How to Pull Off a COVID-Era Music Festival
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Postcard from Beverly Hills

How to Pull Off a COVID-Era Music Festival

Helix Festival producer Krista Selico stands outside a boutique on Rodeo Drive, Los Angeles’ luxury fashion destination. (Chaseedaw Giles/KHN)

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — As the pandemic took hold and well-grooved music festivals canceled their mainstream events, Krista Selico saw an opening. She had been organizing the Helix Festival as an opportunity to give artists in the urban music community a chance to redefine the genre for themselves, as well as choose more racially diverse headliners.

The industry’s destination festivals had excluded many diverse performers and types of music, she said, adding: “Urban music is so much more than what we hear on the radio.”

Although the COVID crisis dealt a blow to entertainment events worldwide, it also gave birth to new channels of entertainment. Netflix, Fever and Secret Cinema joined forces to create the Stranger Things “drive-into experience,” an immersive drive-thru concept that leads patrons through the world of the Netflix series “Stranger Things” from the safety — and distance — of their cars. A R I Z O N A, a band signed by Atlantic Records, performed an immersive livestream concert from Nashville on Oct. 29 through mySongbird, a new live-performance streaming app. Comedian Dave Chappelle has been hosting physically distanced comedy shows and music events at Wirrig Pavilion in Yellow Springs, Ohio, since May.

And Selico’s Helix Festival seemed primed for the COVID era.

Her goal was to feature less-mainstream offerings in a protected Caribbean environment — reportedly more affordable this year because COVID-19 has greatly eaten into conventional tourism. The lineup included Noise Cans, a Bermuda-born DJ based in the U.S. known as Collas who fuses Caribbean carnival music with electronic dance, Nigerian-American Afrobeats star Davido, and contemporary R&B/hip-hop artist Ty Dolla $ign.

“It’s called Helix Festival because we’re talking about our DNA,” said Selico, a University of Southern California graduate and health care administrator in Los Angeles. The festival was scheduled for October and sales were hot, with tickets in the $1,800-$3,000 price range.

Of course, with the pandemic spreading, Selico realized that festival patrons would see more health and safety precautions implemented. That could mean limited-capacity tickets with potentially higher price tags, suggesting that, in turn, artists and promoters would have to offer more of an experience in exchange for those sales.

At USC, Selico majored in cultural arts, with an emphasis in classical voice. She loved singing opera but felt shut out of the operatic world due to race. As a Black woman, she said, she felt pressured to fit into the limited mainstream molds Black artists are often pressed into: mainly hip-hop and R&B. She created Helix Festival to elevate and broaden the urban music menu.

Selico had been planning the luxury, urban music festival for two years before the pandemic hit. Because the festival was designed to be high-end, boasting private accommodations for attendees, she and her crew pushed forward with planning and promoting through the summer months, even as established festivals were canceling (many not offering refunds). “We’ll be on lockdown for two weeks, then two weeks turns into two months … but the ticket sales continued and no one’s asking for refunds,” she said.

Some large festivals such as Tomorrowland — a two-week-long Belgian electronic dance music festival — went fully virtual using streaming services, but Selico’s was planned for overseas, on an island — Jamaica — with a low COVID case count. And at an expansive resort — the Bahia Principe Grand in Runaway Bay — where safe outdoor enjoyment and social distancing seemed plausible.

The festival’s COVID-19 precautions were developed using the same protocols established by Jamaica’s Ministry of Tourism, Ministry of Health & Wellness (MoHW), the Jamaica Tourist Board and the Tourism Product Development Co. From intake to departure, Selico said, coronavirus precautions would be in place.

She knew she would have to orchestrate her first festival with more precautions than any prior such event and less of a fun-filled, devil-may-care attitude: “If someone gets dehydrated and passes out, we’ve got to test them for everything now,” she said.

Because of the setting, Selico reasoned that COVID-era safety adjustments wouldn’t seem onerous. Even before the pandemic, a luxury component of Helix was private beach “pods” for patrons spaced at least 6 feet apart for lounging on the beach. And “everything is digital,” she said. There would be no exchange of physical money or tickets at Helix Festival, similar to procedures restaurants across America are adopting, along with doing away with physical menus.

She put extra safeguards in place:

  • Attendees would be required to submit negative COVID test results 48 hours before arrival and, in lieu of rum punch, would be greeted with temperature checks at the airport, at other transit points and before entering the festival grounds. Face masks would be required on all trips to and from the airport and resort.
  • If an attendee exhibited COVID-19 symptoms, the Helix Festival site stated, they would be moved into a designated isolation room at the venue for screening by a COVID-19 Safety Point Person — an employee designated to conduct spot checks, which the Jamaican government now requires of both the hotel and festival organizers. The MoHW would be contacted and, if necessary, the attendee would be put into mandatory quarantine.
  • During concerts, guests would be seated in every other seat in all open seating areas, while groups who arrive together could sit next to one another. A minimum distance of 6 feet would be maintained between patrons and performers on designated stage areas, an easy feat considering the Helix Festival’s main stage was to be set on the ocean in the middle of a small bay on the resort.
  • For an even more enhanced luxury experience, and elevated social distancing, guests could purchase such upgrades as a VIP cabana for up to six people, or for $6,000 guests could rent a private catamaran — the festival’s version of box seats — for up to 10 people, docked around the floating stage.

When patrons weren’t getting their urban music palates expanded by acts on the main stage, themed events would feature visual artists, fire dancers and even a hologram light show presented by Chad Knight, a 3D designer with Nike. These activities — including any water sports — would be limited to follow social distancing requirements, the festival’s site stated.

According to the festival site, no food or beverages would be sold on festival grounds — another break from pre-COVID music festivals. Prepaid top-shelf liquor and snack boxes would be prepackaged and individually sealed before distribution at check-in. Hand-sanitizer stations would be strategically placed throughout the festival grounds, as well as touchless waste bins.

As of Dec. 10, Jamaica — the fourth-most-populous country in the Caribbean — had seen over 11,509 COVID-19 cases and 270 deaths, according to the government’s ministry of health and wellness website. Currently, travelers to Jamaica must apply for travel authorization through the Jamaica Tourist Board, including an upload of the results from a valid PCR test performed no more than seven days from their arrival date.

With the average ticket pricing starting at around $2,000 and no sure way to guarantee attendees would be permitted across the Jamaican border or quarantined, in late August Selico decided to postpone the festival until fall 2021. Tickets to the nearly sold-out event were refunded at 100%. “We’re going to add more artists. We’re going to be able to expand on this health care aspect,” Selico said.

And, since COVID-19 is likely to be around for a while, vaccine or not, she is confident she has developed the expertise to be a pandemic-friendly festival promoter. “I think this is the model for festivals going forward,” Selico said.

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