Live music lovers have had to content themselves with next to nothing for nearly a year since the COVID-19 pandemic stopped the music business in its tracks. So when, oh when, are concerts coming back?

First the good news: Venues and promoters are hopeful that outdoor shows with mid-level indie rock acts could happen this summer. And — with a close eye on the progress of vaccine distribution and an expected loosening of crowd-size limitations — new tours are being tentatively booked at indoor indie venues for the fall.

Sean Agnew, who books Union Transfer, says “it’s not absurd to think there could be some masked and distanced outdoor concerts in June.”

Indoor shows present more of a challenge. “We’re still a little rattled by the idea of welcoming people through our doors,” says Agnew, who has 200 shows tentative for 2021 and 2022. “Most of those artists want to wait and see what happens with the case rate and vaccine deployment over the next two or three months.”

STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer
Drive By Truckers at Union Transfer a year ago, on Feb, 27, 2020. A very long year ago.

World Cafe Live founder Hal Real has a slate of unannounced bands penciled in for October and beyond, though he won’t reveal names. “I don’t want to jinx it,” he says.

Christianna LaBuz, who books City Winery in Center City, said that to make shows work economically, the venue would need to be allowed to reach 50% capacity. (Philadelphia currently limits indoor venues to 10%.) With that, the CW’s two rooms could be busy in September. “We’ll ramp up quickly as long as Save Our Stages funding is received and Philadelphia is on its way to getting people vaccinated.”

But don’t expect full-capacity shows at expansive indoor venues like the Met Philadelphia or the Wells Fargo Center to happen anytime soon

“The return of traditional touring — and I’m talking about really big tours, like arena and stadium tours — will start in January or maybe at the very end of this year,” says Dave Brooks, who covers the concert industry for Billboard. (Live Nation, which books the Met and many Wells Fargo Center shows, did not respond to requests for comment for this story.)

All eyes on The Weeknd

The belief that bands and fans will be comfortable indoors in crowded spaces by 2022 has been strengthened by the reaction to The Weeknd’s After Hours tour, which kicks off next Jan. 14 in Vancouver and comes to the Wells Fargo Center on April 3, 2022.

Tickets went on sale the morning after the Canadian R&B singer headlined the Super Bowl halftime show. “Everybody’s watching what happens with The Weeknd, and it’s selling really well,” says Brooks. “They’ve already sold a million tickets, which is always a huge milestone.”

The expectation is that other big draws, like Taylor Swift and Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, will follow in announcing 2022 tours once experts decide crowds can safely gather at near-capacity levels. “I was talking to a major [booking] agency today,” Brooks says. “And they have 40 heritage acts, classic rock, and soul and R&B bands, who are ready to go in 2022.”

Stufish
Madonna's Madame X Tour. She played the Met Philadelphia in December 2019. It's not clear when big tours like hers will return.

The bigger the show, the more advance planning it takes, and the longer it will take to set things in motion once the pandemic seems under control. “It’s not like flipping a switch,” says World Cafe Live’s Real. “You have to ramp up.”

That means big indoor dates like Justin Bieber at the Wells Fargo Center on July 11 or Alicia Keys at the Met on Aug. 7 are unlikely to occur. But there’s still hope that outdoor and amphitheater shows can be staged when the weather is warm.

Question marks at the Mann, Firefly, MIA

“We can’t wait to welcome everyone back to the Mann,” said Anthony Slade, the COO and head of the Venue Reopening Task Force for the city-owned Mann Center, whose main partner on pop shows is Live Nation.

Shows rescheduled from last year like the Roots Picnic (tentatively June 5) and Wilco and Sleater-Kinney (Aug. 22) are still on the schedule, and the Mann has prodigious social-distancing potential with its vast, 22-acre campus.

But the season is uncertain. “It’s still too early to know what a definitive timeline might be,” Slade said. “But we are working closely with our partners and city officials to plan for everything imaginable to ensure that the Mann is ready to safely open ... when that time does come.”

TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Black Thought performs with The Roots during the annual Roots Picnic at the Mann Center in June 2019.

Slade said the Mann is also exploring the idea of hosting performances from the TD Pavilion stage that could be livestreamed, perhaps with “small, in-person audiences that might range from a few hundred people up to 2,000,” in line with city guidelines.

The Firefly Festival, which is held each June in Dover, Del., is not expected to happen this year. (A representative for AEG Presents did not return a request for comment.) But there are still hopes for outdoor gatherings happening later in the year, like the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (Oct. 8-17).

And the same goes for Made in America, Jay-Z’s Labor Day weekend hip-hop fest.

“We hope we’re there,” a spokesperson for Jay-Z said and released this statement to the Inquirer: “Jay-Z and Roc Nation are making every effort to produce Made in America for the thousands of fans who have celebrated music and culture on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway for years. ...As we continue to keep informed on all health and safety measures, guidelines, and mandates and work with local officials, we look forward to returning to the city we love.”

Xponential Music had already pushed back its timing from late July to the fall to avoid the blistering heat of summer, said Roger LaMay, general manager of WXPN-FM (88.5). The festival, now slated for Sept. 17-19 at the BB&T Pavilion and Wiggins Park in Camden, is being booked “with fingers crossed,” he said.

Inching back already

Some venues are already giving it a go. At the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Atlantic City, there’s a Motown revue playing to 10% capacity crowds, and acts like KISS and John Fogerty are scheduled for this summer if New Jersey regulations allow larger crowds in the casino’s concert arena.

South Jazz Kitchen on North Broad Street plans to reopen with Alex Bugnon and Gerald Veasley March 18-19 and Jeff Bradshaw on March 20-21. Last Sunday, Montgomery County Community College put on singer Dee Dee Bridgewater playing to 25% capacity.

“It was like a catharsis for everybody,” said Brent Woods, MCCC’s cultural affairs director, who has booked Connie Han on March 28 and Joey DeFrancesco May 16. “People are hungry to get out.”

During lockdown, Ardmore Music Hall completed a half-million-dollar renovation and is presenting acts like the Disco Biscuits as livestreams through Nugs.net while also selling 20 “golden tickets” to winners chosen by raffle, who can come inside for a socially distanced concert experience at roughly 3% of the room’s 600-person capacity.

By the fall, owner Chris Perella hopes shows such as KRS-One and songwriter Jackie Greene, both scheduled for in-person dates in October, can be presented at full capacity.

“The demand is definitely there,” he says. And if COVID-19 regulations don’t allow the shows to go on, he’ll be prepared to reschedule them. “We might be wasting our time again,” he says. “But if we’re not, we’re going to come out of the gates hot.”