The phrases “music festival” and “Super Bowl” didn’t always seem like they should be naturally conjoined, but in an era where halftime performers get as much scrutiny as which teams make the finals, it’s made sense to draw out the musical parts of the annual festivities as much as possible, even if it’s just for in-person visitors and not worldwide television consumption. And so for the third time in four years (minus one pandemic time-out), the game’s host city is also getting a three-night Bud Light Super Bowl Music Fest, aimed at luring locals as well as out-of-towners with diverse double-headliner bills.
At L.A.’s Crypto.com Arena (which was still called Staples Center when the lineup was revealed in November), Halsey and Machine Gun Kelly provide the action on Thursday, the first night. Friday, marrieds Gwen Stefani and Blake Shelton will do the first co-headlining gig in their romantic or professional lives, joined in an opening set by Mickey Guyton, who’ll be performing the National Anthem at the game a couple of days later. The third and final night on Super Bowl eve belongs to two rock acts — if the recent crossover into that genre fold by one of them counts: Green Day and Miley Cyrus. (Tickets are still on sale for all three shows.)
“If you look back maybe 30 years, we didn’t have a lot of music at the Super Bowl,” says Don Renzulli, executive VP of events for On Location Experiences, one of the festival’s executive producers. “What you had was Frank Sinatra basically playing every year at the Super Bowl site on Saturday night. And then you started to see the halftime shows start to evolve back at the Rose Bowl at XXVII (in 1993) when Michael Jackson took the stage at halftime. So that really started to catapult what a Super Bowl is and how you bring football and music together” — down to the pre-game present day, when, with Green Day, we’ll have the punks playing for the jocks.
In 2019, at State Farm Arena in Atlanta, the first Super Bowl Music Fest lineup set the stage for genre-crossing, with artists including Bruno Mars, Aerosmith, Post Malone, Cardi B, Migos, Ciara, T.I., Lil Jon, Young Jeezy and Ludacris. The following year, at the American Airlines Arena in Miami, it was Guns N’ Roses, Maroon 5, Megan Thee Stallion, DJ Khaled, DaBaby, Snoop Dogg, Meek Mill and Dan + Shay.
This year’s lineup isn’t going so much for sheer quantity as the two predecessors — just two arena-level acts playing full sets each night, with Guyton thrown in as a hopefully welcome third wheel preceding Shelton and Stefani on the middle evening.
Even so, “it’s not all about pairings,” says Amit Dhawan, the founder of Synergy, the shows’ other executive producer, as much as “never before seen shows.” That unseen element is pretty much a given for Halsey, who canceled a tour behind a previous album right as it was beginning when the pandemic hit in early 2020, and whose tour behind a newer album, “If I Can’t Have Love I Want Power,” won’t arrive till later this year. But Dhawan says her show at Crypto.com Arena won’t necessarily be an exact preview of what she’ll be doing in amphitheaters this summer any more than Machine Gun Kelly’s set that same night will be a precise duplication of what he was doing on the festival circuit last summer. “It’s going to be a big spectacle” is all Dhawan will specifically promise.
Cyrus also did some festival appearances last year, in lieu of a tour, but Dhawan doesn’t think that necessarily gives fans a clear indication of what her performance will look or sound like either. “Every one of Miley’s festival shows was different,” he says. “She’s a consummate entertainer.” So how about Shelton and Stefani? Should it be expected that they will do mostly separate sets and join up just for the duets the’ve previously recorded together, or could there be jointly more to it? “I can’t comment on that at all. I’m sworn to secrecy,” the producer says.
Says Lee Zeidman, president of Crypto.com Arena as well as the surrounding L.A. Live complex, “As a venue operator, I would love for people to buy strips and be here every night and see three different types of genres of music.” But knowing that a majority of concertgoers may only hit one of the three, there is some calculation to the way the bills are staggered.
Says On Location’s Renzulli, “We’ll draw different crowds. We’ve seen that in the past years. We’re getting an awful lot of interest from the players — the non-participating players that are coming to Los Angeles. I think when we put these together, we always look at Thursday night as almost being the local show, so we try to give the locals something. And then because of the way the Super Bowl is set up now, where most people are coming in on Friday, it gives us the ability to really tackle the Super Bowl fans on Friday and Saturday night. Saturday night is typically our big corporate night, where they will have taken their people out to dinner on Friday and they’ll come to the show on Saturday.”
In booking the concerts, Dhawan says, it was a matter not just of finding the right balance of artists, but “then also finding people who are comfortable touring, because remember, we plan months in advance. If you go back in time six to eight months, it was a different world than where it is today.” He speaks to the arrival of the festival this weekend in birth terms: “Pregnancy takes nine months. So there’s your answer on how long it takes to put together such a fantastic festival.”
Fortunately for the fest, it is landing, by design or luck, as COVID rates are finally on the decline in the Los Angeles area after an omicron surge. Were there ever any worries amid the surges mid- and late last year that worries about mass events might keep the festival from coming off?
“I don’t think there were any concerns about these shows moving forward,” says L.A. Live’s Zeidman, “based on the fact that Crypto.com Arena has been hosting events in the beginning, middle and later stages of the pandemic, during the pandemic, with partial fans or now at full capacity. Nor did we have any concerns about the Super Bowl being moved. That said, this building is obviously one of the busiest in the city of Los Angeles, and we have done everything possible, beginning March 12, 2020, to take this venue top to bottom and make it as COVID-proof as possible. We’ve got our GVAC certification, which makes us one of the safest and cleanest venues in the world. We were in the forefront of helping write the protocols for the city of Los Angeles and the state of California on how to welcome people back. We understand how to check for either a vaccination verification or a negative test based on the number of events that we have done here.
“There is nothing short of standing next to you to make sure you’re wearing your mask when you do not take that drink or eat that hot dog that we have not done here. … We do at least six changeovers of our complete air, 100% air within the building, per hour. … And I think our staff, the men and women who work here, have done a great job of making sure that everybody’s responsible, wearing their mask when it’s appropriate and taking it down when they’re eating or drinking — but obviously we cannot be the mask police out there and go into the stands and start yanking people out.”
On a more trivial level: Has anyone actually started calling the former Staples Center by its new name yet… or will that be much more difficult to get compliance on than a mask mandate?
“I was the first person hired for Staples Center,” says Zeidman. “I came over from the Forum when it was the Great Western Forum (at the end of the ’90s). So I lived with Staples Center for 23 years, until the conversion. It’s just a name change. We didn’t move the arena into the Pacific ocean and have people paddle out there to get there. Nothing has changed. It’s unheard of in this business that there is a 23-year-old venue that somebody is spending $713 million to change the name to. And that’s a tribute to the men and women that work here, to the artists that play here, to the athletes that play on the ice and the court, and to the championships that we’ve won over the years, along with the hosting of the Grammys and the Democratic National Convention.
“That said, are people going to immediately adopt Crypto.com Arena? No, I don’t believe that. … I believe that if we’re fortunate to have one of our three professional franchises win a world championship here in the first year of operation, people will forget Staples Center pretty quickly.” The Super Bowl Music Fest will be one of the first tests of whether concertgoers go home telling tales from the Crypto or sticking with the old verbal staples.