.”
The hunger for live events is manifesting in other sectors, too. The video game industry has been booming amid record merger/investment activity. Now, after two years of virtualized everything, the industry’s conferences, esports tournaments and pro leagues are bouncing back in a big way, said Josh Swartz, CEO of gamer-focused talent-management agency Loaded.
“There’s a ton of pent-up demand to socialize in person,” Swartz said. “And we’re seeing that already (with) just a couple of live events that are happening (in the first quarter of) this year that have been extremely well attended. That probably bodes well for live-event operators in general.”
Even a decidedly virtual company such as Netflix
The Arcane event took place in a forbidding Victorian-style former factory in South Los Angeles, turning it into a steampunk recreation of the anime series inspired by characters in Riot Games’ League of Legends. Live performers in costume interacted with fans in dramatic settings from the show’s key scenes, sending fans on scavenger hunts while dishing out custom drinks and merchandise.
The definition of “live event” continues to evolve as well, as new kinds of cross-platform creators fuse together music, sound, images, video, live performers, props and such technologies as projection mapping and augmented reality.
Such immersive live experiences are manifesting frequently in the art world, where new generations of tech-savvy artists are building new kinds of creative experiences that bring together filmmaking, live theater, sculpture, even architecture.
One of the most successful such marriages of technology, performance and art is Lighthouse Immersive’s experiences built around the works of Vincent Van Gogh, Frida Kahlo and Gustav Klimt.
After a hugely successful pre-pandemic run in Paris, the Immersive Van Gogh experience came to North America two years ago and since has sold 5 million tickets at about two dozen venues from Toronto to Los Angeles, Houston to New York, said Corey Ross, Lighthouse’s co-founder and producer. Yet another Lighthouse venue opens this week in San Antonio, Texas.
“Our artform animates traditional artworks to create an entirely new way of experiencing art, one suited for 21st Century sensibilities,” said Ross. “Our creative team uses art as source material the way a jazz musician might take a classic song and make it their own. Vincent van Gogh was a natural artist to feature first because his work is almost animated in and of itself, and we find that patrons come back multiple times to view our programming.”
The “Revolutionaries” experiences feature swirling iconic imagery projected on walls, floors and ceilings with a rich mix of music, a fin de siecle-era “bar,” merchandise store, and more.
“The public was been primed for an experience like this in the last few years as the pandemic stifled people and kept them indoors and isolated,” Ross said. “The beauty of our business model is that even during the height of the pandemic, people were confident that they could experience our attractions safely, unlike a more traditional theater or cinema setting where you sit elbow-to-elbow with strangers. Our immersive shows present a cross-section of art and technology and create something entirely new, an entertainment and art experience unlike any other.”
It’s an example of ways the live-event industry has found to survive and even thrive during the pandemic’s strictures, taking advantage of how fans are open to a much wider range of experiences, said Vito Iaia, a founding partner of Impact Museums, which runs several of Lighthouse’s venues, and also is developing other kinds of immersive experiences involving music, movies and more.
“Coming out of the pandemic, the appetite for live events is higher than it’s ever been,” said Iaia, who spent eight years with Ticketmaster and Live Nation and was Chief Revenue Officer for MLB’s Washington Nationals. “I think you’re seeing a refinement in the ways fans are consuming live entertainment. One of the things we’re chipping away at is the question of ‘What are we going to do with the family this weekend?’ This is still a bit of a black box for a lot of families.”
That means many people are looking for more to do than just attending the same set of traditional live events, Iaia said. Increasingly, fans also want these newer immersive experiences to be more readily available, in an always-there kind of way instead of, say, a concert tour every three years by a favorite performer.
“Five years ago, this stuff basically didn’t exist,” Iaia said. “There were very few instances of it that you would define as properly immersive. Then what happened during the pandemic was a proper sea change in the dynamic of what is live entertainment. I think what’s started getting challenged now, with immersive exploding the way it has, is having that experience available to you pretty much when you want it in a live way.”
The shift in demand since the pandemic has been pretty dramatic. Iaia cited third-party analysts who, pre-pandemic, estimated a total addressable market of live immersive experiences at somewhere between $1 billion and $2 billion. Now, those analysts’ TAM estimates are five times bigger.
“With the massive hunger in the world for the increased consumption of live events, our role as a scale partner of great compelling shows like Immersive Van Gogh has never been more important,” Iaia said. “We are working with the top IP holders and creative producers to scale experiences globally and to ensure we reach the largest audience possible. Fans want to consume experiential content on their own schedule and their own terms where they are participants in the experience. It is the future of live entertainment, and we believe we are at the vortex of that trend.”
Across the art world, creative minds are embracing the new tools for many kinds of temporary experiences at art fairs, galleries, museums and beyond.
During this winter’s Frieze LA art fair, the Spring/Break Art Show satellite event partnered with Skylight Studios to find “exhibition-atypical locales,” including a 30,000-sq.-ft. former factory in Culver City that hosted 50 immersive installations during Frieze’s weekend-long run. Among the participants was Search Party star Alia Shawkat, who created new art pieces live in a “working studio” alongside childhood pal and artist Maria Gajardo.
Musician and cultural curator David Byrne is promising “an entirely new form of theater” when his latest show, “Theater of the Mind,” opens in New York’s York Street Yards beginning Aug. 31.
And in late June in New York, photographer/agency owner Erica Simone and artist Lena Viddo are staging Natural Intelligence as a satellite experience tied to the big blockchain conference NFT.NYC at the Waterline Square development. Previously, the pair had staged other versions of their Wonder Fair Art experiences over three years of Art Basel Miami.
Simone triangulates the sensibility of Natural Intelligence as “Web3 meets Burning Man meets climate change/sustainability.” The event, which will run from June 20 to June 23, will feature the work of 30 to 50 artists, plus musicians, DJs, chefs and more.
Simone said she and Viddo hope to tap into a widespread desire to get out, have fun, and experience one-of-a-kind events this summer.
“I think people are really craving it,” Simone said. “I can really feel it. They’ve been cooped up for two years. People are going crazy. A lot of people in my community aren’t necessarily artists. It’s just a whole new thing. And people realize this is actually fun and super exciting. They’re tech guys. You’d never think they’re the kind of men who put nail polish on and go to parties.”