How Will New York’s Vaccine Mandate Affect Concerts?
As the Big Apple kicks off enforcement at indoor venues, a music entrepreneur offers a rare peek into some key numbers.
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Last month I headed to Citi Field to watch three rock bands I grew up on—Green Day, Weezer and Fall Out Boy—perform at the Hella Mega Tour, my first big stadium show since the Covid-19 outbreak. I was a bit apprehensive but took comfort in the fact that I’d seen a couple smaller outdoor shows without incident, thanks presumably to the vaccine I received earlier this year.
Then, a few hours before the show began, I got a startling message: Fall Out Boy wouldn’t be performing. An individual on the band’s team had tested positive. The show went on with out them; still, it felt hard to the enjoy the other sets amid the nervous energy buzzing through the ballpark along with implications for the rest of the year. If folks didn’t feel comfortable at an outdoor show, how could one enjoy music at an indoor venue? Had the Delta variant pushed us to the precipice of a March-2020-style shutdown?
Thus far, it seems the answer is … not quite. Indeed, Fall Out Boy missed three tour dates before rejoining Hella Mega, with band and crew apparently healthy. But the episode placed additional urgency on understanding the impact of New York’s new regulations, which went into full effect yesterday and require revelers to show proof of vaccination to attend indoor performances.
Personally, the vaccine mandate does makes me feel comfortable attending a concert in an enclosed space. I’ve been wondering how many people there are like me—and if there are more of us than those for whom mandates are a dealbreaker. So I called up Jabari Johnson, the founder of Colors Worldwide, purveyor of the “R&B Only” concert series, to dig deeper into the data.
Johnson has been running the company in various forms since 2014, and turned down a $1 million offer from a music giant looking to buy a big chunk of his enterprise in 2019. Since the pandemic, his revenues—which surged to $2.1 million in 2018 and presumably continued climbing—have dipped 70% year-over-year, but he’s kept Colors afloat with a combination of clever moves from livestreams to drive-in shows. And now he’s one of the independent promoters facing the Big Apple’s new Covid-19 restrictions.
“We have a show in New York coming up with the vaccine mandates,” he says. “I understand it. But at the same time, it’s like, ‘Hey, it lessens the pool of people that you can sell tickets to.’”
Tickets for Johnson’s show, a September 25th R&B Only production at Brooklyn’s Kings Theatre, went on sale before the mandate was put into place—which means the percentage of refunds requested offers a unique window into the amount of patrons deterred by the new rules.
The number: 44 refunds requested on 988 tickets sold, or about 4.5%, at the time of our interview shortly before Labor Day. And for Johnson, who usually has a no-refund policy, it’s impossible to know how many of those 44 wanted their money back for reasons other than Covid-19.
Still, that 4.5% number is a lot lower that I thought it’d be. New York is a more vaccinated place than most, but for a complex combination of reasons, inoculation rates are lower among the populations most likely to frequent R&B shows.
None of this makes it easy for independent entrepreneurs like Johnson. That said, though a few thousand dollars in returned revenue isn’t nothing—especially mid-pandemic for a bootstrapped business—I’m betting there are at least 44 cautious people out there who were on the fence about coming that will buy those tickets.* That’s what Johnson is hoping, too.
“The way our business operates is, we take every day and strive,” he says. “We listen to, and we abide by, all of the government mandates from every local municipality that we’re in … it’s just so hard to make plans. One thing I can say is that, as we’re planning our next music festival, it’s definitely going to be outdoors.”
Another metric worth considering as we head into the fall: the percentage of ticket holders who don’t show up on the day of a concert. The number usually hovers in the single digits, but during the pandemic, it’s sitting north of 20%, according to Johnson and others in his field. Though promoters don’t suffer directly from a no-show, as ticket revenue has already been collected beforehand, the downstream effects of fewer fans buying merch, food and beverages can’t be ignored.
Will no-show number dip in places like New York, where concert-goers can be more confident that they’ll be safe at concerts? Or will fears over counterfeited vaccine cards on the one hand—and anger over vaccine requirements on the other—keep turnout volatile? It’s hard to say. In the meantime, Johnson remains cautiously optimistic.
“One thing I’ve learned from Covid is to just not make any predictions,” he says. “Hopefully we just get to a place of some sort of herd immunity, and then we can just get back on to normal concerts and normal events.”
*Note: The Kings Theatre show has now sold 1,137 tickets and received 202 refund requests, the vast majority of which came many days after New York’s vaccine mandates were announced.