Construction crews worked tirelessly to get the Texas Rangers’ shiny new stadium ready to open early March. Despite skepticism from locals, they succeeded—and there the completed stadium sits, still ready for visitors after having never hosted a public event, as venues across the world have gone dark amid the spread of the coronavirus.
The first event planned for the team’s new Globe Life Field (not to be confused with its previous home, Globe Life Park, which is located across the street and currently sitting empty) had been a country music concert, headlined by superstar Chris Stapleton, on March 14. The show never happened, nor did the Rangers’ first exhibition game a little more than a week later, or the home opener on March 31. Major League Baseball, like all major American sports, is still on hold.
But the park will get its time to shine, sort of, in early June. That’s when the “Concert in Your Car” series, sponsored by QuikTrip and Energy Transfer, will launch. The series is built around the same concept as that of a drive-in movie theater: audiences will drive their cars to the Rangers’ Tundra Lot B, which has one thousand parking spaces, to watch as artists Pat Green, Whiskey Myers, the Eli Young Band, and the Josh Abbott Band and Kevin Fowler perform on a newly erected stage. The shows, which run nightly from June 4 to June 7, will last just one hour—with no opening act—and fans will hear the acoustic performances by tuning their radios to an FM frequency broadcasting the music from the stage. Tickets will start at $40 per vehicle per night, with a few rows of $80 VIP parking spots near the front of the stage. Only four hundred of the lot’s one thousand parking spots will be open, to ensure that people can enjoy the show without parking too close to others, and attendees are required to stay in their cars.
Other organizations have experimented with drive-in concerts recently—in Austin, musicians Ben Ballinger and David Ramirez performed to fans in a field as part of an ad hoc event in early May—but this series, powered by the Rangers and featuring artists with audiences like those enjoyed by Pat Green and Josh Abbott (who can play to thousands of fans a night normally), is a bigger push in that direction. The June series could be a promising proof of concept until a vaccine or reliable treatment is found for COVID-19, and at a time when the pandemic has brought on one of many unsolvable questions: how does anyone go see live music when anybody around you might spread the disease? The answer might be that you make sure that there’s nobody around you.
As the quarantine era enters its third month in the United States, doing things in our cars that we used to do after we’d parked them—including live music and intimate cultural rituals—is slowly becoming a more commonplace idea. In April, San Antonio became home to the world’s first drive-in funeral service, giving mourners a chance to grieve in the same place, even if hugs and handshakes were still a risky practice. Drive-in movie theaters are experiencing a renaissance; Austin’s tiny Blue Starlite Drive-In was featured in the Los Angeles Times as part of a wave of theaters catering to socially distanced audiences, and the company will open a third location in Colorado, after selling out screenings in Austin and Round Rock, in late May. Walking through my own Austin neighborhood on a recent Sunday, I heard music and stumbled upon a small church service, with the pastor addressing the crowd via a PA system from the back of a pickup truck.
Despite the recent easing of lockdown measures in Texas, these gatherings remain precarious. Audiences are likely to slowly return to relatively small indoor spaces without easy access to adequate ventilation; a Morning Consult poll from May 4 found that only 10 percent of respondents would be comfortable attending a concert, and 12 percent going to a movie theater. (Even as some theaters in Texas reopen with limited capacity, their screenings are restricted to films that were released in February and March, older mainstays like Selena and American Sniper, or a handful of indie releases that are already streaming on VOD services.)
We’ve seen small-scale operations like the Blue Starlite, community-based services like churches and funerals, and scrappy, DIY concert efforts like the one that happened in Austin this month, in other words—but what’s happening at Globe Life Field in Arlington, with bigger stars and corporate sponsorship, signals a new phase of the current drive-in revival on a scale that hasn’t happened until now, with funding that suggests a growing professionalization of the long-dormant industry.
“I would love to be a small part of inspiring more things like this, whether it’s movies, concerts, whatever it might be,” George Couri, owner of Austin-based Triple 8 Management, says. The Concert in Your Car series was his idea, and its current lineup features artists his agency represents—and he sees potential for the live music industry to veer in this direction over the coming weeks, months, or longer, until audiences feel safe going to a club or amphitheater to see a show. “While this is the biggest one we know of, the scale isn’t limited to this size,” he says. “If there’s a place that has four thousand parking spots, can you space them out and get fifteen hundred cars in there?”
Couri refers to the initial run of dates in early June as an early model for what’s possible, and he’s optimistic that it’ll be a hit. Artists like Green and Abbott can sell a lot more than four hundred tickets in the Dallas–Fort Worth market when clubs are open, and the possibility of expansion is built into this series—if the initial run of tickets for the 9 p.m. shows sell out quickly, Couri says they’ll be able to add a second show, earlier in the evening, for any of the dates. And if it goes well, they can schedule events at the ballpark’s parking lot three or four times a week, every week, featuring artists in every genre.
There are likely to be some challenges, but Couri and the events team at the Rangers tried to head off most of them. Fans might balk at staying in their vehicle, but because the performances are acoustic, they won’t be able to hear much if they’re not tuned into their car radio. They’ve got a plan in place to jump-start cars if anyone’s batteries die, they’re allowing fans to bring their own snacks and drinks, and they’ve scheduled one-hour performances to cut down on the number of bathroom visits audience members will have to make. “It’ll be a success when we see a bunch of sold-out shows, and people coming in and respecting the rules, having a good time, singing along, and driving home,” Couri says. “If that goes without any issue, that’s success, and we’re going to do this continuously.”
This also comes at a time when the drive-in entertainment space is seeing signs of new investment. While the early details are scant, Tribeca Enterprises has announced a partnership with AT&T and IMAX on a national summer drive-in series, featuring new, classic, and independent films. That’s significantly more substantial financing than mom-and-pop operations like Blue Starlite or Star & Stripes, which has drive-in locations in New Braunfels and Lubbock, enjoy. And Couri expects that he and the Rangers won’t be the only ones working in the drive-in concert space, either. He can imagine a future in which venues with massive parking lots, like racetracks (the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has more than double the capacity of AT&T Stadium), can host artists who would normally be playing amphitheaters.
It may not make sense for superstar artists like George Strait or Beyoncé to play to two thousand carloads of fans at a time, but there are a lot of performers who could play a venue the size of the Theatre at Grand Prairie or the H-E-B Center at Cedar Park and make some real money. “I’m sure lots of industrious people will want to make this bigger and put it in more places, because what are the alternatives?” Couri says. “No shows at all or shows in your car? If that’s the case for two years, I can imagine that the shows in your car may continue for a while.”