As the live music industry finds a way to adapt during the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic that has shut down traditional touring, Awakening Events is putting several major Christian acts on the road. The Drive-In Theater Tour concert series features three tours, including a nearly 30-city trek by Casting Crowns, Billboard has exclusively learned.
In addition to Casting Crowns’ tour, Awakening previously announced TobyMac’s 12-city tour and a 10-city run featuring Michael W. Smith, Steven Curtis Chapman and Mac Powell. While drive-in concerts have become very popular in the era of social distancing—acts including Keith Urban and Alan Jackson have staged shows— the concept of taking a tour on the road is still a developing model.
“A concert is always a great kind of mental health break,” Casting Crowns frontman Mark Hall tells Billboard. “You’ve got something to look forward to. You’ve got something to take your family to. I think on a lot of levels families need this right now. Being that we can’t do concerts in venues because of social distancing, we had to start getting creative.”
After being off the road due to the pandemic, the artists quickly embraced the chance to perform for fans again. “When I heard we could possibly do a drive-in theater tour I jumped immediately, no hesitation whatsoever,” TobyMac says. “This is the longest span of time I’ve ever gone without doing a show in 20 years… The DiverseCity band and I have always loved outdoor events. A lot of songs I write like ‘Feel It’ or ‘I Just Need U’ or ‘Everything’ are meant to be summertime jams. So I say, come on out and rock with us!”
TobyMac’s tour will kick off June 22 at the Highway 21 Drive-in in Beaufort, S.C. Gotee Records’ Cochren & Co. are slated to open. The Smith, Chapman Powell tour starts July 16 at the Stardust Drive-in Theatre in Watertown, Tenn. Casting Crowns schedule is still being finalized.
Smith headlined a drive-in show at the Williamson County Ag Expo Center outside Nashville on May 30 with an estimated 4,000-to-5,000 people in attendance. “It was just awesome,” Smith says. “There were probably 700-800 cars. The feedback has been great. That was a test of, ‘Is this something that we want to do in the summer?’ I’m glad we’re going to do this run with Mac and Steven because it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Smith admits playing a drive-in show takes some adjustment. “I love looking people in the eye and I didn’t get to look at too many people in the eye because they were so far away,” he says. “A lot of people were outside of their cars, but it was just a totally different thing. You just have to be in the moment because you’re not feeding off the crowd, so I just refused to let it be odd to me…I can’t think of anything better than doing what we did and giving people some hope and reminding everybody that God’s got this somehow even in the midst of all the turmoil.”
Obviously touring during the pandemic presents unique challenges. Since most of the dates are close to Nashville, Chapman plans to drive individually to the shows. “There is one run that we’ll do on the bus and we’ll have a pretty full bus because everybody will be on one,” he says. “If you’ve been sick or have any thought that you might have this virus, obviously you are excused, but everybody has been healthy. Nobody has been in contact with anybody that has any indication that they’ve got anything to be worried about, so we’re going to load up and go do our thing together and trust that we’re all good.”
Casting Crowns will take multiple busses on its 30-city trek to social distance as much as possible.
The drive-in tours are the brainchild of Dan Fife, president/CEO of Awakening Events, which has offices in Conway, Ark., and Franklin, Tenn.
Fife says they will be taking necessary precautions at every show. “We’re going to adhere to whatever the local COVID-19 rules are. We have masks for everyone. I have a mask that I wear and everybody on tour is going to be respectful of everybody,” he says. “Tour buses hold 12-14 people and there’s spacing that you can do. We’re carrying a full array of PPE. We’ve even ordered these stainless foot pumps. It looks like a kick drum, but it’s a stand that’s got hand sanitizer mounted in it that you don’t even have to touch. You just hit it with your foot down at the bottom and there’s your hand sanitizer. We’ll be staying in touch with the local authorities in [every]county or city up until the event day making sure we’re practicing safe guidelines.”
TobyMac says his crew has a “plan to safely get each night setup. As a band we are discussing new ways to perform and interact with each other without getting too close. So often, the eyes tell it all. When you’ve been performing together as long as me and DiverseCity, we can just look at each other and know where to go musically.”
Fife says Awakening Events will be carrying their own crew to handle production. “We’re full concert sound, mobile stage, lighting,” he says. “We’re lighting up the artists so we can have a four-camera shoot of the show on the drive-in screen. This is going to be the Jumbotron version.”
In terms of concessions, each theater will follow local guidelines to keep patrons safe. Fife says many have a mobile app attendees can use to order food and drink delivered to their car. The artists have linked with merchandise companies where fans can pre-order merchandise, some designed specifically for the drive-in shows.
Tickets for the shows will be sold on a per car basis with a limit of six people per car. Cars will be parked in order of arrival within the tier purchased. Prices range from $59 to $175 per car. There are no plans to do meet and greets. Fans can bring lawn chairs and blankets, but must sit in their allocated parking space. The drive-ins range in size from 200 cars to 650. “A lot of people keep asking, ‘What’s a drive-in like? Am I stuck in my car?’” Fife says. “The best way to say it is it’s like tailgating.”
Fife admits touring drive-in theaters doesn’t yield big profits. “Financially this doesn’t compare to a regular tour for the artist or Awakening Events, but for us, it’s just really hard to sit at home and do nothing,” says Fife. “We want to get music back out there and we think right now more than ever America needs to be hearing some live music.”
The artists echo that sentiment. “It’s probably not as lucrative, but I really don’t care. I just feel like it’s the right thing to do. I might even do it if I wasn’t getting paid,” Smith says. “I really think this is going to be important.”
Hall agrees. “We need to be out there and loving on families. We are a band and it’s entertainment, but it’s also our ministry,” says Hall. “It’s what we know God has called us to do and we just feel like the church needs us right now.”
“It’s a way to get started touring again,” Powell adds. “We’ll take anything we can get right now as a way of getting out in front of people, playing music and doing what we feel like we’re called to do.”