Pausing the Music

Among the first businesses to close, and likely to be one of the last sectors of the economy to reopen, live music venues have taken an enormous hit during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Unable to provide the one-of-a-kind service of hosting live music in any capacity due to social distancing restrictions, many longtime and beloved locations have struggled to persevere as revenues have vanished. 

Uncertainty continues to weigh heavily on the minds of club owners, managers, booking agents and others as it remains impossible to predict when public gatherings of any kind — let alone those sold-out, shoulder-to-shoulder concerts — will be able to resume safely.

“When the entire industry of touring live music went dark, a lot of crazy things started happening,” said Scott Hammontree, talent buyer and partner at The Intersection. “Agencies have been laying people off, so many of the booking agents we have worked with are not currently employed by their companies. With so many different regulations from state to state, it’s impossible to route a tour right now, so everything is on hold.

“We are doing everything we can to reschedule dates, but in many cases, it feels like we are just moving things around and staying hopeful that things will be safe enough to have the concerts on the new date.”

In an effort to weather the storm, some area venues — including The Intersection, The Pyramid Scheme and Wealthy Theatre — have joined up with the National Independent Venue Alliance. NIVA, a nationwide group of thousands of independent music venues and promoters, has come together to help secure desperately needed funding and financial support.

“The last couple of months, we have made decisions that we never, ever anticipated,” said Tami VandenBerg, co-owner of The Pyramid Scheme. “It started for us with the cancellation of SXSW, which some of us usually attend. It seems like an avalanche from there. Bands canceling, a reduction in spending on expensive inventory, reducing our capacity, disinfecting everything, asking people who were visibly sick to leave or not enter. Then, as more information came in, we decided to close voluntarily prior to the governor’s shut down. 

“It was a fast, terrifying nightmare.”

That nightmare continued to seem never-ending as both The Intersection and The Pyramid Scheme, among many others, were forced to lay off their entire staff. Many venues then went online, seeking out crowdfunding sites and offering exclusive new merchandise and gift certificates to fans, to help bring in some shred of revenue and relief for their employees.

“To the folks that still have an income, please consider supporting our local musicians and artists,” VandenBerg said. “Without them, we have no venue and we have no music scene. The level of talent in our little city is jaw-dropping. So many have sacrificed so much to build this scene. If you are in a position to do so, please get in touch with some of your favorite folks and buy some music, merchandise, or simply make a donation to support their ongoing work. We could see some incredible art and music come out of this awful pandemic and shutdown.”

Although it seems unlikely any concerts will resume this spring, many venues are cautiously optimistic about the late summer or fall and prepare to reopen with new health guidelines and safety restrictions. 

“Uncertainty is the key word for sure,” said Quinn Mathews, general manager and talent buyer at Listening Room. “Luckily, between talent buyers, agents, artists, we all want to be prepared whenever we can have live shows again, so there has been plenty of work making that plan. The problem is, none of us know when that will take place. So that’s certainly the struggle.”

When we talked with Frederik Meijer Gardens, the Fifth Third Bank Summer Concert Series was in limbo, with the announcement suspended.

“By now, we would’ve had the concert season announced, and the tickets would have gone on sale and we would be off to the races getting ready to have those 30 shows,” said David Hooker, president and CEO of Meijer Gardens. “Now we’re in a wait and see. We’re waiting to see what the government will allow to happen, and then waiting to see what artists will be touring in a shortened season.”

Now, the concert series has been cancelled for the safety of all involved. However, Meijer Gardens will explore options to present regional performers in late summer with its Tuesday Evening Music Club.

“It’s been frustrating because we’re closed,” Hooker said. “Everything about Meijer Gardens is designed to have people here — to come in and enjoy our nature and our art and all the great things we have to offer. Our mission is to serve people and bring joy to people, and this coronavirus crisis makes things different, but we are still here. We are going to open back up. We might not have concerts, but we have a whole lot of other stuff. 

“We really belong to the community as an institution. Our members own the place, so we do need your support. When we open up, come on out.”

With much of the calendar already canceled, Mathews said he and his team at Listening Room, like many others, are working hard on rescheduling dates, communicating information about refunds, and lining up concerts for the winter or even next year. 

“Just like everyone, I’ve spent more time on my computer, phone and social media than I ever care to,” Mathews said. “I like live shows and events and people gathering — and that’s what I’m normally a part of and that’s what Listening Room was built for. But one thing I have seen often is people sharing to others on these platforms to remember live music, live events, concerts, the arts, sports, when all of this ends. And it will end at some point. It’s nowhere near as soon as we all would like but at some point, live music will return. 

“If you always meant to ‘check out that venue,’ that will be the time. It would be great if whenever we come out of this, the arts could be thriving even more than when this all started.”