2020 has been a historically bad year for the live events industry.
The majority of concerts were canceled in an effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19, and many music venues have gone out of business while overall revenue has plummeted. Pollstar recently estimated that the North American live events industry lost out on $30 billion in potential revenue this year, and stars like Lil Baby say they missed out on upward of “40 to 50 million dollars” due to canceled tours.
Not everyone is having a down year, though. In some states, it became legal to put on shows again after a brief shutdown, and concert promoters, like Florida’s Yea Im Melo, saw this as an opportunity.
“I honestly feel like I had my best year during this pandemic,” Melo tells Complex. “This pandemic is when I had my best, most successful events.”
Melo’s website describes him as “the #1 source of urban nightlife entertainment in Orlando, Florida.” He threw shows in 2020 featuring the likes of YoungBoy Never Broke Again, Mulatto, Moneybagg Yo, Pooh Shiesty, Jackboy, and Hotboii, so the claim might be accurate. But he’s done it during a year when mass gatherings have been criticized by the public as irresponsible superspreader events. In August, South Dakota’s 10-day Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, where Smash Mouth played (screaming, “fuck that COVID shit”) reportedly led to a surge of over 260,000 COVID cases and an estimated $12.2 billion in public health costs. And there are numerous other instances of mass gatherings becoming breeding grounds for positive cases, like a South Korean man whose club-hopping infected 54 people in May.
When asked how he feels about the belief that holding concerts is a bad idea right now, Melo says he “respects” the backlash. But he retorts, “Everybody’s got the option to not come. It's not like the government is forcing everybody to go to events.”
His sentiment is a reflection of the social climate in some Southern states. While many states across the country have essentially forced people to stay home through curfews, lockdown orders, and across-the-board shutdowns of nonessential establishments, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp have drawn ire for keeping their states “open.” Since the beginning of the year, Florida citizens have suffered over 1.2 million cases of COVID-19 and and over 21,300 reported deaths, while Georgia has been hit with nearly 615,000 cases and over 10,300 deaths.
Despite the widespread deaths, however, Kemp and DeSantis have chosen to prioritize the economy in their states. Their decisions have led to risky opportunities for small businesses and for entrepreneurs like Melo and the artists who perform on the somehow still-bustling Southern concert circuit.
A lot of promoters are just chilling, which I get. But I look at it the other way around. This is the perfect time to throw parties, because a lot of people are willing to hang [out] right now.” - Yea Im Melo
Before the pandemic, Melo says he usually put on shows on a monthly basis. Then March’s nationwide lockdown halted all nonessential businesses in his state, including the nightlife industry. Like many Americans conditioned to prioritize productivity, he used the time to map out the next steps of his career. Melo reveals he planned out roughly 50 events for the future, even though he didn’t yet know when he would get the chance to hold them.
Once Florida entered Phase Two of lockdown in June to accommodate the opening of movie theaters, bars, and casinos, he had free reign to hold events at 50% capacity. In the very first week, he realized how many people were eager to party. So many attendees bought tickets to his first event that the club couldn’t hold everyone, so he booked another club for the spillover, holding two 50% capacity parties in one night.
Melo points out that many Florida promoters aren’t holding shows, which has allowed him to fill the breach with events. “A lot of promoters are just chilling, which I get,” he says. “But I look at it the other way around. This is the perfect time to throw parties, because a lot of people are willing to hang [out] right now.”
Mask-wearing is mandatory to get into Melo’s events, per Florida guidelines, but he concedes that “just being realistic, nobody's going to keep the mask on” in the venue. Melo acknowledges that there are lots of people who feel like it’s irresponsible to hold mass gatherings during a pandemic, but he believes he’s merely fulfilling a need.
“If the clubs were just completely empty, I wouldn't be doing this,” he contends.
In September, DeSantis lifted all restrictions on businesses and claimed that "every business has the right to operate," because “you can't just say no” to business owners. Kemp’s November press release about COVID-19 urged residents, “Wash your hands, wear a mask, watch your distance… By taking these simple steps, we will protect lives—and livelihoods.” Their decision to keep businesses open for the sake of “livelihood” has created a climate in which, even for nonessential workers, the pandemic isn't a reason to stay in the house; it’s merely an occupational hazard to work around.
Throughout the year, there have been persistent reminders on social media that the nightlife scene in Atlanta has continued despite the pandemic. Footage from several star-studded Atlanta events this year has gone viral, from T.I., 21 Savage, Lil Baby, and Mulatto’s birthday parties to Gucci Mane and Jeezy’s Club Compound party following their Verzuz battle.
“This COVID sh*t is real. But since I’m up and coming and it was such a great opportunity for me, I couldn't miss out. Even though I had that fear.” - Florida Boy Rasco
Atlanta artist Lotto Savage hasn’t performed at any concerts in 2020, but he says he’s done four club walkthroughs in the Atlanta area. The Slaughter Gang rapper says he’s willing to do shows at this point because he and his peers are ready to get “back to normal” with their touring.
“Everybody that I talk to [in the industry] is ready to go back,” he says. “They’re ready for everything to open back up in different states. They’re losing money, just sitting. The companies [are] losing money, the labels are losing money, and the artists are losing money.”
Melo spoke to a similar desperation among artists during our conversation, bluntly saying that, from his experience, “Everybody's taking dates, bro.”
In November, footage of a packed Mulatto show at Valdosta, Georgia’s D’Truth Nightclub went viral. Artist Zé Taylor spoke for many by chiding that, “Any ‘celeb’ doing shit like this during a pandemic should be ashamed.” The show was shut down by fire marshals, but not before upstart Georgia artist SlawWay Dee Will performed an opening set at the concert.
SlawWay Dee Will says he recently started taking rap seriously, and his D’Truth set was one of his first-ever performances. He acknowledges that the online backlash to clips of his live shows got to him “at first” and he was unsure if he wanted to continue performing, but the amount of artists doing shows influenced his decision to keep taking dates.
“More things started opening back up, so it's kind of normal,” he says. On Christmas, Dee Will opened for Boosie in Tallahassee, Florida, and he’s hosting a New Year’s Eve event in Atlanta on Dec. 31.
Up-and-coming artist Janae Music experienced the night-and-day difference in the way American cities are handling the pandemic when she moved from Washington, D.C., to Atlanta in September. “People [in Atlanta were] looking at me crazy because I had a mask on,” she remembers. Janae says she networked so well at small Atlanta events that she was eventually offered to open for Mulatto and Young Dolph at Cosmopolitan Premier Lounge in Decatur. Now, she looks back at this period as an opportunity to succeed against the odds—and against the COVID-19 curve.
“Even though it was COVID, even though it’s these precautions... For me, I'm like, ‘Look, I got to do what I got to do, because it's the grind,’” Janae says. “If you really want it, you’re going to do what you’ve got to do.”
“I can’t see an instance with me stopping. I’m definitely going to follow all the guidelines. But I’m going to keep pushing forward. I can’t keep my life on hold. A lot of people are depending on me.” - Yea Im Melo
Janae says that she asked the Premier Lounge about its safety precautions before attending. "‘So where am I going to be at during the show? I got to be in the crowd? Is there a dressing room?’” she recalls asking. There was no dressing room, but she says she stood in a VIP area, secluded from the rest of the mostly maskless crowd. Janae admits that the move was risky, but she believes it was worth it.
“It was a great time opening up for some great artists,” she says. “The energy was crazy. I was surprised at how many people were there. But they’re sayin’ that Atlanta isn't closed down, really.”
Florida Boy Rasco, a rapper who owes his name to his home state, says he had a similarly rewarding experience when he opened up for Rod Wave in October at the Central Florida Fairgrounds. At the top of 2020, Rasco secured a weekly spot to open up for acts at the Soundbar Orlando venue, but the shows haven’t occurred because of the pandemic. He says he did think twice about taking the Rod Wave performance at the Fairgrounds because of the pandemic, but he recalls prioritizing his career over his fear.
“This COVID shit is real,” Rasco says over the phone. “But since I’m up and coming and it was such a great opportunity for me, I couldn't miss out. Even though I had that fear.”
He tells Complex that he’s seen growth in his fanbase on Spotify and YouTube since performing at the Rod Wave show. When asked if he’d continue to perform, he responds, “If the opportunity presents itself, I’m always the one to take opportunity.”
The experiences of Rasco, Janae, and Dee Will all reflect the lengths to which emerging artists will go for the sake of their careers. Anyone involved in a mass gathering is complicit in potentially spreading the virus, and all three artists acknowledge the threat of COVID, but they still feel like they’re doing what’s best for them.
“For me, this is something that I really want, and I actually enjoy performing,” Janae says. “Performing is actually therapeutic for me, and it's kind of necessary. Given the opportunity and the right circumstances, I don't think that I'm going to say no.”
Dee Will says that he’ll stop performing if he “sees a lot of places starting to shut back down.” But for now, apparently, the show goes on in Florida and Georgia.
The situation is different in other major cities in the United States. San Diego rhymer Yung Hop has refused to perform all year, despite hearing of several underground shows that have popped up in his city. His performance at an SOB x RBE show in Santa Cruz, California, was canceled at the start of the pandemic, and he turned down a performance in Rosarito, Mexico, because the safety restrictions were lackluster.
Yung Hop remembers asking what protocols were in place at the show in Mexico, and he was told, “They’re just going to do temperature checks at the door, half capacity, no masks.” He adds, “I was like, ‘I don't know about all that.’”
Yung Hop says he understands the perspective of artists willing to perform in those conditions, but he feels that the risk doesn’t outweigh the potential reward. “That’s how I felt, too, [but] there could be 200 people there, and then one person has [COVID] and everybody could potentially get it,” he points out. “I have family that I see frequently and they're high-risk, so that really plays into my decisions.”
Dilemmas like these reflect the reality of many Americans’ decision-making process in 2020. Most governors have saved citizens from themselves with lockdown orders that take away their agency to hold nonessential events, but other states have left the decision up to the people. And in the “land of opportunity,” people will often take risks in their own self-interest.
The collective response to the COVID-19 crisis provides a glimpse into American individualism. Other countries are already lifting lockdown orders, packing sporting events, and returning to offices by the end of 2020. But the U.S. is still reeling, and infection rates are higher now than they were in March. Many in the American workforce regard risking their health for their careers as a badge of honor, and citizens are taught to pursue happiness in lieu of everything else, including the health of fellow citizens. The government has refused to offer meaningful financial aid or relieve rent payments for its citizens, so some people—including up-and-coming artists and concert promoters—feel like they have to ply their trade to survive.
At this point, despite the risks, Melo says the only thing that would keep him from putting on shows is another Florida shutdown. “I can’t see an instance with me stopping,” he says. “I’m definitely going to follow all the guidelines. But I’m going to keep pushing forward. I can’t keep my life on hold. A lot of people are depending on me.”
As the concerts continue on, and their profiles rise, so does the COVID curve. Only in America.