Mike Eli, lead singer of the Eli Young Band, strummed his guitar onstage and gazed into the crowd on a warm Texas evening in June. “How many of you out there are dreamers?” he asked.

He was answered by an explosion of car horns.

“Whatever it is that you dream about,” he said, “keep on believing.”

This was not exactly how the country band envisioned their 2020 touring experience. As they started singing their Grammy-nominated hit “Even If It Breaks Your Heart,” a stirring anthem about following your dreams, they looked out on a parking lot filled with people sitting in their cars as they tuned into the show via an FM radio station, just like a drive-in movie.

Summer tour season is upon us, and Americans are starting to begrudgingly accept that, amid the coronavirus pandemic, large-scale concerts won’t resume for a long time. The music industry has been forced to get creative — and besides artists hopping on Instagram for a live stream, the most popular choice for a musical performance might be drive-in concerts.

What was once an unimaginable concept makes a lot of sense in the era of social distancing. But how does it actually work? We talked to music executives, artists and fans at one show in Texas for a snapshot of what it’s like to organize, perform and attend a concert in the year 2020.

The logistics

As acts such as Keith Urban and Los Lobos embark on drive-in shows, each setup is different: Some are in fields, others are on farms. On June 27, Garth Brooks will perform a concert broadcast to 300 drive-in movie theater screens. The Eli Young Band show, part of the “Concert in Your Car” series (some of which we viewed via FaceTime from Washington, because that’s how things work now), took place in a parking lot outside Globe Life Field in Arlington where the Texas Rangers play.

The idea started in March, as soon as Triple 8 Management co-owner George Couri realized concerts would be shut down. Couri, whose management company is based in Nashville, represents several acts from Texas, so he contacted Rangers entertainment executive Sean Decker: Could they work together to put on a drive-in concert? After eight weeks of mapping out logistics — namely, how to keep employees, crew members, artists and fans safe and socially distanced — they pulled together a plan that followed county and state guidelines, as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention safety protocols.

They came to a number of decisions: Each show could only be an hour long. Acoustic sets only, to minimize the number of crew members. Fans had to stay in their vehicles, spaced a safe distance apart. (The parking lot can hold about 1,000 cars, but only 400 would be allowed.) Staff would wear personal protective equipment. No concessions sold. Tickets, a flat fee per car, would be scanned on an app through windows. Restrooms would be available for one person at a time, and staff would clean them between each use — although organizers hoped with a 60-minute concert, bathroom breaks wouldn’t be necessary for everyone.

Organizers scheduled four shows over consecutive days during the first weekend in June, and tickets immediately sold out. They added a second show each day, which also sold out.

“We spent so long thinking about how to make it great … but the biggest variable going in was the thing we couldn’t directly control: Would people keep to their vehicles and stay safe? Or would they run up to the stage?” Couri said. From what he saw, people respected the rules — and many seemed thrilled just to be out of the house.

The experience

So, is it actually fun to sit in your car and watch a concert? According to the people we asked: It is! And there are added benefits to consider, such as comfortable seating and air conditioning, as well as personal control of the volume.

Kacie Miller, a teacher who goes to lots of country music concerts, attended the Eli Young Band show. She acknowledged that the “drive-in” situation lost some of the normal concert ambiance; sometimes it was hard to see the stage, and you couldn’t really sing along with the crowd. Plus, it was only one band for an hour, as opposed to multiple openers and a headliner.

But she and a friend turned off the car, rolled down the windows and basked in hearing music that wasn’t being broadcast from the Internet. Some people opened their trunks and perched on the back ledges of their car, while others climbed on the roof for a better view. Two giant screens sat on each side of the lot, so people in the back rows could see the stage.

“All in all, in the time we’re living in, it’s probably the best thing we can do to have live music still,” she said. “It’s better than watching something on a computer — or not at all.”

The music

The members of the Eli Young Band had a lot of questions when Couri approached them with his idea. But they really missed touring, so they agreed to be the “guinea pigs” for the first show with sets at 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. (Whiskey Myers, Pat Green, and Josh Abbott Band and Kevin Fowler performed the following nights.) While it took some getting used to, they thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

“Playing to an audience that you can’t see is definitely a little odd,” drummer Chris Thompson said. “We’re used to being out there … and feeling the energy from the crowd. It’s really different when you get applause, but also horns honked and lights shined at you.”

“I’ve never been more grateful to be honked at,” guitarist Jon Jones added.

Once they acclimated to the beeping (people were hesitant at first, then doing so like crazy at the end of each song) and the sight of all the windshields, it even started to feel like a regular concert. At one point, fans played beer pong next to their car.

“It’s so surreal playing in front of cars instead of people, but 2020 is a surreal kind of year,” Thompson said. “Honestly, we’re just thrilled to be onstage together again.”

The future

After the first eight shows were over, Couri and his staff combed the artists’ social media pages — and couldn’t find a negative comment about the concerts themselves, he said. They had a few logistical bumps: The first show, which started a half-hour late, had fewer cars than expected, likely the result of resellers gobbling up tickets and trying to sell them at a higher price. But that allowed employees to reshuffle the parking lot, staggering the cars while moving some closer to the stage.

Overall, he said, now that he and the rest of the organizers know this is a feasible way to hold a concert, they want to improve the process and help other locations around the country stage similar events. “We had no technical issues, and more importantly, no safety issues,” he said. And it was gratifying to see people just enjoy a show during a difficult time.

“I think that’s one of the big benefits we were going for — to break up the routine and take a step toward normal life,” Couri said. “Not all the way, but one step forward.”

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