Big concerts by summer 2021? Ottawa promoter weighs in on the forecast for live events

Ali Shafaee looks into his crystal ball, he sees Canada following the pace of recovery set by the U.S. market.

Author of the article:Lynn Saxberg Ottawa Citizen

OTTAWA -- December 20, 2020 -- Ali Shafaee, director of DNA Live, Sunday December 20, 2020 at Enchanted holiday drive-through, on the grounds of the former Karters Korners.  ASHLEY FRASER, POSTMEDIA
Ali Shafaee, director of DNA Live, Sunday December 20, 2020 at Enchanted holiday drive-through, on the grounds of the former Karters’ Korners. PHOTO BY ASHLEY FRASER /Postmedia

The short-term forecast for live events in 2021 begins with a flurry of winter livestreaming that gives way to a spring thaw of “hybrid” happenings, a term that has come to refer to events with a limited in-person audience along with an online livestream.

That’s the pattern that evolved during the final few months of 2020, and once we get through the current lockdown, the model is likely to continue for a few more months, simply because it’s the safest way to operate as the pandemic drags on.

A few highlights are already on the livestream calendar: Powerhouse Toronto singer Samantha Martin and her band, Delta Sugar, which features Ottawa guitarist Curtis Chaffey as musical director, kick off the National Arts Centre’s 2021 edition of the Fridays at the Fourth series on Jan. 8 with a free, live broadcast from Belleville, while Ottawa’s hip-hop rockers BLAKDENIM join the NAC’s livestream action on Jan. 22. 

Not to be outdone is Chamberfest, which recently announced an eight-show, livestream series featuring artists that push the boundaries of the chamber ensemble, such as the brilliant Indigenous tenor/composer Jeremy Dutcher, who performs March 22.

Further into the year, as we approach the summer season, the best-case scenario finds promoters confident in getting back to booking big, in-person shows and festivals without capacity restrictions because the vaccine rollout is working to prevent further spread of COVID-19. Sounds awesome, right? 

Not to be too optimistic, but there are signs coming from music-industry executives in the U.S. that this timeframe might be realistic. Said Live Nation president Joe Berchtold in a recent interview with CNBC: “It continues to be our expectation that by next summer, we’re back with our major outdoor shows — our amphitheaters here in the U.S., festivals globally.” 

When Ali Shafaee looks into his crystal ball, the Ottawa promoter sees Canada following the pace of recovery set by the U.S. market. It’s also the Americans who are likely to establish conditions for entry to a show, said the director of DNA Live in an interview. If they want proof of vaccination in order to buy a ticket, for example, Canadian promoters are sure to follow suit. 

Shafaee is already considering the options for DNA’s marquis event, the electronic-dance music festival Escapade, which sold out before it was cancelled this year. It’s slated to return to Lansdowne Park on its usual weekend — June 18-20 — with the same lineup of headliners (The Chainsmokers, Martin Garrix and more), plus a Friday kickoff with Steve Aoki that’s offered as an exclusive bonus to the people who kept their 2020 tickets instead of getting a refund. 

“If you ask me what I would put in place for Escapade, I would probably put in a requirement for vaccination or a rapid-test model before you come in,” Shafaee said. “If you don’t want to do that, then there’s probably 10 other people lined up behind you that will do it.” 

Wesley Clover Parks concert series, 0821 concerts Photo by Matthew Perry. (the band on stage is the Reklaws)
The Reklaws on stage at the Wesley Clover Parks concert series. (Photo by Matthew Perry) jpg

He saw the pent-up demand for live events firsthand this year. DNA, in collaboration with various partners, including Live Nation and Yuk Yuk’s, promoted more than 100 events in 2020, most of them taking place on a big, temporary stage set up at Wesley Clover Parks in front of an audience of people in their cars. 

Between June and November, there were drive-in movies, concerts, yoga classes and comedy shows on the grounds of the equestrian centre in the west end of Ottawa. Shafaee’s numbers show these events attracted more than 70,000 attendees, created more than 100 jobs in the beleaguered event industry and provided support to at least two dozen local businesses. 

What’s more, almost all of the events sold out. “If they didn’t sell out, they came close,” Shafaee said. “It definitely proved there was an appetite for live shows during a pandemic.”

But even he couldn’t have predicted the hottest ticket in this wacky year. Of the handful of touring shows co-produced by DNA, the most popular was not electro superstar Deadmau5, blues-rockers The Sheepdogs, or even country chart-topper Dean Brody.

Instead, the residents of Ottawa-Gatineau clamoured to see Canada’s Drag Race, a show featuring reality-TV drag queens in all their primped and preening glory.The Ottawa stop of a four-city Canadian tour consisted of four sold-out shows over two days in October, and could have handled more.

“I knew the show was big and I knew we have a diverse community here,” Shafaee said. “But I was definitely surprised that it ended up being four shows, and to be honest, if we had the availability, we might have been able to do more.”

Two pop-up events organized by DNA were also wildly successful, including Deadwood, a spooky Halloween drive winding through the Wesley Clover campgrounds, and Enchanted, an interactive drive-thru holiday experience set up on the site of Karters’ Korners in Stittsville, complete with special effects, live actors and a special mailbox where your letter is guaranteed to reach Santa. 

These initiatives, coupled with the government-funded aid programs, helped DNA get through the year and position itself for a recovery of the event sector. Shafaee said one of the biggest challenges was to keep workers from fleeing to other industries, taking their specialized technical expertise with them. 

“If you don’t have a job, you’ve probably moved on to something else,” he said. “And if you’ve moved on or changed careers, then there is a possibility you don’t come back to the industry when it’s back up and running. So it was really important to us to keep the people that we have so that when we come back we’re not starting from the beginning. We’ll be able to roll right back into what we were doing.”

Still, he acknowledges that June may be a bit early to plan for a major festival. July or August may be more realistic, and even then, event-goers are probably still going to have to wear masks. 

“It’s really hard to predict 2021 when we’re going through what’s potentially the worst part of our pandemic right now,” Shafaee said. “But given the information we have in front of us now, I feel confident that we’ll be able to do a non-drive-in version of live music by July or August. And if we’re not there by then, then we will come back with the same initiative (at Wesley Clover Parks) because it was extremely popular.”

In the meantime, watch for a few more pop-up, sound-and-light events in the New Year. Safe and entertaining experiences are being designed for locations in Kanata, Orleans and the ByWard Market, Shafaee said.

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