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Coronavirus Concerns Stymie Live Music Performances And SXSW

Due to coronavirus fears, violinist Renaud Capuçon and the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra play for an empty hall in Lausanne, Switzerland on March 4. (The concert was broadcast by Swiss public media.)
Fabrice Coffrini
AFP via Getty Images
Due to coronavirus fears, violinist Renaud Capuçon and the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra play for an empty hall in Lausanne, Switzerland on March 4. (The concert was broadcast by Swiss public media.)

On Wednesday night in Switzerland, the French violinist Renaud Capuçon and the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra played a full concert — to an empty hall.

Their performance, which was canceled after the Swiss government prohibited all gatherings of 1000 or more people, was broadcast by Swiss public television and radio. It's just one of the ways that performers and organizations worldwide are grappling with the uncertainties of the coronavirus, and how to handle large gatherings of audiences in close quarters.

The Western classical music industry is now heavily reliant upon East Asia, and specifically China, as crucial consumer markets. In recent weeks, the Boston Symphony Orchestra has cancelled a tour of Asia and Washington, D.C.'s National Symphony Orchestra has cancelled three concerts in China. New York's famed Juilliard School, which is scheduled to open a satellite conservatory in Tianjin, China this autumn, announced at the end of January that it has suspended all in-person auditions and other admissions-related activities in China and Asia indefinitely.

The list of American musicians and institutions who have already canceled tours or postponed other activities due to coronavirus concerns covers a broad range, including Green Day and Khalid. Even more directly affected are Asian and European musicians who can't perform in their home markets, like the megastar K-pop band BTS — who have canceled April dates in their home city of Seoul. In Japan, prime minister Shinzo Abe made a request on Feb. 26 that all large cultural and sports events be postponed or canceled across the country; the wide-ranging Hong Kong Arts Festival, which was supposed to take place across February and March with performers from all over the world, was canceled entirely.

Similarly, the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra canceled all of its performances for February and March due to the health crisis; its musicians have been posting concerts, master classes and audio programs online, in part to help locals beat the tedium of being quarantined. In Italy, Milan's famed La Scala opera house has canceled a range of upcoming performances, including one featuring conductor Zubin Mehta and the Richard Strauss opera Salome.

The global reach and frenetic pace of contemporary artists' careers is having an effect as well. Earlier this week, New York's Metropolitan Opera requested that all visiting artists who are arriving from countries already deeply affected by the COVID-19 outbreak — including Italy, China and South Korea — to self-quarantine for 14 days upon arrival in New York before beginning rehearsals at the house.

One of the biggest annual K-pop events in the U.S., a concert sponsored by the Korea Times Media Group that was supposed to feature at least a dozen Korean music acts and which was scheduled to take place at the Hollywood Bowl on Apr. 25, has been postponed indefinitely.

But cities that host large-scale music and entertainment gatherings are loathe to cancel events that can be big economic drivers — and event organizers and local government officials are grappling with those decisions very publicly.

For example, on Tuesday afternoon, Miami mayor Carlos Giménez wrote on Twitter: "We're not canceling any major events in Miami-Dade County, such as Ultra, following the guidance from Florida's surgeon general on #coronavirus." He was referring to the popular, annual Ultra Music Festival, which is scheduled for March 20 to 22, and which last year drew about 170,000 EDM fans. By Wednesday, however, the organizers' thinking seemed to evolve, and Ultra is, according to the Miami Herald, on the brink of being canceled. (As of publishing time, Ultra had not made an official announcement.) Strikingly, a sister event in the United Arab Emirates — Ultra Abu Dhabi, which was scheduled to take place this Thursday and Friday — had already been canceled due to coronavirus concerns.

The annual SXSW conference and festivals in Austin, Texas, encompasses technology, music and film — and drew over 417,000 attendees in 2019, according to organizers' estimates. They say that this year's events, scheduled for March 13 to 22, are still on. (In past years, NPR Music has had a significant presence at SXSW, and as of publication, a range of NPR journalists and employees are scheduled to participate this year as well.)

On Monday, the organizers put out a statement saying, "SXSW is working closely on a daily basis with local, state, and federal agencies to plan for a safe event. ... The health of the Austin community and those who visit our city is our highest priority." At a press conference on March 4, Austin Public Health's Dr. Mark Escott said, "There is no evidence that closing SXSW or other activities is going to make the community safer." Later in his comments, Escott said, "One of the concerns is if we shut down — or make the recommendation to shut down — SXSW, people will still continue to come here. They will travel, they will still do what they were going to do, but without that organizational structure that SXSW provides."

Nevertheless, an online petition asking SXSW to cancel this year's event has, as of Thursday afternoon, attracted more than 50,000 signatures. And a number of prominent tech and media companies — including Facebook, Twitter, Intel, Vevo, Mashable, Amazon Studios, TikTok, Netflix and WarnerMedia (which owns CNN and HBO, among other properties) — have all decided to withdraw from SXSW this year, due to coronavirus fears.

So have some notable individual speakers, including Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and best-selling author Tim Ferriss. On Twitter, Ferriss explained his decision: "I love SXSW, but I don't believe the novel coronavirus can be contained, and I view an int'l event of 100K+ people as a huge risk to attendees and the entire city, given limited ICU beds, etc. I implore [Austin mayor Steve] Adler and his team to carefully evaluate the downsides. SXSW brings huge economic benefit to Austin, but possibly making Austin a hotspot for SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19, and the emergency actions and funding that would require, could make a huge event seem shortsighted."

SXSW is downplaying those absences, however — and in recent days, event organizers have announced a starry array of speakers added to its lineup, including Hillary Clinton, Rep. Adam Schiff, Katie Couric and RZA.

On a "COVID-19 attendee information" page last updated on Monday, the organizers say: "At this time, there are a handful of cancellations from participants who were traveling from China and Japan and there have been a few corporate travel bans. Other than that, the cancellations are on par from past years."

Undeniably, the event provides a massive economic boost to Austin each year — according to its own most recent analysis, SXSW was worth nearly $356 million to the city in 2019.

Audience members who have already purchased SXSW passes but who are now uncertain that they want to attend — or who are being curtailed from traveling to the United States — seem to be out of luck. According to social media posts, individuals who have requested refunds or deferrals to the 2021 edition due to coronavirus issues are being told that their 2020 tickets are nonrefundable. NPR reached out repeatedly to SXSW for comment, but organizers did not respond.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.