Live Music Is About to Get Its Grand Reopening
When the stage lights rose before the show on March 14, 2020, at Saint Vitus, a cramped New York City heavy metal bar, the venue felt a little more on edge than normal. In its near decade of shows, dance parties, and drinking, the intimate, dimly lit bar and concert venue, a former plumbing school located in the “ass-end” of Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood, had become an internationally respected nexus for all things heavy metal. That Saturday night, a noise-rock supergroup called Human Impact would give the last concert before the venue officially announced a shutdown on the 17th. The message to the club’s fans for existence in the new pandemic wilderness: “Practice good social distancing — you can throw up the horns and shout HAILS at each other from a safe 6 feet away.”
“The arc of these things, you simply didn’t know what was going to happen,” recalls David Castillo, the venue’s co-owner and music booker and a musician himself. “You knew it [Covid-19] was going to result in a huge impact on nightlife, restaurants, pretty much everything you could call ‘the gathering industry.’”
Many were among the first to close, and their cramped, body-packed design makes them a significant transmission risk and likely to be among the last businesses to figure out how to safely reopen.
More than a year later, Saint Vitus, like thousands of other music clubs across the country, has become a “time capsule,” Castillo says, with untouched posters from last spring still hanging on the wall. The bar is barely alive but is one of the lucky ones, Castillo says. In the midst of a year when concert venues were pretty much silent, Saint Vitus cobbled together pivot after pivot — livestreaming interviews and shows, selling merch, and relying on the goodwill it had built from local bands and loyal customers. A two-month Kickstarter campaign that launched last April earned the venue $125,000, nearly 10 times its goal, helping it stay afloat.
With so many small clubs struggling, Saint Vitus still has a chance. But Castillo says when he thinks about the year of empty stages and bands on the sidelines, of what could have been, he “fucking hates it.”
“Going to different shows all over the city, that’s the DNA of New York,” he says. “I want that back.”
For a nation that has spent the past year-plus doomscrolling about travel bans, spikes in cases, variants, respirator shortages, and shutdowns, this spring contains undeniable seeds of optimism. With the vaccine rollout ramping up at almost twice the expected speed, travel businesses are already touting a return to something like normal by late summer.
For the music industry, particularly live music and small clubs, the recovery doesn’t feel nearly as swift or straightforward. For most of the past year, it’s been nothing but cancellations, shutdowns, delayed releases, and creative frustrations. Global live music revenue fell a staggering two-thirds last year, from $30 billion to $10 billion, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers, perhaps the first time in years recorded music made artists more money than touring. The hashtag #oneyeardark, memorializing a year of empty stages, began circulating on social media early this month, a feed full of marquees stuck in limbo.
In a rare glimmer of hope, last December’s coronavirus relief package contained the Save Our Stages Act, a $15 billion federal program meant to rescue independent arts venues that specifically sets aside $2 billion for small clubs. Kevin Erickson, director of the nonprofit Future of Music Coalition, calls this lifeline for stages, theaters, and art centers “probably the biggest one-time investment the federal government has ever made in the cultural sector.”
Local, regional, and independent music scenes — populated by the metal bands that often make a pilgrimage to Saint Vitus — live and die in the small clubs and venues across the country that face a perilous next few months. Many were among the first to close, and their cramped, body-packed design makes them a significant transmission risk and likely to be among the last businesses to figure out how to safely reopen.
“We need vaccines in people’s arms and people to feel safe about going to shows,” says Audrey Fix Schaefer, communications director for the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA), a trade group that sprung up to advocate for music venues. “Venues are dependent on touring bands, and we need to have a pretty uniform reopening situation across the country for them to get on the road.”
Cash-strapped venues, operating on razor-thin margins and requiring 70% to 80% capacity and bar sales just to break even, can’t really do the partial reopenings that restaurants have done.
Even with federal relief on the horizon, the rollout has been slow. Applications for the Save Our Stages grant program won’t be accepted until April 8, months after the passage of the bill. Then there’s Biden’s new $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act, which has a provision that also allows venues to apply for the latest round of PPP loan funds. Those applications are due by the end of this month. “It would be a huge mistake to think that because Save Our Stages passed, music and musicians are taken care of,” Erickson says.
When these grants finally arrive — which cover 45% of a venue’s revenue or $10 million, whichever is less — they will buy venues more time, but they won’t necessarily carry them all the way to reopening. Cash-strapped venues, operating on razor-thin margins and requiring 70% to 80% capacity and bar sales just to break even, can’t really do the partial reopenings that restaurants have done. “Until the money hits the bank accounts, the anxiety is through the roof,” NIVA’s Schaefer says.
Jen Lyon, co-chair of the New York Independent Venue Association (NYIVA), says that for many of these businesses, it’s a last gasp. The organization is now even lobbying New York state government to try and secure funds to tide over needy clubs. “I think once you’ve been in survival mode for a year, it’s fairly traumatic,” she says. “The only people who are contemplating opening up are desperate because of their situation.”
It could be said that one of the most consequential performances of 2020 took place inside a church sanctuary in Mount Vernon, Washington. The March 10 practice session for the Skagit Valley Chorale, later deemed a superspreader event by the CDC and other researchers, would be a turning point in the understanding of the virus, says Dean Winslow, an infectious diseases expert at Stanford. During the 2.5-hour rehearsal, choir members sang together while spaced six feet or more apart and snacked on cookies and oranges. Scientists estimated just one or two members were infected, but 52 would later trace infections to that practice and two would die. Winslow says that it underscored the danger of small-particle aerosols, which can build up rapidly indoors. The CDC report noted, “The act of singing, itself, might have contributed to transmission through emission of aerosols, which is affected by loudness of vocalization.”
This grim reality of the craft is what makes safely reopening so confounding. After interviewing a dozen touring agents, public relations managers, and venue owners, it’s clear that there’s still no agreed-upon metric for what is a safe indoor show or when full-scale touring can start. The only thing they all agree on? It will be pandemonium when the doors finally open.
Daniel Gill, a music publicist, describes this as the coming “mad dash.” As soon as touring gets the green light, every single act and artist pining for fans, live shows, and touring money will want to hit the road at the same time, flooding a venue ecosystem already strained by a year-plus of shutdowns. More and more bands, like indie rock stalwarts Dinosaur Jr., will start announcing fall dates. Timmy Hefner, an agent with Ground Control Touring, recently had to rebook a fall tour after learning that venues in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia had closed. “There’s also going to be a huge wave of artists releasing new music all at the same time, which is also going to be crazy,” Gill says.
“It is going to be the biggest shitshow in the history of the entertainment industry.”
Multiple sources said bands are already booking buses for later this year, potentially leading to a shortage when bands really hit the road, starting in the fall. Of course, the sprint will throw the ecosystem of managers, roadies, merch staff, stagehands, into chaos as well. Stevie Hopkins, founder and CEO of music merch supplier Second City Prints, says, “It is going to be the biggest shitshow in the history of the entertainment industry.”
Numerous touring and bookings agents said bands currently have two or even three entire itineraries booked, trying to triangulate and hedge when vaccinations could make touring possible. Some venues have concerts already booked deep into spring and summer 2022, way earlier than normal; organizers of a forthcoming global tour for Billie Eilish, for example, are already attempting to coordinate 2022 dates around next year’s big events, like the Super Bowl, Grammys, and Olympics. Many say they’re waiting for local government or CDC guidance, the latter of which doesn’t exist. “The big concern is that we don’t want to have a superspreader event like the Sturgis rally,” says Stanford’s Winslow, referencing the now infamous Dakota motorcycle rally that scientists later attributed to the spread of the coronavirus in 20 states.
The sudden increasing pace of vaccinations has quickly changed the festival outlook, a $20 billion-a-year piece of the music industry that provides priceless exposure and paydays for bands that depend on touring revenue. In the U.K., after Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that all restrictions could be lifted by June 21, the August Reading and Leeds Festival sold out in 24 hours. In the United States, Rhode Island’s Newport Folk Festival has July dates for sale, while Governor’s Ball (late September in New York City), Outside Lands (early August in San Francisco), and Lollapalooza (the weekend of July 30 in Chicago) have all released dates without performers. (Coachella won’t be back until April 2022.) Booking agents say that lineups are finalized, and organizers are just waiting for the right moment to sell tickets.
Even if shows are able to go on, live music will struggle in the early days of the new normal, because neither the restrained experience nor the economics add up. Kristen Jaconi, who teaches entertainment risk management at the University of Southern California, says entertainment reopenings will have to develop a model similar to that of professional sports: constant testing, proximity alarms, limited sharing of equipment, and partially filled stadiums and arenas during live events. But basketball, for example, had the backing of the NBA. The music industry’s equivalent may be Live Nation, the industry behemoth that owns many larger venues, has a $2.5 billion cash reserve, and whose stock price just hit an all-time high. However, how would a small venue running on fumes in the best of times afford upgrades like safety equipment, increased staff, and new ventilation systems?
Is it still a show if you’re screaming the lyrics to your favorite song six feet away from other fans?
Then there are the endless uncertainties: How would mask mandates or social distancing work during a sweaty DJ set? Can festivals make enough money with drastically reduced crowds, or will they forego Covid-19 restrictions? Will these additional costs mean less money for bands, cutting out smaller indie acts and making touring less lucrative? Will all-ages shows, filled with unvaccinated teenagers, still happen?
New York City recently announced it would allow limited indoor shows at a third of capacity starting in April, which would be economically unfeasible for many small clubs. In New Orleans, arguably the nation’s live music capital, new rules for reopened indoor shows this month cap indoor capacity at 75, prohibit dancing, and ask performers to place bell covers on their instruments (basically asking jazz musicians to mask their horns). Is it still a show if you’re screaming the lyrics to your favorite song six feet away from other fans? Says NYVIA’s Lyon: “We didn’t get into business for this weird regulated energy.”
Losing live audiences has wrecked much of the industry’s economic ecosystem. Many of the staffers, stagehands, sound people, security guards, touring support staff, and others who provide the often invisible labor that makes shows possible across the country have been faced with complicated, if not futile, efforts to collect unemployment. Merch revenue typically makes up a large portion of what touring artists take home. Hopkins of Second City Prints says that in normal times, his clients make from $5 to $20 per head per night touring and take home roughly half. “A bad merch plan for a tour can make or break whether or not it’s profitable,” he says. And while his company has effectively pivoted to online sales this year, with sales of music items up 40%, he says there’s no way artists can sell enough T-shirts or merch online to replace live revenue.
Bands have been struggling to find financially feasible substitutes for traditional concerts. Last spring, Seth McNally started Drive-In Live, a concert series hosted in an empty field at a fairgrounds in New Hampshire, in part to help unemployed stagehands and support staff find work. It was a welcome return to live music, but it took a while for bands and their fans, spread out in cars and trucks over six acres, to figure out feedback via honking horns and flashing lights. “Only in 2020 would we find intimacy in cars honking their horns,” McNally says. After 32 shows and 53,000-plus tickets sold, he’s planning to do it again this year, shifting to groups of six people spaced six feet away from each other.
Perhaps the biggest winners in all of this have been the large digital video platforms, which have reaped the benefits of desperate artists and a captive audience stuck at home.
Bands and venues have also embraced streaming as a way to stay connected with fans. It can be a decent supplement, says Ben Baruch, founder of Denver-based management company 11E1even Group, but it works best for genres like jam bands, where the fan base is engaged enough to want to observe every improvisational twist and turn. Baruch, who helped produce Live From Out There, an online festival, says his bands have turned this opportunity into huge social media growth and merch sales and enough revenue to get them through to the resumption of live shows.
Perhaps the biggest winners in all of this have been the large digital video platforms, which have reaped the benefits of desperate artists and a captive audience stuck at home. Twitch, the Amazon-owned livestreaming platform, has exploded this past year, with a 550% leap in hours watched, year over year, in the music category alone, according to Tracy Chan, the service’s vice president and head of music. He sees this flood of creators as a sign that livestreaming is more than simply a means to stay in front of fans; it can become a real revenue generator for artists like Linkin Park frontman Mike Shinoda, who has helped develop and produce three albums via Twitch. Chan says the number of musicians on track to make more than $25,000 in revenue a year grew 735% between January and September 2020, and success isn’t just for those with a massive audience. As of late October, the median viewership for creators making $50,000 or more a year was just 183 per stream, meaning many were thriving with a very small, committed fan base.
But this pivot to video hasn’t worked for venue owners, where the income doesn’t offset overhead. According to NYIVA, the average venue has made just $375 a month since last fall via streaming and merch sales combined. NIVA’s Audrey Fix Schaefer says it’s “a grain of sand when you need a bucket of sand.”
“At least a third of the music venues in New York City won’t come back.”
Part of the effort to pass and promote the Save Our Stages Act specifically targets jazz, blues, country, and roots music venues in cities like New Orleans, Memphis, and Nashville. Greg Lucas, executive director of the Preservation Hall Foundation, the philanthropic arm of New Orleans’ famed performance space, has spent decades promoting and producing shows highlighting the city’s unique musical culture. He says the situation during the pandemic, when older performers lack in-person interaction as well as moneymaking opportunities, makes it especially hard for instrumentalists who don’t have a built-in fan base. “I have a lot of concern about the culture weakening or potentially just dying for jazz, blues, and roots music practitioners across the country,” Lucas says.
With vaccines beginning to reach many of New Orleans’ oldest musicians and the city’s five planned performance festivals in October, Lucas remains optimistic. But the entire last year has been a “wake-up call” about the fragility of small clubs, which post paper-thin margins in the best of times. Lucas says Preservation Hall simply can’t make ends meet at 50% or even 75% capacity.
Even with Save Our Stages, the consistent worry is that uncertainty around the duration of the pandemic and the public’s lingering discomfort with indoor shows could cause many small clubs and venues to shutter. Groups like NIVA and NYIVA are lobbying states for financial support for venues and engaging local governments around reopening discussions and what regulations will look like, while trying to relax certain fees, such as liquor license costs, and extend eviction moratoriums.
Ken Sturm, co-owner of the famed Iridium Jazz Club in Manhattan, hasn’t taken a paycheck for the past year. He says the venue has tried everything to stay afloat, often running into government dysfunction, as well as frequent consternation and anxiety. Iridium took out PPP loans, which provided relief but didn’t help with the significant rent and vendor payments that make up so much of a music club’s expenses. How can a club like this make money and pay back government loans while operating at a fraction of capacity? “At least a third of the music venues in the city won’t come back,” Sturm predicts.
At Saint Vitus, after a year of no music, Castillo remains hopeful, imagining what a real return metal show might look like. Halloween, he says, might be the perfect timing, since it’s basically Christmas and Mardi Gras combined for the club’s regulars. “We need something cathartic, both physical and spiritual,” he says. “Dancing the pain away—that’s definitely something we do.”
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