If anyone in country music has ever deserved to have their career unceremoniously wiped and cancelled, inadvertently or otherwise, it might be Chase Rice. It’s an embarrassment he is even associated in any way with country music, or entertainment in general.
From commanding, “Get your little fine ass on the step, shimmy up on inside” in his song “Ready, Set, Roll,” to asking, “What if I shut ya up with my lips on your lips” in the creepy song “Whisper,” this Survivor contestant turned 3rd tier pop country performer has been composing the soundtrack to date rape since he showed up on the scene.
Nonetheless, the criticism of his recent concert that has made him public enemy #1 deserves some context, and a deeper discussion.
On Saturday, June 27th, Chase Rice performed on the opening date of his current tour at the Historic Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary near Knoxville, TN—an outdoor venue on the grounds of the historic prison where they regularly hold a summer concert series. After posting a video snippet to his Instagram feed showing what appeared to be a packed concert full of fans (see below), a backlash ensued, with the video and Chase Rice’s name going viral. During an era when every day it seems someone must become persona non grata as a social media mob descends upon them, over the past couple of days, that person has been Chase Rice.
Make no mistake about it, and mincing no words, what Chase Rice did by allowing fans to congregate near the stage was unconscionable, irresponsible, and patently unfair to his fellow performers who have been following protocols in hope for falling COVID-19 numbers so they can resume touring as well. He deserves to be called out publicly.
However, there’s also no reason to lie or deceive about what happened, and it was irresponsible to report on the issue until we had the full picture. The Chase Rice video and story did not go viral solely because it depicts a few hundred fans crowding around the stage, most of whom were not wearing masks. It went viral because of what enraged Twitter assumed was a full, normal music concert taking place, flaunting COVID-19 protocols.
On Sunday (6-28), pop country star Kelsea Ballerini tweeted out the video with the caption, “Imagine being selfish enough to put thousands of people’s health at risk, not to mention the potential ripple effect, and play a NORMAL country concert right now. Chase Rice, we all want (and need) to tour. We just care about our fans and their families enough to wait.” This tweet is what caused the video, and Chase Rice, to go viral.
However, what Kelsea Ballerini said is not true. The Chase Rice concert at Brushy Mountain was not a “normal” concert, and there were not “thousands” of people in attendance. According to Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary Group Vice President Brian May,
“All local requirements were abided by for the recent concert, and numerous precautions were taken. We drastically reduced our maximum venue capacity of 10,000 to 4,000 maximum capacity (lower than the state’s advisement of 50 percent) with less than 1,000 in attendance Saturday night providing ample space in the outdoor lawn area for fans to spread out to their own comfort level. All guests were given temperature checks prior to entering the venue and free hand sanitizer was provided to everyone at entry. All vendors and staff were advised to wear masks and gloves when interacting with guests, and bandanas were available for purchase on-site.”
But that hasn’t stopped the perception of what people thought they saw getting in the way of what actually happened. In the video, you only see a close crop of what looks like a few hundred people right near the stage. Again, this in itself is very alarming, and irresponsible. However the perception is that where the lights and the view end, there are thousands of more people extending well beyond what you see, all packed tightly in, all not wearing masks, like you would see at a “normal” concert, to use Kelsea Ballerini’s words. This misnomer is why the video so went viral.
How many people did the average viewer of the viral video perceive to be at the concert? Apparently the consensus is somewhere just above 4,000—or more than three times the amount of people who were actually there. In fact The Daily Mail feels so confident in that number (and says the video verifies it), they made it the headline of their article on the incident, and added for good measure that fans were “packed tightly inside the venue,” even though it was an outdoor area.
Wonderwall also reported the 4,000 number, and put it in their title, as did multiple others. The Huffington Post said in their headline said the Chase Rice concert was an “enormous crowd.” CNN called it “packed.” Even United States Representative Tony Cardenas from California tweeted out, “This was incredibly selfish. Tennessee is experiencing a spike in #COVID cases and he decides to play a concert with 4000+ people.” He apparently got the notion from The Washington Post.
So not just the general population, but multiple members of the media, and even an elected representative, landed on 4,000 as the amount of people in attendance at the Chase Rice show.
But what was the actual number of attendees at the concert? According to the Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary Group, there were 954 tickets sold to the concert, with 809 tickets scanned. That means there were 809 people total to spread out and socially distance among the 3+ acre crowd area—significantly less than the 5,000 people the venue had been cleared for, and the 10,000 capacity under normal circumstances—not exactly an “enormous” crowd, in the “thousands”—and nowhere near the 4,000 alleged. The crowd at Brushy Mountain for the Chase Rice concert constituted 8% of the venue’s capacity.
Now granted, none of this takes Chase Rice or the attendees off the hook. It was still an irresponsible move for fans to disregard instructions and crowd in front of the stage, for Chase Rice to not instruct them to move back and give each other space, and for the venue to not do more to intervene in the matter. You may say, “4,000, 10,000, or 800, it’s still a big problem.” And this is true.
However, by falsifying or embellishing the actual number of people in attendance, the media is feeding conspiracy theorists and Coronavirus apologists fresh meat, and validating their accusations that people are lying to them. Because in this case, they are. There were not 4,000 people at the Chase Rice show, and the crowd was not “enormous.” And by seizing upon hyperbolic anger fed by social media frenzy sharing incorrect facts and a misleading video, they’re feeding right into the crowd that calls COVID-19 a hoax.
Due to the incident, Brushy Mountain is reevaluating how to approach their summer concert series.
“We were unable to further enforce the physical distancing recommended in the signage posted across the property and are looking into future alternative scenarios that further protect the attendees, artists and their crews and our employees,” says VP Brian May. “We are reevaluating the series from the top to bottom—from implementing further safety measures, to adding stanchions, to converting the space to drive-in style concerts, to postponing shows.”
Chase Rice also responded to the backlash in an Instagram video posted Monday (6-29) afternoon. “The biggest thing for all of us is the safer we are now, the quicker we get to actual normal live shows, which I know we all want,” Rice said, who has a drive-in show coming up next weekend. “Thank you guys for understanding, please go by the rules, please go by the laws on this Friday show coming up and shows moving forward.”
But the bigger concern, and the deeper discussion being missed in this whole Chase Rice episode is how the music industry is going to move forward in the continued COVID-19 environment. The entire live music industry is on the brink of collapse, and performers in much more difficult positions than Chase Rice are facing extinction if something isn’t done. In Texas, and parts of California and Arizona, they have just re-instituted the closure of bars, which includes music venues. Studies have the number of local venues that may go under at 90%, while there seems to be no collective will by government leaders for additional stimulus, let alone targeted relief for the live music industry specifically which was the first to close, and will be the last to reopen.
What Chase Rice did severely sets back efforts to reopen the industry not just by potentially helping to spread the disease to even more people, but also by souring public perception about the ability of music fans to enjoy the medium responsibly as we try to manage reopening. Embellishing the numbers and the ensuing social media frenzy didn’t help.
Opening up at limited capacities and in accordance with local health officials like Brushy Mountain attempted to do might be the only way to save certain venues, and the careers of the artists who may perform there. And despite the characterization of some, this isn’t choosing money over lives. The mask issue continues to be contentious with some as well, even though mask wearing may be the only way for your favorite venues to open back up, and your favorite artists to resume their livelihoods.
Though the Chase Rice concert is being couched as one of the first “normal” concerts back, venues big and small have already been inviting performers and attendees back under safe protocols that have been adhered to by everyone involved. The crowding in front of the stage at the Chase Rice show was an outlier, and may have never been known about if video hadn’t been posted to Instagram. Chris Janson played to an estimated 2,800 people in Idaho, and received some criticism, but not nearly as much as Chase Rice did since it wasn’t accompanied by as dramatic of a video. And though it’s fair to criticize and be alarmed over these incidents, they should not injure certain venues or performers from returning to limited capacities if it’s cleared by local health officials and safe for everyone, and people follow the guidelines, like is already happening in multiple locations.
The public shaming that ensues when artists or venues open up—even when they return safely and under strict guidelines mandated by local authorities—is something that needs to be discussed objectively by the music industry and the media. Viral videos, misleading photos, and public shaming could be just as problematic to returning as the virus itself. The unnecessary politicization of COVID-19 has made it a binary issue for many. Either you stay home and shame everyone else who doesn’t as murderers, or you think it’s all a big hoax. But like everything else, the truth is somewhere in the middle.
This is not to advocate for the business of live music returning to normal at the moment, or even at a limited capacity in areas still struggling with rising COVID-19 numbers. But as an industry, the discussion needs to be had of how to return safely and sustainably free of emotional triggers, and based on factual information. Because as we saw with the Chase Rice situation, people tend to see what they want, as opposed to what is actually there.