'The Shared Experience'
A Q&A with Knoxville promoter Ashley Capps on what he misses about live music and when — and how — he expects it to return.
by jesse fox mayshark • june 17, 2020
A concert by the band america was among the first local events canceled by the coronavirus pandemic.
The last time I saw Ashley Capps before the coronavirus pandemic hit East Tennessee, I stopped by his office at AC Entertainment in Riverview Tower on South Gay Street. It was March 4, and while alarms about the spread of the virus were being sounded elsewhere, they were still distant enough to imagine they wouldn’t completely disrupt life in Knoxville. Capps was monitoring the situation and talking to representatives of the artists he had booked to bring to the Big Ears Festival at the end of March, but he was still optimistic the event would happen.
Is anybody calling to book venues for fall tours? "No. They are not."
Two days later came the announcement that the enormous South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, had been canceled. By March 11, Capps had pulled the plug on Big Ears. Other cancellations followed, wiping out the spring cultural calendar in Knoxville and everywhere else. Bonnaroo, the music festival in Manchester, Tenn., that Capps co-founded in 2002, scrapped its normal four-day June run and optimistically rescheduled for September.
I caught up with Capps again recently, via a Zoom video call, to talk about the impact of the pandemic on the live music industry and the prospects for a return to wide-scale touring and performing.
At the beginning of this year, Capps stepped down as president at AC Entertainment, the company he founded in 1991 and sold a controlling interest in to global entertainment conglomerate Live Nation in 2016. He is now a senior director at the company, which in addition to organizing festivals is responsible for booking acts at the Bijou and Tennessee theaters in downtown Knoxville, as well as the Mill & Mine. Capps remains deeply involved in planning Big Ears, which spun off as a nonprofit organization two years ago.
This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
Compass: Let’s start with Big Ears. Where is Big Ears at right now?
AC: Wow, Big Ears. It was really interesting in many ways, because Big Ears was scheduled to happen at the end of March. We were literally on the front lines of watching this entire pandemic unfold. The real tipping point was when South by Southwest canceled on Friday, March 6. And we spent some time assessing whether we needed to cancel ourselves and had a lot of conversations over the weekend, and decided really on Monday morning that we had a shot at pulling it off. The way we were thinking at the time is, ‘It's only two and a half weeks from now. It's a much smaller event than South by (Southwest) or others, and it's all indoors, it's not a big partying crowd.’
And then by Tuesday evening, things had changed so dramatically. We had access to a lot of information that was not necessarily public here because we had artists who live in Europe, who were coming from Europe, some of our artists were literally on tour in Europe at that moment or just returning from a European tour. And we have friends, I have relatives, my wife's family — she's German, and they live in Germany and several of them are in the medical field. There was a lot of information that we were watching unfold. And you know, by Tuesday evening, I tried to go to bed at a normal time and then I woke up about midnight. And I spent from midnight until about 4 in the morning sending emails to all of the artists and managers and agents and various partners saying, you know, we're going to have to cancel this thing. That's it. That's really how quickly it had changed.
And within 24 hours, it was so obvious that there actually was not a choice. The choice would have been made for us very quickly.
Compass: So how are you planning for the next Big Ears?
AC: We have formulated a pretty exciting plan, in my opinion, that we hope to execute. We're hoping to return in March of 2021 in a somewhat expanded way with many of the artists that were scheduled for 2020. I would say, certainly of the major artists on the bill, at least 90 percent of them have indicated that they can return in March of 2021.
So we're excited about that. We also had new bookings already for 2021, so it won't be the same festival as we had planned for 2020, there will be different aspects to it. We’re even considering the possibility of splitting it into a dual weekend thing, so that we do different artists each weekend but two weekends in a row. Maybe scaled back a little bit, not four days but three.
"We're definitely excited about the future. I think the question is when the future can arrive."
That’s our hopeful plan. When we initially started outlining this plan, it was early April and it felt like we were being really safe and prudent — that, you know, things would surely be back to normal in March of 2021. I think it's fair to say that we're on the cusp at this particular point of being able to do what we want to do. So we're also looking at backup plans that could move us to weekends later in the year. And that's why we haven't officially announced anything at this point. But we're definitely excited about the future. I think the question is when the future can arrive.
Compass: Whatever form live music in general comes back in, I assume people are talking about a whole range of things in terms of how you maybe try to space out audiences or have different kinds of hygiene protections?
AC: There are a lot of very interesting discussions going on about that. I applaud anyone who is trying to come up with innovative solutions to this problem. There are a lot of interesting ideas out there, some that I think are better than others. Maybe this is just me being old school, but when it comes to concerts and festivals, for me, the artist being on a stage and playing for people is just one facet of that experience.
A concert and especially a festival is a social experience as well. It's about people coming together and having the shared experience. It's impossible for me to really imagine people doing that socially distanced. It's at least in my mind contrary to what the experience is. And it's also, unless you're doing a masked ball of some sort or another, it's impossible to imagine it being a masked experience. So for that reason, I think the health issues of this — the vaccine ideally, from what we hear from the professionals — those things are going to have to be resolved, certainly before concerts and festivals are able to be staged as we have known them in the past.
Compass: From a venue standpoint, I would imagine the notion of opening the Bijou or the Tennessee at 50 percent capacity or whatever just financially doesn't work, right?
AC: That's a really good point. We have done capacity studies of what you would be able to do at various venues with proper social distancing in place. And the economics just aren't there, ranging from what it takes to literally just pay the cost of properly staffing the venue and opening the venue, much less paying for what it costs to produce a show and what an artist expects to be paid. So there's a lot of very difficult math there.
Compass: What is the talk in the booking world? Are people out there saying, ‘Hey, we’re going on tour in September, we want to come play?’
AC: No, they are not. I think there's actually a sequence of events to think through here, but we all have a hard time wrapping our brains around it because there are so many unknowns. I think there's a tendency, sometimes I even have the tendency, to think that it's all about the time when mass gatherings are going to be safe and allowed again on any kind of substantial level. And that's just the first step. It's a very, very important first step, but it's just the first step.
"It's not financially feasible for most artists to go play a single concert. You’ve got to go out there and string together 30 or 40 dates."
Because then you have to have artists on tour. Obviously if you have people that live in the immediate region and aren't dependent upon a production team to produce their shows, there may be a possibility for some activity. But most of the activity in the live concert business is touring activity. And bands don't just decide from one day to the next that they're going on tour. There are a lot of details and logistics to put together and you know, certainly for the larger touring artists, there's a team of touring personnel that need to be put together. And then you need to book a number of cities.You've got all of these tours needing to cross state lines.
With the inconsistency from state to state at this particular point as to what is considered safe and permissible, that creates a real hurdle. Because it's not financially feasible for most artists to go play a single concert. You’ve got to go out there and string together 30 or 40 dates to, well, to make it conform to the previous model, let's put it that way. So that's going to take a while. And of course, the artists need to feel safe and comfortable with all of this too, because there's a risk, obviously, involved in touring and traveling from state to state. So there's a lot to address there.
And then I think the other unknown here is our national economic situation. Obviously a lot of people are out of work, and they're struggling to pay their rent, put food on the table. They're not really flush with funds for concert tickets. That's another very much unknown dynamic. So there are a lot of facets to figuring this out. And I think for that reason, you're probably going to see smaller local regional activity come back first. Maybe some of these new ideas like drive-in concerts will take hold. I don't know.
But I think building up to the full-on full-fledged touring model, I don’t personally see any touring really to speak of going on in 2020. It’s going to take a little bit more time for all of it to build back.
Compass: I'm sure you've seen the various Zoom and Facebook Live sessions that different musicians have done. There's been this whole burst of online activity. What are your thoughts about that? Have you enjoyed some of those? What's the gap between sitting at home in your living room watching somebody playing from their garage, or going down to see them at the Mill & Mine?
AC: I applaud anybody for trying to do whatever they can do in this particular environment, especially as an artist to connect with their audience. And sometimes I have found these things to fall a little short of the mark, but sometimes I've found them to be really engaging, surprisingly engaging at times. I think it's valuable in maintaining a certain connection with people in this difficult time.
I think people are trying to do this in an interesting and exciting and creative way. And I think when it's done that way, it's got an aspect that I think is actually interesting and compelling in its own right. It's not a replacement for the concert experience, in my opinion. It’s an interesting augmentation of that experience, if that makes any sense. It's led me to start thinking about what the potential of some of this is, even once things start being restored to normal and we're getting back to concerts. I don't mean, you know, the standard streaming of a concert. What I’ve found most interesting about the successful streams that I've enjoyed is when they actually take advantage, they embrace the format itself.