Could SPAC Host a Shortened, Midsummer Live Nation Season? (Updated)

Though Saratoga Race Course has already gotten what looks like the green light from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to open at a limited capacity this coming summer, Saratoga Springs’ other major entertainment venue, the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC), is still awaiting word of its summer season’s fate.

When the governor made the announcement in February that some venues would be allowed to open at reduced capacity, the venues on the list were those that included “assigned seating” like the state’s sports stadiums and racetracks. (This after the governor successfully allowed thousands of football fans to watch a Buffalo Bills playoff game at Bills Stadium in Buffalo without incident.) SPAC wasn’t on the list, though, seemingly because only about a fifth of its 25,000-plus seating capacity is “assigned” or inside its amphitheater. The remainder is spread out over the venue’s sprawling lawn, where social distancing is a lot more difficult to enforce.

Of course, SPAC’s classical season is also at the mercy of the Philadelphia Orchestra and New York City Ballet, two world-class arts organizations that could decide to deem their summer residencies there unsafe anyway (last summer’s was canceled due to COVID). For example, how would orchestra members be able to set up in a socially distanced manner on the main stage, if at all? Normally, an orchestra has sets of two musicians per stand for most instrument groupings, such as violins or woodwinds, that are certainly not separated by six feet of space. This prompted SPAC President and CEO Elizabeth Sobol to note, in an open letter to the Saratoga community late last month, that she did not “yet know when we will be allowed to open—nor, more importantly, at what capacity. Will we be allowed to use the amphitheater? If so, for 500 people, 1,500? Or some other number?” Sobol added: “What we can tell you is that all winter our operations team has been creating various scenarios so that whatever the number ends up being, we will be ready to execute a plan with strictly enforced guidelines to guarantee your safety—and to bring our beloved resident companies back to their Saratoga home.”

That said, Governor Cuomo has since announced that arts and entertainment venues would be able to reopen at 33 percent capacity, beginning on April 2, paving the way for a potential reduced capacity classical season or Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival at SPAC. The governor said that venues would be able to host up to 100 people indoors and up to 200 outdoors. Those capacity limits would increase if guests were able to prove a negative COVID test before entry, with up to 150 people allowed indoors and up to 500 outdoors. Social distancing and masking would be required in all instances.

SPAC’s Live Nation season, on the other hand, is a different story altogether. The national events promoter effectively rents out SPAC as a venue each summer (2020 excluded), using its grounds and amphitheater to host a lineup that includes summer mainstays like the Dave Matthews Band and other national pop acts. (Obviously, it’s also a major source of revenue for the nonprofit, one that it lost in full last season.) Live Nation, whose concert revenue was down nearly $1.5 billion in 2020, currently isn’t hosting any concerts anywhere in the US—but that could change as early as July 2021, said its CEO, Michael Rapino, on an earnings call last week. (That would be just in time for the DMB’s rescheduled shows, which are set to take place July 9-10.) “Every day we seem to have a new state or country talking about when they’ll open up, so we’re feeling more optimistic than we were a month ago,” he said on the call. “Lots of artists are calling, looking at how we start up in July, August, September. So for right now, we still believe we’ll have enough open in the UK, Australia, Canada and the US to keep what we have on the books in amphitheaters booked for now. We might have certain states that might not be ready, but we have enough states and enough artists willing to play the open slots if we get to that level in the right markets.” He added: “So as long as these states open up to the right capacities, we can start in midsummer, and in the southern US, we can go all the way into November.”

Rapino’s bullishness for a potential 2021 summer concert season in the US came just days after the British government set a timeline for big summer festivals to return at 100 percent capacity, beginning on June 21. Those included the Reading and Leeds music festivals, set for late August, for which Live Nation immediately offered up 100,000 tickets, selling out all of them.

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