Last year as the world shut down, one event after another announced cancelation and offered refunds to ticket-bearers. Eventually, venues and organizers started innovating and culture-vultures found different ways to keep their lives in sync—from reduced capacity and drive-in performances to virtual events and Zoom experiences. On January 22, one band took it to a whole new level with a “bubble concert.”
This concert was one of a kind for the world, but not for the psych-rock band’s frontman Wayne Coyne. He has surfed the crowds at concerts in human-sized, plastic orbs before and even got married in one.
Oklahoma-based psych-rock band The Flaming Lips took the stage on January 22 and 23 in plastic bubbles as the audience rocked and rolled in their own bubbles. Nathan Poppe, who was running the cameras at the event, tweeted details of how the 90-minute concert unfolded. There were 100 bubbles at the venue, set up in a grid; each with a speaker, a fan, a water bottle, a towel, and a “I gotta go pee/hot in here” sign. One plastic bubble could accommodate up to three people, who could take off their masks inside and roll to the exit to leave. The bubble was refilled with a leaf blower if it got too hot and people cheered by thumping on the top of their bubble. The band was also in bubbles on stage—an out-of-the-ordinary experience for everyone involved.
The concert—initially planned for December but was postponed due to rising cases in the state—was attended by around 200 people. After the success of the world’s first bubble concert, the band is planning more socially distant shows in March, all with these inflatable space bubbles.
The Story of Conception
This concert was one of a kind for the world, but not for the psych-rock band’s frontman Wayne Coyne. He has surfed the crowds at concerts in human-sized, plastic orbs before and even got married in one. In fact, the idea of a bubble concert came from his doodle in March, just after the pandemic hit. The musician told CNN, “I did a little drawing… where I drew a picture of The Flaming Lips doing a show in 2019. And I’m the only person in the space bubble, and everybody else is just normal. Then (I did another drawing with) The Flaming Lips playing a show in 2020. The exact same scenario, but I’m in a bubble, and so is everybody else.” This was a commentary on the pandemic, which turned into an idea that the band eventually went ahead with.
Last June, they played for The Late Show With Stephen Colbert in these plastic orbs with a much smaller crowd of friends and family. Each band member, and their equipment, had their own bubble and the audience of around 20 had one sphere each.
Then in October, the band experimented with space bubbles at the Criterion in Oklahoma City for a live gig-slash-shoot. For the test run, they asked people to arrive at the venue between 6:30 p.m. and 7 p.m., and attendees were taken to their bubbles row by row. There were 100 bubbles laid out in a 10X10 grid, inflated by a leaf blower, and zipped up—the same concept that they mimicked for the concert last month. People, once inside the bubble, could take off their masks, but before exiting the bubble, they were required to cover their nose and mouth. It was also a shoot and the footage from this trial gig was also used in the song Assassins of Youth.
“There is definitely a concern for the ‘bubble concert’…the exit from the bubble poses a problem—how is the bubble deflated? Where does the air go? What is the process for disinfection?”
These bubbles, Coyne told Rolling Stone, went through a deep cleaning process. Once deflated, they were washed with “about 20 ounces of 70% isopropyl alcohol, hit with the leaf blower until the liquid evaporated, and then scrubbed down by a person in a full painter’s suit and mask,” it reported.
What Do Experts Think?
“I think this is an innovative way of allowing people to participate in a normal activity—concert-going—while also doing it in the safest way possible.”
Although the band and organizers have imagined a new and seemingly safe way to appreciate music, some health experts aren’t fully convinced yet.
Dr. Saskia Popescu, an assistant professor at the George Mason University, stated, “I appreciate the attempt to create ‘personal bubbles’ that would allow people to enjoy a concert, but there are too many concerns for human factors and operationally of the bubble that raise a red flag.”
The infectious disease epidemiologist and infection preventionist explained why it’s not a good idea. “There is definitely a concern for the ‘bubble concert’ as while the theory is to create your own personal bubble, the exit from the bubble poses a problem—how is the bubble deflated? Where does the air go? What is the process for disinfection? The concern is that if you have an infectious person inside a bubble, they could be creating just a bubble of droplets and aerosols and that could pose risk to others for deflation and any outwards emissions.”
Dr. Sandro Galea, dean of the Boston University School of Public Health, told The New York Times that the risk of transmission can be reduced with protective barriers and good air circulation, but he would still be hesitant to attend a bubble concert until it’s further assessed.
On the other hand, Joshua Barocas, assistant professor of medicine at Boston University, told Business Insider, that these concerts may inspire hope, “I think this is an innovative way of allowing people to participate in a normal activity—concert-going—while also doing it in the safest way possible.”
Should You Attend a Bubble Concert?
People have different pandemic boundaries. Some may feel ordering in might be a risk, while others may be dining in a bubble dome. There is no way to predict when live concerts, as we knew them, will resurrect (White House Chief Medical Advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci hopes it will be as soon as this fall if 70-85% people got vaccinated), but right now all we can do is take precautions, wear masks, and make informed decisions.
As with every other outdoor activity, you have to ask yourself: Are the cases rising in your city? Are you willing to risk your health, and that of your family’s, for the benefit of attending a concert? Do you feel comfortable sharing space with others?
It is possible that more such innovative concepts will offer opportunities to unwind and feel normal in the coming months, and it will be up to you to decide what’s worth the risk.