On July 13, tickets went on sale online for Drive-In Fest, a drive-in music festival being held at Soldier Field on August 22. A group of Black Chicago-based event promoters — AfroTrak, Civilized Lifestyle and Sigma Chris —  are teaming up to bring to life Chicago’s first large-scale concert since the March 21 shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The socially distanced Drive-In Fest is headlined by Lloyd and features Pleasure P of Pretty Ricky, Bobby Valentino and hometown hip-hop collective Do or Die. The event will also feature sets from Chicago-based DJs Sean Mac and LMS. 

The drive-in festival concept is a unique innovation that could only be borne out of the current stage of the COVID-19 pandemic, where Illinois began reopening last month. However, since then, the number of positive coronavirus cases in Illinois have started to trend upwards. Because of this, precautions are still critical to public health. Chicago has been in Phase 4 since June 26, with the plan being to “gradually resume industry guidelines for reopening.” Since the start of Phase 4, Soldier Field’s parking lots have already hosted  Chicago Park District drive-in movie nights, complete with social distancing precautions. 

“In regards to concerts and major events, they’ve all been pushed back to next year. So a lot of my planning in my business right now looks like planning for 2021,” said Mike Orie, event curator and founder of AfroTrak, an event production company with offices in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and New York City. 

“Everyone’s trying to figure out how to navigate a smaller capacity, how to generate revenue and how to balance both a safe and secure environment and survive and thrive within everything that’s going on,” said Orie.

I spoke to Orie about how the idea for Drive-In Fest came to be, how they plan to maintain a safe environment for concert goers and how he has navigated the COVID-19 pandemic as a full-time event promoter.

Is this the first drive-in concert we’ll be seeing in Chicago? Was it inspired by any events like it?
Mike Orie [Photo by AfroTrak]

Mike Orie: I’ve heard of one in the suburbs, but this is the first that’s been done in the city that I know of. It’s certainly the first of its scale; nobody has done one at Soldier Field*. 

*[Writer’s note: The Soldier Field movie nights hosted by the park district also included live musical openers].

Why a drive-in concert?

MO: At AfroTrak, we produce a lot of concerts. You know, during the COVID-19 pandemic, we started looking at alternative ways to pivot some of our events. Most things just ended up getting rescheduled. With the venues being closed, we started to get creative in thinking of ways to still provide some sort of entertainment. And so that brainstorming just led us to the idea of a drive-in concert.

What's the capacity and what do you expect the turnout to be, realistically?

MO: So the South Lot has about 1,600 spaces and the capacity is scalable based on the setup of the particular event. We haven’t finalized the set-up yet, but I would say we’re anticipating between 300 and 500 cars. 

What are the social distancing protocols for concert-goers?

MO: We’re following the city’s guidelines in terms of social distancing. They will park one space apart between each car and there are spots marked off where guests can put up to two lawn chairs in parking spots. Guests are allowed to either sit on top of their vehicle, or if they prefer they can let the trunk up on their truck or SUV to sit in as well. People are required to wear masks throughout the event with security, off-duty police officers, and staff there to enforce.

Will there be concessions available?

MO: There will be some stands set up throughout the venue catered through a company that Soldier Field requires us to use called Premier Catering. They’ll be serving movie theater-style food and snacks. However, we also plan to include about two or three Black-owned food trucks. We just want to give other Black businesses an opportunity in these times.

How have you and others in the event planning/promotion industry been able to stay afloat through the COVID-19 pandemic?

MO: Specifically for my peers who are in similar scenarios, we had to find creative ways to stay afloat. A lot of businesses, even the restaurants or other small businesses, have gotten a lot of attention in terms of support to ensure they’re successful. [But] the curators and DJs and other artists and creatives, like myself, we’re often kind of overlooked. There’s been a couple extremely small grants, just… you know, very minimal. So some of us have been forced to consider other career opportunities, and others kind of relied on their savings to get them through this difficult time.

How did that go for you, personally?

MO: Myself and some of my partners in this project were lucky enough to have a very successful [2020 NBA] All-Star Weekend, so we’ve been leaning on our savings from that. 

Why this roster?

MO: I work primarily in this space of R&B and hip hop. We looked at the climate of what was going on [and] what shows and tours [were] being canceled. We took a few of the artists that are participating in the Millennium tour [a tour that included early 2000s throwback artists such as Lloyd and Pretty Ricky] and we brought them on as a part of this. Although we did pick these artists, there are a lot of artists that work through a booking agency, and they’re withholding doing any one-off shows because they’re holding off for larger tours next year. So we had to kind of study and understand the climate of what was going on and who was [still] performing.

Flyer for Drive-In Fest | Courtesy of AfroTrak
What does the nightlife/event promotion field look like now that things are beginning to open back up?

MO: Pretty much non existent unless you’re willing to do something on a smaller scale. In regards to concerts and major events, they’ve all been pushed back to next year. So a lot of my planning in my business right now looks like planning for 2021. For any other promoters that are currently doing events, they might have to operate at 25 to 30% of the capacity of what they would normally do. 

Businesses have to decide if it’s worth putting up some of their funds. Everyone’s trying to figure out how to navigate a smaller capacity, how to generate revenue and how to balance both a safe and secure environment and survive and thrive within everything that’s going on.

Do you have any future plans for social distanced programming?

MO: I think the drive-in festival is our primary focus. We would obviously love to do more of these, but this one is sort of the guinea pig. We’ve been meeting for the past month and a half behind the scenes and need to make sure everything meets the expectations of what we want to produce. Hopefully, this goes well and we can produce more drive-in concepts like this.

Each ticket for The Drive-In Fest admits a group of 4 and can be purchased here starting at $185.

is a staff writer with The TRiiBE. Email him with news tips.