Live music venues were among the first to close and have yet to fully reopen during the COVID-19 pandemic. As concerts, festivals and other performances have been canceled or postponed indefinitely, most event spaces and clubs have remained closed to the general public for eight months.
Some have reopened at 15 percent capacity, but venue owners say that’s not enough to keep them financially stable in the future.
A group of local independent venue owners have joined together to seek legislation and funding so they can reopen.
Through Reopen Every Venue Safely (REVS), a national campaign created by Music Cities Together, Northeast Ohio venues like Happy Dog, Grog Shop, BOP STOP at the Music Settlement, Beachland Ballroom and Tavern, the Goodyear Theater and Jilly’s Music Room have created new guidelines and best practices for reopening live music spaces when it is safe to do so.
Still, these venues have to make ends meet financially as there is no set reopening date in sight.
Seeking funding to stay in business
Gov. Mike DeWine issued an order in late August allowing entertainment venues to reopen at 15 percent capacity, but for most venues, this is not economically viable.
Happy Dog in Cleveland is a smaller music venue, bar and restaurant that would likely see a financial hit if it opened at this limited capacity.
Sean Watterson, Happy Dog co-owner, said the future of the venue is in jeopardy, and he’s fighting for support every day.
“It’s really hard to resist the urge to try and open,” Watterson said. “But when you run the numbers and look at the health impacts, the smarter thing to do is stay closed so that you have a chance to come back.”
As a bar and restaurant, Watterson applied for $2,500 in financial aid intended to cover a liquor license.
“Truth is, our liquor license costs more than the amount that the state is giving out for that,” Watterson said. “So, we’re still going to have to turn around and send that check back, probably before we get [the money].”
Happy Dog is currently closed because of the pandemic, but the venue hosted its first livestream performance in October. The event was the first live concert since the shutdown in March.
“It’s like we got hit by a tornado. It’s not, ‘Oh, we didn’t know how to run our businesses.’ We are scrappy, independent operators, and we’re doing everything we can to be there on the other side of this,” Watterson said.
In October, Cuyahoga County announced it would grant $4 million in CARES Act money to the arts and culture sector, with $1.3 million of the funding divided among individual artists and for-profit businesses in the creative space.
“We got only $4 million total, which is not what we would have hoped,” Watterson said. “But the fact that the sector came together and said, ‘We’re asking on behalf of the nonprofits, but also these for-profit independent venues and producers and promotors and the individual artists who have been hit,’ is a great sign of cooperation and collaboration.”
Venue owners like Watterson continue to seek additional support at the county and state level.
“We have great bipartisan support,” Watterson said. “There are over 200 cosponsors in House and Senate, including Ohio U.S. Sens. Sherrod Brown and Rob Portman.”
But Congress and the White House haven’t been able to come to an agreement on another stimulus bill.
“What we’re hearing is, ‘When there is a bill, you’re in the bill.’ But there isn’t a bill,” he said. “So, we’ve had to pivot and do as much as we can at the local level and state level.”
Funding has been granted to nonprofit performing arts spaces, but most concert venues are not eligible.
“We’ve got our application in the small business program, but we got cut out of the arts funding,” Watterson said. “Because the arts funding went entirely to nonprofits arts organizations, we worked with bipartisan cosponsors to introduce Save Ohio Stages bill. It’s modeled after the federal bill.”
This bill was introduced Nov. 9 and would authorize grants for operators, producers and promoters associated with performing arts venues.
Qualifying venues, which include those designated for music, comedy or other live entertainment and include a designated performance and audience space, could each receive as much as $200,000, depending on revenue dollars reported in 2019.
The challenges of operating at limited capacity
BOP STOP at the Music Settlement is another venue seeking funding to continue hosting live-music events at full capacity.
BOP STOP has been closed since March 12 but began livestreaming smaller, limited-capacity shows in August.
Director Gabriel Pollack said shows with smaller audiences are not financially sustainable, and revenue is down approximately 80 percent of what it was in 2019.
"The streams are doing well enough to support bands, [but] there's not much leftover. I've never really spent much time applying for grants, but that's a priority now. And crowdfunding a little bit, just so we can cover the expenses of the club," Pollack said.
He said BOP STOP operates much like a for-profit venue, but it’s one branch of a larger nonprofit, the Music Settlement, which offers music education, lessons and therapy.
He’s affected more similarly to a for-profit business, but he can’t apply for the $1.3 for-profit funds because he’s technically a nonprofit.
At the same time, he can’t apply for the nonprofit funds because the larger organization is going to apply for these dollars.
“It’s challenging because these policies aren’t that inclusive,” Pollack said. “Even though the Music Settlement may get those funds, it’s up in the air whether or not any of those funds will trickle down to the BOP STOP.”
He said tax status shouldn’t determine who in the same creative economy gets relief and who doesn’t.
If the Save Our Stages Ohio bill is approved, Pollack said it will include a broader definition of a “performing arts venue” to prevent this discrepancy.
Mark O’Shea, production manager at the Goodyear Theater and Hall in Akron, said like concert venues, the core of the live music industry—promoters, managers and musicians—will continue to suffer without help.
"There are a lot of people at the moment that if the federal government does not step in and help the arts industry, that the arts industry will suffer catastrophic losses, and it will never jump back to where it was,” O’Shea said. “And no one is going to want to jump in for the fear that it could happen again."
When the mandate for no mass gatherings of 10 or more people was called in Ohio earlier this year, the theater had to stop all shows, town hall meetings and private events.
The 1,480-seat venue shut down completely. Goodyear Theater was going to host a concert the week after Thanksgiving, but the band backed out.
“If the money’s not there and the apprehension is there, that’s a problem. If you don’t have artists wanting to go out on the road to tour, that’s a huge problem,” he said.
While the venue could reopen at 15 percent of sellable capacity, O’Shea said most smaller venues cannot because they’d lose money.
Governmentally and administratively, venue owners have essentially been told they’re closed for business until further notice, he said.
“Nothing is happening, and a lot of these people are trying to figure out how to survive,” O’Shea said. “If there is no touring, there are no live shows. There’s no possibility for us to even stream a local show, financially on our end, due to the size of the venue because of the limitations on mass gatherings.”
The hesitancy to reopen as touring stalls
Grog Shop, located in Cleveland Heights, was hosting smaller shows with an average of 40 attendees in the audience.
Owner Kathy Blackman said there are no plans to reopen at full capacity any time soon. It was announced this week that all scheduled, limited-capacity shows at Grog Shop and B Side Lounge have been postponed.
Blackman said 75 percent of her business was from touring bands, and many have postponed their shows until 2022.
She said a lot of musicians aren't ready to play yet.
"We're being selective. Bands are being selective. [It] has to be the right feel," she said.
The 40-attendee shows were not a sustainable model, but she's said they did help to boost employee morale and keep the Grog Shop name out there.
The very small shows were "not going to get us over the finish line," she said.
Pollack said the music industry is “in flux” as audiences and touring musicians are hesitant to return to large, in-person concerts as the pandemic surges on.
“When are bands going to be on the road again? There’s no national COVID policy, so just going on tour and going state to state where guidelines change is challenging for bands to navigate,” Pollack said.
He has struggled booking shows at BOP STOP because of how uncertain the year has been.
Pollack was scheduling events six months out or more before the spread of COVID-19, and now the events are booked much more “last minute,” he said.
“Just because people feel comfortable today doesn’t mean they’re going to feel comfortable three months from now,” Pollack said.
BOP STOP was hosting more than 300 concerts a year. Livestream shows have filled in the open dates in 2020, and Pollack said they make enough money to pay the bands, but there isn’t enough left over for the venue to support itself.
Touring bands are planning their routes pretty far in advance, so even if a vaccine is distributed this year, it’s going to take a few months for venues to have a typical pre-COVID lineup.
If things clear up, Gabe said the venue will probably have all local shows for a while, then start planning touring bands.
“Six months after the vaccine would probably look way more like pre-COVID times,” he said.
O’Shea said venue owners need to put themselves in the mindset of patrons and artists to help re-instill confidence that the places they enjoy live music are looking out for their safety.
"Even if the pandemic curve drops way down, you're going to have a good portion of the population that's going to be a little apprehensive about going out,” O’Shea said.
There’s a huge concern among the live music industry that COVID will spread, and O’Shea said venue owners don’t want to be liable for hosting events that got people sick.
“Nobody wants a black mark on their watch. Nobody wants to be the creator of a super-spreader event,” he said. “So that has always been in the back of everybody’s mind and that has always been a concern of the concert industry as a whole.”
Mark said now that venue owners have the time, they’ve been working to develop a set of rules, practices and protocols to allow venue owners to reopen in the future.
When limitations are lifted and public officials release restrictions on mass gatherings, he will be watching to make sure people know how to react with a “lot of common sense and empathy” before reopening.
Watterson said even if there is a vaccine tomorrow, the live music industry isn’t going to reopen the next day.
“And we’re going to lose some musicians and some people in this industry permanently to driving for Amazon or delivering groceries for Instacart,” Watterson said.
Joining together to create best practices for operating safely
Watterson said musicians, clubs, staff and public health officials have all been part of the effort to help venues reopen safely.
The national Reopen Every Venue Safely came together because live music venues were already lobbying with the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA).
Arts Cleveland realized there was a need and reached out to Music Cities Together to ask if Cleveland could become a REVS pilot city.
Arts Cleveland released a document of best practices for the region’s live music venues as part of the REVS campaign.
The guidelines were published Oct. 30 and are the product of several meetings and discussions between local live music venues, staff, performers and health professionals.
The document includes sanitation procedures, musician safety and management, employee training, protocol for ushering audience members in and out of venues and a list of additional resources for touch-free ticketing and deep cleaning.
“We’re not open, and we’re not open until it’s safe to be open,” Watterson said. And now we’ve got a good guidance on what we’re gonna need to do when we get to that point.”
The Cleveland REVS group has met on a regular basis since the beginning of the shutdown.
They’ve been brainstorming new ways local venues will have to operate in the future to keep everyone safe. The first meeting was June 1 with about seven or eight people representing the venues on each call. They first determined the issues they were facing and focused future meetings around each one of those themes.
The main focus was the safety of different people groups in the venues: musicians, employees and audience.
Meetings also touched on communications with audience members, cleaning procedures and communication with agents and managers.
LeAundra Richardson, musician and associate of programs and marketing with Arts Cleveland, said they’re now working to get the word out to all venues, even those that are not a part of REVS.
“It’s not just nonprofits asking more money anymore. It’s also for-profits, these venues, and they’re such an important part of these communities that they’re in,” she said. “People come to the cities. They stay in the hotels. They eat the food. And these cities are going to lose all of that, if these venues shut down.”
O’Shea said this effort has come from venues supporting one another and figuring out next steps for when they can finally reopen.
He said it’s important to have this plan in place now so people feel safe coming back to larger, live-music events. This is what he sees as the biggest challenge right now.
Pollack said even once COVID clears, a lot of the practices in the reopening guidelines document will be applicable when they’re back at full capacity.
“Any safety precaution we have in place now will still be good for years to come,” he said.
Cleaning logs, sanitizing and table layout for venues might look a little different than it did pre-COVID, he said.
“I think it’s just pretty cool that all these venues in our area got together and spent time working on this,” Pollack said. “I think we were fortunate in Northeast Ohio to have this team-player little cohort of venue owners and operators that meet every week on Zoom calls. It’s half therapy, half work.”
Working with Arts Cleveland to put together the document has given these venues more opportunities to connect with each other and collaborate on other ideas for the future.
“I hope that people in other cities can use our guide as a model for how they’re planning to reopen,” Pollack said.
O’Shea said no ruling body is giving them a stamp of approval, but they wanted to educate, share and help anyone who may have questions.
“This is how you lower your risk and help people feel comfortable,” O’Shea said.
Supporting live music venues as 2020 draws to a close
While local venues have adopted creative ways to livestream concerts and host smaller events, the statewide curfew and limitations on private parties continue to keep live music venues from making enough revenue and operating at full capacity.
Many venue owners fear they will go out of business if they do not receive financial help during the pandemic.
Owners participating in REVS are seeking relief that helps the entire arts sector, profit and non-profit.
“That’s what I hope to see at the state level and national level, is that the arts are broader than just your tax status,” Watterson said.
House Bill 785, the “Save Our Stages Act,” would designate $20 million in CARES Act federal funding for 150 live music venues in Ohio.
Watterson said he wants people to reach out to their representatives and senators and encourage them to pass it.
“If it passes, it means we can hang in there a few more months,” Watterson said.
For now, these independent venues are just focusing on surviving the winter months and looking to lawmakers, along with music fans, for help. One way they’re doing that is through an online auction of music memorabilia that runs through this Sunday at Rust Belt Revival’s website.