SPAC Should Convert Its Massive Parking Lot Into A Drive-In Concert Venue This Summer (Opinion)

When the nonprofit arm of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC) announced on May 18 that it had canceled its classical season for the first time in 53 years—that there would be no summer residency by the New York City Ballet or Philadelphia Orchestra, as there had been since 1967—my heart sank. For one, I was really hoping to see one of my childhood heroes, Yo-Yo Ma, play at SPAC again (I hadn’t caught him there in decades). Also, it was just another in a seemingly endless stream of bummer news stories we had to report over the last few months. This has become the spring of cancellations. And there will be more to come, for sure.

But that was only one-half of the heartbreak: Live Nation, which rents out SPAC each summer and hosts a schedule of mainstream rock, hip-hop and country acts there, has had a number of its top-selling acts pull out, too. The Lumineers, Dave Matthews Band, Bob Dylan and Dead & Company—even Nickelback!—have either outright canceled their performances there or postponed them until 2021.

Which begs the question, with no classical season or Live Nation shows at SPAC in the coming months, will this be the summer the music died?

I don’t think it has to or should be, and there may be a solution. Earlier this month, an old friend of mine, who is the head of music and promotions at the legendary London jazz venue Ronnie Scott’s, shared a link on Facebook to a blog post, which cited a Forbes article about a Danish city that had hosted a live rock concert, drive-in-movie-style. A sold-out crowd of 500 fans watched a popular Danish singer-songwriter perform on a previously erected concert stage, all from the safety of their closed, parked cars. The show was transmitted over FM radio waves—and fans could interact with the artist onstage via the Zoom app. The lot had designated parking spaces for each car, with a “front row” and “back row.” (It’s not clear whether there was tiered pricing for the front-row cars versus the back-row ones.) The next day, the stage was converted into a movie screen, and in came another round of cars. Genius, right?

Apparently, the idea has already made it stateside. According to Billboard, drive-in shows have already been hosted in California, Texas, Tennessee and New Hampshire, and there are a few booked for June in other states. That show in Tennessee featured country superstar Keith Urban, who played a private show for frontline medical workers on May 15.

All of this got me thinking: What if SPAC opened its two, massive parking lots, which sit on either side of Route 50, to a socially distanced summer concert series, with fans sitting safely inside their cars? Performers would have to be either local solo artists or groups that stood a safe six feet away from one another onstage. (I can imagine that there are major recording artists who live in the Woodstock or Kingston area that could make the short trek up to Saratoga and not cause too much of a stir, too.) And it could be any artist, really: singer-songwriters and rock bands; dance troupes and string quartets; hip-hop artists, metal bands and pianists. You name it. It could be the most eclectic summer music series in Upstate New York since Woodstock—without all the bad trips and dumpster fires.

For those concerned with safety, the Saratoga Springs Police Department could have a presence there to make sure people were abiding by social distancing rules, and socially distanced lines could be formed at properly spaced out port-o-johns. SPAC could help recoup some of its lost revenue by selling “tickets” (say, $50 a car or $100 an SUV); and it could fundraise between sets. Local restaurants could partner with SPAC to offer car-side delivery at the show, or socially distanced food trucks, with monitored lines in the spillover lot on the other side of Route 50. And in that same lot, local boutiques could set up properly distanced stalls selling clothing, jewelry and more. On the weeks that there wasn’t a concert, the parking lot could be converted into a drive-in movie theater or host a rotating cast of farmers’ markets or record sales.

Just as shutting down Broadway would, this, too, would take a little creativity and synergy between our local government, small businesses and SPAC. But what we need more than anything right now is unity. And this has that written all over it.

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