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Are You Ready To Rock? Music Festivals Prepare For A 2021 Comeback

Some concert organizers are hoping to bring back festivals this year. Above, a shot of the crowd at Coachella 2019.
Some concert organizers are hoping to bring back festivals this year. Above, a shot of the crowd at Coachella 2019.

James Donald Estopinal — also known as Disco Donnie — has been putting on electronic-music shows for nearly 30 years, and knows that they take a long time to put together. "You can't start a month out," Estopinal says. "You really have to be going full bore is going to happen in the end." Earlier this year, when he saw how vaccinations and hospitalizations were trending, he decided that April would be the time to put on Ubbi Dubbi.

Spring is usually the beginning of the music festival season — but things are different once again this year. The giant behemoth SXSW was online-only again this month. Coachella reportedly has been moved to 2022. No word yet on whether Lollapalooza is happening at all.

Still, many festival organizers hope that the vaccine rollout will make people comfortable enough to attend large gatherings this year — in a decidedly not socially distanced sort of way.

"It's gonna be a real festival," Estopinal says about Ubbi Dubbi, which presently is scheduled to take place April 24-25 at the Texas Motorplex in Ennis, Texas, 40 miles south of downtown Dallas — making it among the earliest music festivals set for this year. "You're going to be moving around, but you'll also have space if you don't feel comfortable," he adds.

To assure safety, Estopinal is promoting a reduced capacity, partnering with CLEAR for health-tracking services, and requiring masks. He plans to have masking reminders played over the PAs, and will ask artists to make similar announcements to the audience. But, he admits, with a crowd this size, enforcement will be a challenge. There'll be a portion of the audience who won't wear masks, he concedes, "but we're gonna try."

That's what worries Dr. Bijal Balasubramanian, epidemiologist and dean of the UTHealth School of Public Health in Dallas. Ubbi Dubbi likely will draw a younger crowd, with dancing, singing and drinking involved. "Those are the sort of things where it's much harder to get people to follow the rules after a little while," she says.

"It doesn't seem safe to do it just yet," she cautions, "but we're so close."

Steve Adelman is vice president of the Event Safety Alliance, a trade group that provides safety education and resources. April is a little hasty, he says, but he understands the urge to get live events up and running. "It's just an aggressive opening at a time when we know every event professional has been sidelined for at least a year, and we need to get back to work," he says.

Texas recently opened vaccination up to all adults, as of March 29. Adelman says the level of risk involved with Ubbi Dubbi will depend on how many attendees will be vaccinated, come show time.

Chad Johnson is keeping a close eye on vaccination rates, as well. He's co-founder of Furnace Fest, a punk and hardcore festival scheduled to take place in Alabama in September. Johnson is banking that by that time, the CDC will have given the green light for non-socially distanced live gatherings.

"There's no way to do this festival socially distanced," he says, "at least not in a way that anybody would remember enjoying this kind of music, jumping on each other, screaming over each other, crawling around each other's bodies."

Should things not proceed as anticipated, Johnson is fine with postponing again. "We told all of our customers this: we will postpone again, we'll offer you full refunds again," he says. "Yes, it would suck; we'd be disappointed, we'd be discouraged. But we've overcome a lot more."

The live-music industry obviously has been hit hard by the pandemic — but so has everyone else. That's something Chamie McCurry has been thinking about. She's the chief marketing officer at Danny Wimmer Presents, which puts on a number of festivals throughout the country. Some DWP events already have been pushed until next year; others are slated to go on, such as Inkcarceration in Ohio, planned for September.

McCurry says she and her colleagues think constantly about two issues: "Number one, what is the consumer's emotional state going to be coming back to large scale events? And number two, what is their financial state going to be?" she says. While sales have been going well, it's unclear whether audience members will be mentally prepared to throw down like they used to at fests like the ones DWP puts on.

Estopinal, meanwhile, is worried about the opposite: that people will have so much pent up energy, they'll overextend themselves. "My concern is people partying like it's 1999," he says.

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