As you can imagine, the coronavirus has overrun (dare I say “infected?”) our office with an ever growing stream of cancellations based on force majeure and concerns from venues, presenters, agents, and artists around the world. As the situation has continued to develop (dare I say "spread"?) so rapidly, we have so far focused solely on dealing with issues on a case-by-case basis rather than take on the task of posting any advice or updates which might be outdated in 2 days.
However, as cancellations are becoming more frequent and more likely, we have increasingly begun to receive questions from all sides about what does and does not constitute a legitimate Force Majeure cancellation and who is responsible for lost income and covering expenses. While not at all unreasonable concerns, we get the sense that people are “preparing for battle” rather than accepting the reality of a shared crisis in which we all find ourselves. For instance, we have been told:
- That no one can call off a concert unless the U.S. government “officially” declares a pandemic. (That’s unlikely given that the current position of the Trump regime is that this can all be resolved through the power of prayer alone.)
- That venues are “legally” required to educate their audiences not to be led by fear and racism. (Since when? I missed this in law school.)
- That artists should not be allowed to cancel unless they come from the specific part of a country where there have been cases. (So it doesn’t matter that an audience is not going to come to see a South Korean artist regardless of what part of Korea they have just arrived from?)
- "They cancelled a month ago, before there were any outbreaks, so they shouldn’t be able to get the benefit of that now!” (So, the fact that they wound up making the right decision is irrelevant?)
- "The coronavirus cases in their state are not anywhere near where their venue is located!” (Do you live there? Are you planning on going to the concert?)
- "Airlines are still flying to the U.S. from that country, and the artist is willing to be quarantined, so the venue cannot cancel!” (So, just because someone has found a way to break into my house, I have to let them stay so long as they promise not to cough in my face?)
Without a doubt, and not in the least to dismiss the gravity of potential, if not, devastating financial losses throughout the performing arts, these arguments miss the point. Everyone is facing difficult decisions and financial loss—and not just in the performing arts.
Whether you are anticipating a cancellation or it has already happened, you should take the following immediate steps:
Review Your Contract
(Most contracts will actually spell out the situations that allow for a Force Majeure cancellation, including what the parties are and are not responsible for.)
(Gin, slightly dirty, extra olives)
Discard Your Contract and Accept Reality
The legal concept of Force Majeure or Act of God anticipates situations where one or both of the parties to a contract cannot meet their obligations due to something outside of their control and which could not have reasonably been anticipated. A fire in the venue. An artist gets sick. A snowstorm closes an airport. Etc. However, there does not have to be a physical impediment to the performance for a performance contract to be permissibly cancelled due to a force majeure. Does a theater have to actually burn all the way down? Can the artist insist that they are still willing to perform on what’s left of the smoldering stage? What if the artist is sick, but not dead? Can the venue insist that the artist be dragged on stage with a portable oxygen tank?
At present, in the case of a new virus that has spread internationally and was previously unknown, while an official government declaration or ban on travel would certainly make things simpler, that is by no means a requirement. In just two months, we have long been overtaken by circumstances justifying both venues and artists to declare a Force Majeure for any number of reasons, including:
- A show involves artists coming from or who have recently visited an infected area.
- Travel restrictions or quarantine requirements imposed by a state or local government in the U.S. or any country in the world that might impact the ability of an artist or group to leave their own country and/or enter or leave the U.S.
- An artist from one part of the U.S. traveling to another part of the U.S. where cases have been reported.
- Venues deciding to close out of abundance of caution.
- Following recommendations of local health departments.
- An artist wishing to cancel to avoid exposure or to avoid being trapped inside or outside the U.S. should official travel bans start to be put in place.
On their face, these are all a reasonable. Conversely, it may, in fact, be unreasonable for someone to insist on a performance taking place where there was even a "reasonable" risk of putting an artist or audience in harm's way. If God (and/or Goddess and/or the universal cosmic energy) forbid, someone were to get sick, this could raise significant issues of liability for negligence.
The reality is that we are all facing the same situation where everyone is going to be hit with economic losses (and my own office is no exception) which, without a doubt, will impact some more than others. There are already several universities who have cancelled classes and performances out of an abundance of caution. Some venues in the U.S. have informed artists from China, Iran, South Korea, Japan, Italy, and Hong Kong (and that list will most certainly grow) that they will not be allowed to enter the venue for 14 days after arriving in the U.S. Others around the world have either imposed similar restrictions or closed completely, including major opera houses and concert halls. Are these decisions going to impact travel costs, tour dates, lost engagement fees, lost commissions, and even risk an artist exceeding a visa validity period? Of course.
However, even if you believe a cancellation is unreasonable or even if it goes so far as to violate the terms of the contract, what then? Raise contractual and legal arguments? Send snippy and condescending emails? Bring in a lawyer? Sue? While there are almost always legal arguments and issues one could throw at any situation, doing so with regard to anyone’s response to an unknown and spreading virus which is causing world-wide fear and confusion is not merely delusional, but will certainly trigger ethical, professional, and PR concerns that will haunt you far beyond any lost income.
While not all of these will apply to everyone in every situation, here are some practical suggestions for dealing with an actual or threatened cancellation due to the coronavirus:
- Anticipate and prepare financially for losses.
- Explore options for mitigating losses, such as refundable tickets, cancellation policies, and the risks and liabilities of not cancelling sooner rather than later.
- Listen to the fears and concerns of the other party.
- Entertain any and all reasonable alternatives to a cancellation, such checking constantly for updates from the CDC or WHO, as well as reaching out to local health and public safety experts either in the location of the performance or in the location from which an artist will be travelling.
- Entertain any and all reasonable proposals to share losses, taking into consideration a fair, honest, and truthful assessment of who is in a better position to bear them.
- Consider the professional and ethical implications of pressing an argument, making demands, or simply acting like a jerk.
- If a deposit has not been paid, consider it no longer due. If a deposit has already been paid, apply it towards actual, non-refundable expenses (such as airline tickets, rental fees, etc.) and return the rest; and, of course,
- Try to re-book the date.
In addition, here are some websites with calm, cool, and well-thought advice, including suggestions of how to prepare and what to consider:
However rightly or wrongly you may think someone's decision may be, and how deeply your fear the effects on your own economic health, this not the moment to judge, argue, or act impulsively. Rather, now is the moment to test the performing arts industry’s oft-toted (and ever oftener self-heralded) reputation for being able to support one another in surviving a time of crisis and to coalesce as a community in working towards a greater and larger mission. I know you can do it without suing each other!
…And now, time to throw some bleach on my keyboard and sage the office!