Lauren Alaina - Getty Images

Lauren Alaina’s a hugger. But when she leaves the Moondance Jam stage in Walker, MN, on Saturday, June 19 — her first real show since early 2020 — she won’t be hugging many people. Nor will she be shaking hands and signing photos for groups of fans before her set. Alaina has decided to forego meet ‘n’ greets as she returns to the road, at least for the time being. So have many other artists, as they adapt to a touring environment where COVID-19 remains an ever-present, if diminished, possibility.

“We’re not going to do anything like that on these first few shows,” Trisha McClanahan, Alaina’s manager, tells Inside radio sister publication Country Insider. “We want to just get back in the system, get our feet on the ground.

“Typically with every fair and festival, Lauren signs autographs for every person there. She’s the one that goes out the door and signs for fans for two hours at the fence. So this is kind of a unique experience for her.”

Jordan Davis will begin his headlining Buy Dirt Tour in September after a summer of festival and casino dates. His team is still deciding how they’ll handle meet ‘n’ greets then, not only for fans but for radio. “Radio has been a huge thing in our shows,” Jordan Davis said during a recent CRS360 webinar. “We try to get them in wherever we can to do meet ‘n’ greets, do VIPs or swing by the station to play a few songs before the show.” None of those options are givens at the moment.

“Are we gonna have a meet ‘n’ greet?” Jordan wondered. “Are we going to be able to do a VIP thing? We have a lot of fans that look just as much towards our VIP performances pre-show as they do to being at the show.

“Those are a few things that are weird right now, still up in the air.”

The demand for such appearances during tour stops certainly hasn’t diminished, with stations, labels and fans all looking for clarity. “When the first tours were announced, I swear to God, the next day I had four or five requests for ticket comps and meet ‘n’ greets right off the bat,” says RJ Meacham, Curb Records’ Senior VP, Promotion. “We’re basically telling everybody we’ll circle back to them.” Meacham describes his conversations with management and agents as “a lot of head-scratching and wondering and watching and waiting and seeing.”

Even with COVID-19 case numbers declining in much of the U.S., the disease remains a risk. Nobody wants to be the first act to cancel two weeks of dates because somebody tests positive for COVID-19 and the entire crew has to quarantine.

“The artist managers are looking at the logistics and going, ‘If one person gets one of my people sick and they get on the bus and roll down the road, the next thing you know COVID takes out two busloads of band and crew,’” Meacham says. “The financial implications of that exposure are significant and could quickly derail a tour.”

Red Light Management’s Shawn McSpadden works with Kip Moore, Jameson Rodgers, Lainey Wilson, Dee Jay Silver and Troy Cartwright. “We're so excited to get back to work that we don’t want to do anything that would jeopardize that,” McSpadden says. “It’s up to the individual artists and managers and how they feel, but I don’t know of anybody right now that is doing it.”

McSpadden says he’s seen minimal pushback about the decision to hold off on meet ‘n’ greets: “Everybody has just kind of said, ‘This is one thing we can do without.’”

Losing meet ‘n’ greets may free up a touring act’s daily schedule, but it also deprives them of a major source of personal, real-time feedback. “These are creatures who have been on stage and getting live love from fans — or the industry, or whoever — for their entire careers,” McClanahan says. “Lauren is certainly someone who thrives on that. It makes her feel like what she does has value, and the world has ripped that from them.” Alaina has focused on other areas of her career during the time off the road, working and music and working on writing, McClanahan says, “but they don’t give that immediate feedback.”

Just as the shutdown spawned a proliferation of livestreams, the lack of meet ‘n’ greets has teams searching for options for interaction that don’t necessitate physical proximity to groups of people. “We obviously can do socially distanced things,” McSpadden says. “We can perform for VIPs beforehand, where maybe we’ll do a few songs.” At a soundcheck party before a recent Chris Janson show in Colorado Springs, Janson posed for a picture with more than three-dozen contest winners, who were separated from the singer by a black stanchion. Other possibilities include green-screen photo opportunities to create the illusion of a picture with an artist. “As far as that interaction where you’re hugging people and shaking their hands goes,” McSpadden says, “we just haven’t taken that step and everybody has been very understanding.”

Like almost everything else related to the pandemic, current plans are up for constant re-evaluation and could change at any time — hopefully in time for fall tours, if the summer goes well.

McClanahan notes that Alaina will join Florida Georgia Line’s tour in late September. “I think that’s a more controlled situation where I’m going to do some sort of [ticketed] VIP thing for a limited number of people, where she can sign autographs but not do the hugging and all those things we typically do.”

In the meantime, McSpadden says he’s happy with taking baby steps. “We’ll figure it out down the road,” he says, “maybe next year or later this year, even, as the vaccines continue to roll out.” – Country Insider