Shuffle: Pandemic Creates Uncertainty for Music Venues ‘First to Close, Last to Reopen’

Jun 4, 2020
Originally published on June 9, 2020 9:57 am

Across the state of Ohio, local music venues are struggling as the coronavirus pandemic has forced these entertainment hotspots to keep operations at a standstill. Local musicians who rely on live performances to earn a steady income have suffered with planned concerts canceled or postponed indefinitely.

Venue owners and their staff, many of whom are contract workers who do not qualify to receive unemployment benefits, have taken a financial hit. Independent music clubs were among the first public places deemed “nonessential” to close as the stay-at-home order was issued in March.

While some restrictions on bars, restaurants and wedding receptions have been lifted as the state’s amended Stay Safe Ohio order has come to an end, larger venues that pull in crowds of hundreds or more remain closed.

Ohio Department of Health’s Dine Safe Ohio guidelines state that live music in smaller establishments is allowed, as long as performers maintain six feet of distance between other musicians, patrons and staff.  Dancing and congregate areas that are not used for preparing and serving food and drinks are also prohibited, according to these guidelines.

With these restrictions directly impacting the concert experience in larger spaces dedicated to housing live music, Northeast Ohio venue owners are banding together to develop plans to safely reopen—while asking for support from lawmakers and the local community.

Independent venues across the nation band together for federal aid

Jilly’s Music Room, located in downtown Akron, has been closed since March 13, before Gov. Mike DeWine announced Ohio’s shutdown order. The space operates a full-service kitchen and bar, but owner Jill Bacon Madden said it is primarily a music venue that caters to an older crowd, who are potentially in the COVID-19 “high-risk” group.

While its doors have remained shut, offering food takeout and delivery hasn’t been a sustainable option due to associated fees, she said. She said it’s fruitless to open soon. Even if health and safety weren’t the top priority to Jilly’s guests, there are too many unknowns until a treatment is available.

“Any place people gather in groups are going to be the last to reopen and, really, the last to sort of find any economic recovery out of this. It’s going to be a while,” she said.

Jilly’s, along with The Kent Stage, are among more than 1,200 independent music venues across the United States that have joined together to form the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA). NIVA is asking music fans to contact their senators and representatives to show support of and request support for the  local venues.

Part of the organization’s goal is financial assistance that will be necessary for closed venues to survive the shutdown and reopen once again.

Among the solutions proposed by NIVA are modifying the existing Paycheck Protection Program and offering tax relief, unemployment insurance for contractors and artists, mortgage and rent forbearance and providing assistance via grants or tax credits to assist independent music venues with reopening.

NIVA was spawned from Independent Venue Week, an international celebration of independent live-music venues that happens every July. The week-long celebration began in Europe, then expanded into the U.S. Jilly’s, The Kent Stage and Beachland Ballroom were the only venues from Northeast Ohio that were involved in the event the first year.

NIVA’s founders contacted their initial database of venues that were part of Independent Venue Week. This is how Madden got involved in NIVA.

“It’s the greatest idea,” she said. “It’s been so comforting and rewarding to be able to talk to other venue owners and promoters across the country to spitball ideas and throw information back and forth and work on lobbying our politicians for some necessary changes.”

Tom Simpson, owner of The Kent Stage, said he joined NIVA as soon as he was contacted about it. The Kent Stage has been closed since March 11—which was Simpson’s birthday and one day after Howard Jones performed at the Kent venue.

Simpson said he began canceling upcoming concerts after the NBA suspended its season. Simpson said he’s in the high-risk group for COVID-19 and doesn’t want to put himself at risk attending concerts.

He’s eager to reopen The Kent Stage after changes to the venue are put in place to keep people safe—and these changes will require funding.

First to close, last to open, and there’s going to be places that are not going to be here,” Simpson said.

By joining NIVA, Simpson is trying to build awareness as to what’s going on not only in Northeast Ohio, but around the country through the organization.

“I think it’s far bigger than just Kent or Cleveland or Ohio… in many ways, it’s an international situation,” Simpson said.

He said he has bands that play at The Kent Stage from Europe who have had to cancel entire tours. It’s not only his venue that needs help staying afloat—it’s every venue along musicians’ tour routes, he said.

“The whole system needs to open up, and that’s been one of our focuses,” he said.

Simpson said he wants to see support from the federal government to help fund changes in his venue that will help keep patrons, performers and staff safe once he reopens. Simpson said while there are groups and lobbyists representing frontline workers and essential businesses right now, many might not realize just how many people are involved in keeping the entertainment industry afloat.

“We would like to see support for all venues across the country who do that and to make low-interest loans available and [for people] to recognize the value of what we do,” he said.

Local venues face challenges as they plan for their reopening dates

Simpson is eager to reopen The Kent Stage and is targeting a date in July for its first summer concert. He recognizes that there will still be challenges associated with reopening his concert venue.

“There was talk about social distancing, opening [venues] like that,” he said. “If that’s the case, Jilly’s and The Kent Stage… there’s no way we could open like that. Our capacity would be like 50. And I’m not going to be able to pay David Crosby with 50 people in the audience.”

He has been in talks with other local venues, as well as city governments and his own patrons, to ensure safety guidelines are enacted. Many precautions will be put in place to ensure the safety of staff, concertgoers and performers once the venue is able to fully reopen.

“You’ll get your temperature checked. Most likely your ticket be on your phone. They’ll be hand sanitizers everywhere. Everything will be wiped down,” Simpson said. “People will have masks and gloves on. At the bar we hope to have a cashless system in place. We’re looking to refit the bathrooms so everything’s touch free.”

Remodeling restrooms and providing staff with additional sanitation materials will require funding as some revenue has been lost during the shutdown.

“We’re busy every day moving shows and trying to stay in touch with our fan base, which is tremendous. We’ve had very, very few refunds, which is a testament to the fans of the Kent Stage,” Simpson said.

In order to reopen under current guidelines, Jilly’s would have to limit capacity to 28 people and a couple staff members. Madden said it will be a while before she can even think about reopening, and the venue is going to need help opening its doors.

“It’s not enough to pay musicians. It’s not enough to pay staff. It’s not enough to keep the lights on. And you could maybe do that once or twice, but to ty to open your doors and try to do that on a regular schedule would be suicide,“ Madden said.

She said she’d like to see a sustainability fund set up for an industry like hers, as the Paycheck Protection Program doesn’t really work for her business.

“It’s going to take us a really, really long time to recover, and we [venues] are a huge economic driver,” she said. “We’re an important industry for most communities. For, I think, every dollar spent in an independent venue, 12 more dollars are spent in the surrounding neighborhoods and communities—on lodging and restaurants and that kind of thing.”

She said March, April and May have historically been Jilly’s most successful months, so there has been a financial loss. She said she can ride it out without fear of losing her business, as she owns her building outright and utility bills are a fraction of what they were since they’ve been closed. But she’s waiting until people are comfortable enough to go out again before plans to reopen are put in place.

Live music slowly resumes in Cleveland

Music Box Supper Club in Cleveland will be one of the first music venues to reopen with a summer concert June 19. Mike Miller, vice president of the Music Box, said the venue will start up with limited events and shows.

Precautions will be put in place, including signage to encourage social distancing and managers trained to prevent concertgoers from congregating in the venue. Event attendees should wear masks when entering the facility and will be supplied a mask if they do not have one, according to a list of Music Box’s safety guidelines and procedures. Attendees will be asked to remain in their seats during performances.

The venue will have a group of employees wearing white masks called the “health team.”

“They’ll be right at the front of the building when guests arrive to help the gusts get in line at proper distancing,” Miller said. “They’ll help seat the guests and they’ll spend most of the night with a de-sanitizer spray in their hand and going around and de-sanitizing all the surfaces along the night.”

Miller said getting everything ready to reopen is like "the classic image of a duck—it looks calm on the surface, but it's flapping its feet under the water like crazy."

He wants to bring people out to Cleveland’s riverfront, but the main focus is alleviating their fears.

"Music brings joy, music is something that is so key to the human condition, and live music elevates that," he said. “Cleveland is chock full of national touring artists and great music—it’s something special, and we feel it’s important to get this experience."

Madeline Finn, a Cleveland singer-songwriter who has relocated to Nashville, works full-time as a musician. Her show at the Music Box on July 2 will be the first time she’s been back on stage since the pandemic shut down venues.

“This is my life’s work; this is what I do. And performance, especially in a time where I feel like it’s so needed, is really where I’m feeling called to be. And sometimes it’s a little risky,” Finn said.

Before the pandemic, she was going to start a regular “writer’s round” series every couple months at Music Box.

This was put on hold, so Music Box called her up when they formed the “Table for 2” concert series, an intimate live-music event with guests’ tables spaced 12 feet apart.

Finn has had offers to perform at bars in Nashville, but she feels like that’s irresponsible because there’s no social distancing. She believes Music Box is different.

“The tables are far apart. The stage is going to be far from everybody, and we’re going to be doing all of merch sales and talking to people outside the actual venue,” Finn said. “The Music Box is really doing a great job of taking precautions and also valuing the art.”

Stella’s Music Club in Cleveland has reopened with “strict guidelines” during their social-distancing shows. The venue will not allow standing or a dance floor and all tables will be distanced 6 feet apart, according to its website.

Performers and music fans remain hesitant as the pandemic presses on

While many larger concert venues remain closed, area bars, restaurants and wedding receptions have been permitted to host live music, according to Ohio Department of Health’s Dine Safe Ohio guidelines.

This has caused some questions and concerns among local performing artists and music fans.

Larry Gargus, who plays in the band Persistent Aggressor, said he doesn’t think regular, larger concerts will return until spring 2021.

“As badly as I want to play, I’m not in a hurry to do it because one, I’m a school teacher, and I’m a dad,” Gargus said. “I just don’t think it’s reasonable or even responsible for us to get back too soon.”

Sara Bartolomucci, Cleveland music and theater enthusiast, is among a number of regular concertgoers who do not feel completely comfortable returning to live music events. Despite guidelines encouraging social distancing, wearing of masks and routine handwashing, the reality of an energetic concert environment is not necessarily conducive to the adherence of these recommendations.

“Unless I can confidently say, ‘Yeah, I totally trust venues and other audience members to create an environment where we’re all doing our absolute best to follow CDC guidelines,’ and I can’t say yes to that. So it has to be a no,” she said.

This public unease and uncertainty has been a concern for Madden, Simpson and Miller. Even if all venues that primarily serve to host larger concerts are able to reopen this year with health and safety precautions in place, drawing in crowds may be a challenge.

“We are, by nature, a communal business. We’re a place for people to come and gather and have fun and stay and be comfortable and enjoy themselves,” Madden said.

She wants to stay top of mind and keep her brand relevant for audiences during this time. But for her to feel confident hosting live music, she said there needs to be widespread testing, treatment and a vaccine for COVID-19 before people are ready to go to festivals, concerts or clubs.

“The longer it goes on, the more permanent it feels,” she said.

Miller said he and his staff plan to learn from the first couple of live events to make sure everything is going right before booking more concerts at Music Box. With the safety of customers and staff being the top priority, he said they're going to "go slow" and not overcrowd the schedule.

“We think it’s important to be responsible for the customers," Miller said. "Our managers are developing policies and procedures, we’ll be asking customers to behave, stay in their seats, don’t congregate, be kind to others.”

Venue owners put out a call for local support

According to a letter drafted by NIVA, independent music venues help local economies, culture and tourism and are important pieces of music industry’s ecosystem—the longer they are closed, the larger the impact on local business owners’ and artists’ livelihoods.

Many larger venue staffs and performers are currently without jobs, and if concert clubs are unable to reopen for concerts in the coming months, could be without an income until 2021. Reopening will still come with challenges, including capacity limitations and planning, scheduling and tour routing, which takes months to prepare ahead of time.

Opening this year may not be economically viable if area venues have to operate with half of their normal-capacity crowd size or less. The loss of revenue through ticket refunds for 2020 shows that have been canceled can also result in financial setbacks.

Miller said he has to pull money out of a separate account to pay ticketholders back who wish to be refunded for postponed concerts.

Local concertgoers looking for ways to support area venues should hold on to purchased tickets for postponed shows, Miller said.

Jilly’s and other local venues are urging people to write to their representatives to consider independent venues in their planning for financial aid to small businesses.

Jilly’s is a venue in Rep. Marcia Fudge’s district. Fudge, who is also the Chair of the Congressional Rock & Roll Caucus, has already signed the Cleaver-Williams Letter in the House, which supports federal assistance for independent venues.

NIVA’s members are seeking this federal support, which includes tax relief and business recovery grants, so businesses in the live music industry don’t have to shut their doors for good.

Madden said it’s important for Northeast Ohio venues to receive funding because deadline requirements are rigid, and if music venues are not able to open until winter, deadlines for assistance are passed, and the businesses are sunk.

A third of Americans go to concerts at independent venues each year, Simpson said. He wants to see support for contract employees who work at these venues and are unable to qualify for unemployment benefits.

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