When the Show Doesn’t Go On

When the Show Doesn’t Go On

Deborah Justice, PhD
Managing Director, Cornell Concert Series


March 20, 2020

When a concert gets cancelled, everyone is disappointed. I myself was flattened when Lúnasa, one of my favorite Irish bands, had to be cancelled at Cornell just before St. Patrick’s Day. But, as the manager of the Cornell Concert Series, when the university pre-emptively barred large gatherings due to the COVID-19 virus, it was my professional responsibility to postpone or cancel them along with the rest of our 19-20 season. I’m still crying shamrock tears.

The next few days of re-setting were a flurry of socio-economic activity heavy enough to make anyone’s head spin. What I want to talk about here are both the initial and longer term fallouts of arts cancellations. When a show doesn’t go on, many people’s initial reactions tend to be “ah, too bad for the band” or “I want my money back” or “are you rescheduling the band?!” but the actual economic ramifications of public arts events are far more complicated.

Currently, with the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of presenting organizations across the country are caught up in a nasty interactive network of cancellations, postponements, and reschedulings. I want to use the story of our recent corona-induced drama to shed light on how such upheaval plays out across multiple economic sectors. I also want to highlight how getting the arts sector back on its feet quickly following this pandemic will be vital for multiple intersecting economic aspects of society.

The Ticket Holders

“Regrettably, due to the public health threat, our Friday concert is cancelled.” When such a notice goes out, ticket holders are the highest number and most visibly impacted people. When Cornell stopped all large gatherings in mid-March, for example, the Concert Series had about 700 tickets purchased for remaining spring shows. Audience members were both emotionally disappointed and also economically interested in what would happen to the money they had paid for the promise of being entertained.

We all – the audience, venue, and musicians—hoped that rescheduling the show would be possible. Yet, especially a longer-term pandemic like COVID-19, reschedules may be months in the future. This uncertain timeline means that some ticket holders may not be able to attend rescheduled shows. Sometimes, in the worst case, no reschedule date works out and the artist just loses the engagement.

But let’s be optimistic. Assuming the show *can* be rescheduled, ticketholders who can’t attend the new show for whatever reason have two options: 1) a refund, or 2) donating their ticket cost to the organization. Most arts organizations, and especially the non-profit ones, have community engagement and outreach programs that put such donations to great use. Understandably, however, not everyone is in a position to make such a contribution, so refunds are processed.

The Performing Artists

There are clauses in contracts called Force Majeure or “Act of God” that allow both artists and presenting organizations to effectively shake on it and walk away when an uncontrollable disaster happens. A tsunami, a hurricane, or—as in the current case—a global pandemic. For the artists, when a show cancels due to Force Majeure, it is rarely a single occurrence; rather, it probably means that a domino effect is coming from a broadly impactful calamity. Their entire tour, which took months to build, has fallen to dust. Sure, the musicians are taking a hard financial hit, but the tour cancellation effects far more people than the artists on the stage. Now, their tour manager is not getting paid either. Nor is the accompanying road crew, sound engineers, or assistants. Even the artist management company that booked the gig in the first place can’t take its cut from the now-non-existent “performance fee.” Everything has vanished into the Force Majeure.

If there is not concert, then no musical and technical support is needed. To put on a high level show, venues often have to contract out for additional crew. We have to hire special accompanists or equipment that artists want (we don’t all have a sight-reading violist, 4 octave marimba, or a Gage realist pick-up readily on hand). What happens to the accompanists and companies that supply the gear? Force Majeure.

Oh but wait, there’s more. When a band/orchestra/soloist comes to a venue, they create ripples of economic impact: how do they physically get to the gig? (the taxi/shuttle/Uber driver from the airport, the airline ticket, the bus ticket, the rental car, tour bus and driver, their own car and gas money [and they probably bought a sandwich along the way, contributing more to the local economy]). Once in the town, the ensemble needs to stay somewhere, so a local hotel makes money renting the room. And hotel staff makes money cleaning it, and so on and so on. Again, along the way, many little costs, like a drink at the hotel bar or room service, are probably incurred.

Finally, the famous “we want M&Ms, but only *green* M&Ms in the dressing room.” Hosting musicians also means greenroom catering at the venue. Hospitality riders can include everything from fresh fruit to water to the fodder of Instacart, Grubhub, and larger catering dreams. Cancelling a show means nixing all these deliveries, and the work it takes to prepare them. Musicians also often like to go out after the performance, so scratch all of that service and hospitality income as well. While we’re thinking about food, concert goers also often pair dinner and a show, so let’s revisit that audience focus and remember that impact to the food and beverage industry, too. Additionally, venues that have concessions lose all of that revenue, inventory demand, and job opportunity when the show doesn’t go on.

The Presenting Venue

Circling back around to those refunded tickets…The presenting organization is the group that wanted to hire and promote the musicians in the first place. They anticipated ticket sales to cover a variety of costs. (Many non-for-profit groups, including Cornell Concert Series, are subsidized through universities and/or grants, but ticket sales still make up a large percentage of operating budgets). Nonexistant ticket sales impact availability of funds to pay everyone, from the leadership who initially selected the now-cancelled artists to the people who were working to get payments processed and the advertising publicized.

On the publicity front, when a show does not get funding, this means that graphic designers, website gurus, local radio, print media (from newspapers and poster printers, and then the people who spread those around town), local bus ads, concert program printers, and social media paid advertising don’t get paid. This cuts economic support on multiple levels; from multinational corporations (Facebook) to local media outlets and other businesses.
Lack of ticket sales and a cancelled show mean that, initially, the box office will be busy dealing with the fallout. But they also means that, after fielding a peak in customer calls, box office staff and ushers will not be needed for the now-nonexistent show. In-house technical crew, from lighting to sound, are no longer required. We also no longer need anyone to clean the venue, so custodial staff and building managers are impacted.


When a show gets cancelled, the marquee goes dark. Then suddenly, across multiple economic sectors, the lights are out, and no one is home. Interconnected layers of people don’t get paid, and then, in turn, they can’t pay their bills. In a pandemic time of social distancing and quarantine, suspending large gatherings makes sense. But, once the crisis is over, the show needs to go on.


–Deborah Justice earned her PhD in ethnomusicology at Indiana University, following a masters at Wesleyan University and undergraduate degree at the College of William and Mary. She currently manages the Cornell Concert Series and teaches at Syracuse University, while playing a lot of banjo and hammered dulcimer. www.deborahjustice.org