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Drive-ins were huge in 2020. But can they work for live music?

How attending a drive-in show made me realize how much I hope they’re not the only future of live music.

A brightly lit outdoor stage with cars and people in front of it during an evening concert.
Fans watch from their parked cars as GWAR performs a drive-in concert in Richmond, Virginia.
Andrew Marino for Vox

The only concert I actually got to see in person this year was sold out. But a sold-out show in a parking lot filled with cars is a much different scene than a typical sold-out indoor or outdoor venue show. Especially when that show is a drive-in concert held in the middle of a pandemic.

In October, I watched the cult-favorite heavy metal group GWAR perform live in the parking lot of the Diamond, a baseball stadium in Richmond, Virginia. GWAR is beloved by their fans for their over-the-top concerts, at which they wear grotesque costumes and put on skits about having sex with babies in between performing singalong anthems like “Fuck This Place.” I’d never seen the band before; scatological humor and thrashcore aren’t really my thing! I don’t think I ever expected to find myself here — seeing a band known for spraying fake human (or alien) blood on the audience, on a pitched-up stage atop concrete, amid honking car horns and a backdrop of bleachers and a giant scoreboard.

Seeing a show in a proper music venue is now a long-held dream, one that will hopefully be viable again soon. But in 2020, a drive-in show like the one I ended up at was one of my only options.

Grimacing at the teeny stage six rows ahead of us, I surveyed the crowd. Half of the people in attendance stayed in their cars; the other half stood by their bumpers or sat in the bed of their pickup trucks or set up chairs right next to their cars. I chose to stand in front of our car, but none of these options were great for viewing purposes — I squinted, I stood on my tiptoes, and I still could hardly make out any of the band members’ snarling faces. That’s one of the most disappointing parts of the drive-in experience: There is only so much one can do to make it easier to see the stage when you’re trapped in the small radius around your car.

GWAR playing on a small stage, limiting the amount of great viewing angles.
Courtesy of Andrew Marino

And compounding the vision difficulties was another element that can’t be changed: the weather. Many outdoor shows are advertised as taking place “rain or shine,” but it’s obvious that they’re much more enjoyable if it’s not raining. At the GWAR show, it was raining badly enough to discourage many drivers from stepping out of the car, or for them to only do so with clear annoyance. It was a thoroughly unpleasant scene for those of us with frizzy hair and glasses that are already prone to fogging up. (A face mask only speeds up that process.)

I spoke into an audio recorder as we waited for the band to go on, committing some of my thoughts to memory. “I’m always a pessimist,” I said, “so maybe it’s not gonna be that bad. But my glasses are fogging up, and the windshield is very wet, so.” And by the end of the show, my glasses were no clearer, and the windshield was still full of raindrops.

2020 hit the live music industry hard. With restrictions on indoor and outdoor gathering in place worldwide — not to mention quarantine and lockdown orders due to the relentless unpredictability of the Covid-19 pandemic — attending concerts was nigh impossible this year.

Touring acts canceled their slate of shows for the foreseeable future. Promoters rescheduled musical festival dates for later in the year, then postponed them indefinitely or canceled them outright. And any act that dared flout social distancing guidelines to put on a show was quickly admonished for exposing their audiences to the coronavirus.

Instead, artists were relegated to streaming platforms like Instagram, Twitch, and YouTube to host their own DIY shows. Meanwhile, labels, venues, and festival promoters tinkered with paid streams of live music performed in empty auditoriums. Then, several months after most of the country shut down, as various re-openings began, artists and promoters hit on at least one viable alternative: the drive-in concert.

Drive-in entertainment thrived in 2020. Drive-in movies, in particular, went from a fun summertime activity to the only way for many Americans in cities where theaters remained closed to see a movie, new or old, outside of their own home this year. Even people in places like New York City, an urban area not known for having much parking space, found ways to get cars to less dense parts of the city and see a film. And if people were game to watch movies from the car, why not try that approach for concerts, too?

For music lovers, perhaps the drive-in concert could become as ubiquitous as the drive-in movie, at least in the short term. That’s what the team behind Broadberry Entertainment Group hopes for, at least, as they told Vox this fall.

Lucas Fritz and Jessica Gordon are co-owners of the Richmond, Virginia-based company, which promotes and stages as many as 550 concerts in the area each year. In March, when Covid-19 began to spread, it became clear that the Group — which predominantly books shows for indoor venues, including two Fritz owns himself — wouldn’t come anywhere close to staging that many shows.

“We were rescheduling shows for June and July and August, and then maybe a month later [in April], it was pretty apparent that none of those shows were gonna play,” Fritz told Vox. “And then we were rescheduling stuff for October and November. … It was more and more apparent that indoor shows were not gonna come back in 2020 in a meaningful capacity.”

It was Gordon who suggested pivoting their venue shows to drive-in outdoor ones. She was inspired by a local movie theater reopening as a drive-in and by watching a handful of artists perform drive-in-style shows in Europe.

“We’d been hearing a million ideas that were absurd and ridiculous and not gonna happen, and there hadn’t been a moment when I was like, ‘here’s something we can actually do,’” Gordon said. “But [having a band play at a drive-in] was the first realistic, potential plan that we had come up with.”

The Broadberry Group wasn’t the first organization to put on a drive-in concert during the pandemic. The European shows that inspired Gordon in the first place took place in Aarhus, Denmark, back in April. The concert series saw singers and DJs perform on a small stage in front of about 500 cars; the shows were broadcast over the FM dial. In the US, several bigger artists played a special show or two. The Avett Brothers played at a Motor Speedway in August, and Cypress Hill played a drive-in theater in September. Snoop Dogg did two DJ sets in October. On a larger scale, the super-corporate event promoter Live Nation hosted a nine-show tour in a handful of Southern cities in July, headlined by country music star Brad Paisley. And the Flaming Lips played a live hometown show in October, where the band members as well as each individual audience member were encased in gigantic inflatable “space bubbles” for social distancing purposes.

Fritz and Gordon sought out a particularly unique choice of act for testing its drive-in concept. GWAR is an acquired taste, to put it mildly. The “concept” behind the band is that they are aliens who intended to take over Earth, but along the way they found and fell in love with heavy metal instead. While these alien monsters still eat babies and chop each others’ heads off, they now do that onstage while holding guitars.

It’s definitely a premise, whether or not it’s a premise you’re into. What made GWAR an interesting test case for a drive-in show wasn’t just their devoted, niche following. GWAR fans love GWAR in large part for the band’s absurd set pieces and outfits — which, it must be said, aren’t the kinds of things that would seem to translate so easily to a drive-in show stage. Cars must be parked at least 6 feet away from each other, so passengers can exit and stand by their vehicles without getting too close to whoever’s parked next to them. And Virginia’s Covid-19 restrictions throughout the second half of this year have held that only a maximum of 1,000 people is allowed to gather at an outdoor event; that meant that the October GWAR show had room for about 250 cars, assuming four passengers in each one.

As we waited for the band to go on, I recorded more audio notes: “There’s not a lot of latitude,” I said, “because we’re not human bodies here — we’re large automobiles. And if I were a human body, I’d be jumping around and pushing people out of my way to see the stage better.” But clearly, that wasn’t an option.

Fritz shared a similar concern from his own perspective: “You have cars instead of bodies,” he said. “This isn’t ‘open the doors, scan a ticket, walk in, and let people go wherever they want.’ You have to be very particular about how the cars park.”

The band’s perspective, however, was different. “This is just gonna be like a festival show, except in cars,” Bob Gorman, GWAR performer and the group’s costume fabricator, told Vox in an interview before the show. GWAR doesn’t often play festival shows, but the comparison made sense: Outdoor music festivals usually host bands on differently sized stages that can accommodate vastly different numbers of people in the crowd. A drive-in show’s stage, ostensibly, is scaled to the size of the parking lot it’s held in. But in the time of Covid-19, the staging costs, compared to the necessarily limited number of tickets made available, mean that the drive-in show stage has to skew toward the smaller side.

A small stage usually isn’t a recipe for success at an outdoor venue — especially when events are intended to take place “rain or shine.” It wasn’t that cold yet when I saw GWAR, but the weather wasn’t great. Even though there are big parking lots all over the US, venues can’t easily put on shows in the snow.

As is the case with every other production element of a drive-in show, the frequent unpredictability of bad weather creates extra anxiety because it can affect whether fans will be able to hear and see what’s happening onstage. (An FM transmitter was apparently available at the GWAR show so that folks who wished to stay in their cars without opening the windows could tune into their radios to listen. This, however, was not communicated to the audience, as far as I can tell.)

Regardless of any weather concerns, however, members of GWAR told Vox that no matter what happened, there would always be a crucial element missing from the drive-in atmosphere.

GWAR performs at The Diamond Drive-in in Richmond, Virginia. The stage sits in front of the parking lot; concertgoers watch from inside or outside their cars.
Courtesy of Andrew Marino

“I’ve been making a joke that I hope a crash-up derby breaks out because I need to feel that energy from the pit,” Matt Maguire, GWAR’s art director, touring stage member, and a performer in the band, told Vox. “When you look out to the crowd and you see a bunch of people sitting there, it’s kind of anticlimactic.”

“You really get the energy of the crowd and the pit from the people that are loving getting covered in blood and screaming and getting the cathartic release,” said Gorman.

GWAR thrives on a different kind of energy than many artists; I still weep for the canceled Billie Eilish, Taylor Swift, and Soccer Mommy shows I had planned to attend this year, none of which would have included bloody catharsis. But the craving for energy is a universal one from the live experience: Live music produces an intimacy or connection unlike that offered by almost any other medium, whether that’s through fist-pumping or moshing or singing along or crying en masse.

Standing by our cars hardly compared to head-banging in a mosh pit. The only people who felt any of GWAR’s trademark fluids on them were the people who had paid top dollar to park their cars as close as possible to the stage itself. For the rest of us in the nosebleed parking spaces, the storied spray of blood and guts remained storied.

This may come across as a more negative account than GWAR’s premier drive-in experience deserves. Maguire told Vox ahead of the show that the group’s goal was to “give a little escapism” to its fans instead of dwelling on the have-nots of 2020: no parties, no mosh pits, no sweaty dancing. (Also, the topical humor was gross instead of depressing: Dr. Fauci dueled a sentient coronavirus, there were plenty of QAnon barbs, and everyone got their head cut off instead of dying from Covid.) And from the comfort of the invisibly defined, socially distanced squares around our cars, we all could technically mosh and dance and party to our hearts’ safest content. There are few better feelings than that.

But how viable is all of this going forward? It’s hard to say. The costs can be prohibitive to put on any show at limited capacity, let alone one outdoors, socially distanced, and dependent on parking cars, Gordon said when I checked in after the show.

“Artists, venues, and promoters have not had much income since Covid began, but the GWAR shows did well and everyone made a little money,” Gordon said. “The expenses to put on this kind of show, to turn an empty parking lot into a venue, are very high — about three times more than it would normally cost.”

There’s also something of a philosophical barrier to overcome with a drive-in show. A concert is a musical experience, but it’s also a kinetic one. The Instagram and YouTube livestreams that proliferated in the spring to much fanfare faded away not just because of their low-quality aesthetics but because they lack the energy created by everyone being in one space together, singing and dancing and listening to the music. Even now that many artists are putting on much more polished, even exciting virtual shows, streamed live from venues where they are performing without a crowd, the inherent disconnect is still there.

“Sure, each light flash and drumbeat and bottle price is calculated to excite, to create a mood,” Vox’s Lavanya Ramanathan wrote in August, in a piece mulling the fate of music and dance clubs post-pandemic, “but people — ideally lots of them — are what fill venues with energy; without them, clubs are just cold, dark rooms.”

At a drive-in movie, everyone stays in one place and stares at an oversized screen in a fixed spot, and the relationship is between the viewer and the film. We may all be staring at the same stage for a drive-in show, but the band isn’t just standing there too, looking back at us. Performers and viewers are meant to feed off each other’s energy. And that’s not so easy to do in a car, especially when you might not even be able to see the band so well from where you’re parked.

Despite the expense, the unpredictable weather, and the missing mosh pits, Gordon and Fritz say they look forward to putting on more drive-in shows next year.

“We are gonna end up doing a lot of these in 2021,” said Fritz. It’s unclear how far into the future we’ll continue doing shows like this, but at least for the spring and summer we’re planning on [doing more shows.]”

Perhaps it’s best to think of a drive-in show not as a replacement for live music as we know it but as an innovative supplement: Once it’s warm enough to hang out outside again, and with Covid-19 vaccines on the horizon, we have another experience to drive the car out to.

That is the most comforting way of looking at the drive-in concert because there’s no telling when anyone will truly be comfortable with any kind of large event, vaccine or no vaccine. The likelihood that anyone will be attending a traditional indoor concert, in a packed venue where we shout and bounce along to the music, still seems low for 2021. Until we can all go to a concert together again like we used to, even one good — if imperfect — option for safe concert-going is better than none.