Seventeen years ago, the Toronto concert industry and tourism came to a grinding halt because of an outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) that originated from China. Quarantines, mandated or not, have a huge impact on performing arts and hospitality industries and that was the case in 2003.
As a music writer, and a part-time bartender, I have seen some of my closest friends and family members lose thousands of dollars as we combat the spread of the coronavirus. If history tells us anything, the music community has a way of taking care of each other and their brethren in the hospitality industry.
As the SARS epidemic reached its peak in Toronto back in the early winter months of 2003, many national tours canceled. The impact on Toronto was huge, and when the crisis was abating, they planned a concert. A massive concert.
Fans of live music love to get together, which makes this temporary practice of social distancing even harder on some of us. There is a long history of massive music gatherings in North America when we needed them most. In 1969, the first Woodstock defined a generation and came at a time when the nation needed healing. In 1983, The first U.S. festival promoted technology and togetherness for a generation that was perceived as selfish. In 1985, Live Aid focused on ending famine and in 2003 SARStock brought nearly 500,000 people together in Toronto to inject some money into the Toronto economy.
There were many things unique about the SARStock concert, which is still considered the largest ticketed event in North America. The lineup was extraordinary, and at the top included The Rolling Stones, AC/DC, Rush, The Guess Who and even a young Justin Timberlake.
Unlike the mega-priced tickets for modern festivals, tickets cost around $16 U.S., which is still under $25 when adjusted for inflation. The biggest “controversy” of the day was the fact they were charging $3 for a bottle of water. Eventually many of the water bottles were given away for free because of the sweltering heat. Many of the empty bottles were thrown at Timberlake, one of the few stains on the event. (The water company wound up suing the promoters and winning $1.4 million in damages seven years after the concert).
Depending on how long the current quarantine lasts, we now have another moment in time that would be perfect for one of the largest concerts of all time. In an era when concert ticket prices are skyrocketing, Live Nation is presented with an opportunity to give back to the fans that have helped build it into the nation’s largest concert promoter.
This past summer's Woodstock anniversary fiasco proved that you need more than just a good idea, and a space, you need a cause to bring people together. Concert festivals have become big business, and they are run efficiently and many of them have learned from the mistakes made at events like the first Woodstock.
When this is all over, we will need to come together, especially since so many of us have been forced apart as we combat a terrible disease. Music festivals that help support the local music scenes and hospitality industry could help us all heal from an unprecedented time in our nation’s history.
Thom Jennings covers the local music scene for Night and Day.