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Drive in concerts: the future of local live music?

People of a certain age can remember going to the drive-ins” with their parents, watching movies from the back seat while listening to the sound from a little speaker hung on their car’s half-rolled down window.  People of not quite so much age remember going to the “drive-ins” in their own cars, glass-waxing the inside of the windows so no one could see them take off their clothes to inaugurate the back seat, or the front seat if there were two couples.

As car cultures gave way to online entertainment, drive-ins began to fade away – but not entirely.  There are currently 339 drive-ins in the US, down from a high of 4000 in 1950.  But with technology, any parking lot, field, or open space can become a drive-in concert.

concerts in carsWith the pandemic shutting down live music venues, concert promoters have turned to those 339 drives-ins and thousands of parking lots and open fields to keep live music alive.  Apparently it started in Denmark, (not LA!) last May when Live Nation announced a Drive-in Tour in a number of Danish cities, featuring top Danish artists playing to audiences of 2400 -3600 people in their cars listening to the music on their radios.

US and European promoters jumped in, seeing not only a way to cut the losses threatened by concert and festival shutdowns, but a new set of venues and revenue streams that would continue even after when live music finally came back.  Artists playing to cars full of fans include Blake Shelton,  Gwen Stefani, The Chainsmokers, Brad Paisley, Los Lobos, Garth Brooks, Toby Mac and many others.  Locations have included the Sunset Drive-In Theater in Meadowbrook ,West VA,  the Charlotte Motor Speedway, the Stardust Drive-in Theater in Watertown Tenn.,  Oak Canyon Park in Silverado, CA,  and many more.

Promoters range from giants like Live Nation, to newcomer series like Concerts in Cars, to California’s boutique event promoter CBF Productions. Prices range from $1250 to $125 per car and up to $350 for a place on the grass to plunk down your socially-distanced lawn chair. Given 4 – 6 people in a car, this translates to a ticket price of $20-$40 to $225 – $325 per ticket – reasonable depending on the entertainment, and the staging.

So, is this a replacement for live concerts, a competitor, to music venues, or a new art form?  Well, let’s look at the details.

Let’s say you went to see Blake Shelton in one of the sold-out Encore Drive In Nights with special guests Gwen Stefani and Trace Atkins.   Tickets were $114.99 per vehicle, maximum six people per car, plus approximately $10 in various Ticketmaster fees. This gives you a ticket price of approximately $25 per person, depending how many people are in your car. And there were no parking fees. Plus, you brought your food and drink so no $8 glasses of beer and $6 hot dogs.  But you still had to wait in line for the porta potty (some things never change).

All in all, that sounds like a good deal.  You were with your friends – not strangers.  If you had a hatchback, convertible or moon roof, you could see pretty well, especially if there were jumbotrons.  Or maybe you put lawn chairs on the roof and kicked back.  Your sound source – your car radio or a boombox – is close to you and may actually be better than a speaker tower 1000 yards away.

Yes, you were stuck in a car for two or three hours, instead of being stuck in a crowd for 2 or three hours. You couldn’t wander and couldn’t dance, except a little next to the car. But if you got bored, you could cuddle up and make out and pet with your date or significant other, hard to do in a festival or concert.  And you probably decorated your car to cheer on the talent – creative fun.

On balance the drive-in experience sounds good to me from the music lover’s perspective.  But what about from the promoters?

Revenue will be smaller because of reduced booze and food sales, no parking fees, and possibly no merch.  And the numbers are much smaller, given the number of cars that you can socially distance/cram into a drive-in venue. Costs will be a bit lower because there is no sound system beyond the mixing board and a radio transmitter – no speaker towers to rent and haul around and set up and take down. More important, fees to the venue will be probably be much smaller because most of what is being provided is space.

I have not seen spreadsheets for drive-ins but I have to think if Live Nation is doing them and new companies are springing up to get in on the opportunity, and the likes of Blake Shelton and Gwen Stephanie find them worthwhile, they must have some financial attraction.  For the artist this is an attraction beyond money” audience.  Mad Langer told the BBC that it was a bit strange for him to sing to cars, but the audience cheered and he was so happy to get out and play live music.

drive in (2)My take is that drive-in concerts, like livestreams, are here to stay.  The price is right, the audience experience is fun, and if done right, everyone makes a little money.  And with current technology, they can be produced virtually anywhere. They won’t replace live concerts, especially big indoor concerts and tours, but they will provide artists and promoters with another product to deliver at a lower price point to a segment of the market that can’t afford a $250 ticket and $100 worth of beer and parking.

Local clubs, especially those that don’t offer dancing, will feel the competition, but adding (or clearing) a dance floor and offering free valet parking will help them compete.  They will be offering offer a different experience at about the same price as drive-ins. The real question is how many brick and mortar venues will be open when the pandemic subsides and live music comes back.  If Save Our Stages is right, there may be very few venues left and drive-in concerts could be the future of live music.

Patrick O’Heffernan













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About Patrick O'Heffernan, Music Sin Fronteras (471 Articles)
Patrick O’Heffernan, PhD., is a music journalist based in Mexico, with a global following. He focuses on music in English and Spanish that combines rock and rap, blues and jazz and pop with music from Latin America, especially Mexico like cumbia, banda, son jarocho, and mariachi. He is also edits a local news website and is a subeditor of a local Spanish language newspaper. Check out his weekly column Music Sin Frontera on Sunday nights.

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