Drive-In Shows With Thundercat, Major Lazer Boost Bay Area Concert Scene

Thundercat performs at the Outside Lands music festival in San Francisco, Aug. 12, 2017. (Estefany Gonzalez)

When the Bay Area began sheltering in place in March, Robbie Kowal of HUSHconcerts was looking at a complete drop off in business. His company puts on thousands of silent disco events a year for music festivals, private parties and business conferences, and suddenly those were off the table indefinitely.

“We have no events, so there’s no industry. It’s tough, really tough,” he said at the time.

It turns out that Kowal’s expertise in sound engineering for wireless headphones and other unconventional setups was a saving grace for his business. In addition to doing sound via headphones for socially distanced weddings and SoulCycle classes, he’s producing drive-in concerts with promoter Hotbox at Burlingame’s Bayshore Drive-In, a golf course-turned-concert venue in the South Bay.

Drive-in concerts popped up in the Bay Area earlier this year, with Jerry Garcia tribute band Jerry’s Middle Finger entertaining car-bound crowds at Solano County Fairgrounds in July; additionally, ZZ Top, Van Halen and Tom Petty tribute bands rocked out at the Alameda County Fairgrounds, and Metallica broadcast a pre-taped show. But the Bayshore Drive-In shows are the first to target a young audience, with local nightlife outfits 1015 Folsom and Noise Pop coming on as co-presenters.

Bassist, singer and Kendrick Lamar collaborator Thundercat performs live at the Bayshore Drive-In on Oct. 22; Diplo-assisted, globally inspired EDM crew Major Lazer plays on Oct. 24; Shiba San and J.Phlip from house music label Dirtybird Records spin on Oct. 23. Pink Martini brings multi-lingual lounge and jazz on Oct. 25; Colors Worldwide DJs play R&B for the lovers out there on Oct. 29. And viral sensation Marc Rebillet performs his cheeky production wizardry on Halloween night and Nov. 1.

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Drive-in concerts are new territory for Bay Area event producers. In addition to the typical costs of paying the talent, crew and security and setting up a stage and amplified sound, there’s also the work that goes into mapping out the Bayshore Drive-In to fit dozens of cars, have them enter and exit in a timely fashion and allow for social distancing. Not to mention that the way you hear the music from inside your car is going to be different than if you were standing in the audience, so HUSHconcerts is doing both amplified sound and an FM broadcast.

“It’s a pretty ambitious undertaking, what we’re trying to pull off out there,” Kowal says. “But I think we’re well positioned to make it successful.”

Ticketing at drive-in concerts is also different, with the prices ranging from $89-$349 per four-passenger car, depending on the show.  That might sound steep, but because of the extra costs of producing a pandemic-safe event, Kowal says that the promoters are barely making a profit.

“If this was strictly a business-model thing, I don’t think we’d be doing these shows. We’re doing them because we want our community to be able to get together again, and to put our production experts back to work,” he explains.

More on the State of Concerts

It’s well documented that government relief for the concert industry has been scant. The Save Our Stages Act to help venues still awaits a congressional vote, many musicians haven’t qualified for unemployment and outdoor entertainment is only starting up on a small scale in cities like San Francisco. HUSHconcerts qualified for a Paycheck Protection Program loan, which carried the company through the summer months, and now Kowal says that he and his industry peers are eager to find pandemic-safe solutions until the events industry can safely resume.

“What it seems to me is making a safe event is super expensive and super risky. Even if your show does well but people get sick, that’s not successful. And if you show doesn’t do well, that’s not successful either,” he says. “We’ve had to redefine what success is.”

“You put some people to work, you made some people smile and no one got sick—that’s a massive win.”