THE NEW NORMAL: How Music Venues Are Adapting to the Pandemic
The Isis Music Hall in Asheville, North Carolina, has begun offering live music to socially distance patrons on its lawn. (Photo by Scott Woody)
EDITOR’S NOTE: “The New Normal” is an occasional series of stories that look into how the coronavirus has affected artists, listeners, and the music business.
In early March, as COVID-19 was causing havoc in Washington state, a choir got together for rehearsal in a small church. Members were cautious with physical distancing, but they sang together for two hours. Someone in the room was unwittingly, asymptomatically infected, and by the end of the rehearsal, so were a majority of their choirmates.
According to University of Massachusetts epidemiologist and professor Erin Bromage, this was because “deep breathing while singing facilitated … respiratory droplets getting deep into the lungs.” Viral particles were then inhaled by other singers who then, through their deep breaths, volleyed those particles around the room. Over the next four days, she wrote in a blog post, “45 of the 60 choir members developed symptoms, 2 died.”
This incidence of hotspot transmission was on banjoist and singer-songwriter Jake Blount’s mind recently. He was recovering from an upper respiratory infection of unknown specificity and had been brainstorming ways to promote his new album, Spider Tales, with his tour dates canceled through the end of the summer. (He wrote about the cancellations for No Depression in this March essay.)
“When you engage your lungs that way, you spread it so much more,” Blount says of the Washington choir. And that’s not far from his thoughts as he considers when he might be able to get back onstage.
“I worry about the specific risks involved in music venues,” he says, “and whether we’re going to see more damage there than in other places because of the singing and the dancing and the closeness, should people not be as insistent on social distancing as maybe we would want them to be.”
As states have begun relaxing stay-home orders, music venues and live music promoters around the country are considering these issues as well.
In Washington, the King County Council passed a COVID-19 relief package in mid-May that included money for independent music venues, so that rooms like Seattle’s beloved Tractor Tavern won’t have to decide between public safety and making rent. Seattle music scene advocate Kevin Sur of Artist Home wrote on Facebook: “While our venues have a long haul ahead of them, this offers them some relief and likely the first piece of good news they’ve received since this started.”
Meanwhile, in Missouri, concerts have been allowed to resume since May 4, though some of the state’s mayors blocked that with their own orders. In Fort Smith, Arkansas, Travis McCready of blues-rock band Bishop Gunn played a solo concert on May 15. According to Rolling Stone, “it was far from what many might consider satisfying. … The first socially-distanced concert in the US felt more like a dress rehearsal than a typical concert experience.” This was in large part due to the fact that the venue operated at 20% capacity. Attendees had their temperature checked before entering the venue, then had to follow tape markings on the floor in order to safely distance in line for merchandise, refreshments, and restrooms. Fans sat in “pods” so that groups who came together were safely distanced from other pods, leaving many clusters of empty seats.
While these increased measures are understandable for larger-scale shows, they may be a touch more than most independent club owners can manage — perhaps one reason the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) has been lobbying Congress for bailout funds. In a letter to Congress posted on its website, NIVA lays out ways that federal funding and support can help independent venues not only survive but also continue their contribution to American music culture. This is a tactic Scott Woody, who has participated in NIVA discussions and who runs Isis Music Hall in Asheville, North Carolina, finds a little ambitious.
Woody had a career as a veterinarian before opening Isis Music Hall and is proud of how clean he keeps his venue and green room. (“You can’t beat 1:30 Clorox as a disinfectant,” he says.) Though North Carolina entered Phase 2 of relaxing its stay-at-home order on May 22, when restaurants were allowed to reopen under limited capacity, entertainment venues are not yet cleared to open. Because Isis is both restaurant and music venue, Woody has split the difference, pressing pause on reopening until June 5, when the restaurant will begin to serve customers outside and offer live music on the lawn. The reason he didn’t reopen the minute he could, he said, was because of how vague the state was with its directions on how to safely reopen.
It was, he says, “pretty hard for us to plan anything because we have no guidance. … North Carolina says, ‘We’re going to let you reopen but there’ll be some restriction.’ So far, we have no word on what that would be. There’s a lot of speculation. They’re saying we should be planning to reopen, but how do you do that when you don’t know [the details]?”
He adds, “We’re lucky that we have an outdoor space so we can do some [music out there]. It’s not enough to cover our overhead but we could … generate revenue and adjust our labor to match the percentages that restaurants need to operate under.”
Club Passim in Cambridge, Massachusetts, meanwhile, is an intimate listening room inside an historical building, and is known for being the heart of the Boston-area singer-songwriter community. Its owner, Matt Smith, hasn’t rested a moment since Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker announced a stay-home order on March 23. (The state began its phased reopening on May 18, though Passim remains closed.) Smith has been running virtual workshops and online festivals from day one, but would love to get back to what Passim does best: bringing people together in a room.
Still, he says, “I don’t know when we’re going to be able to open and, even then, at what capacity we’ll be able to open. With social distancing measures in place, we’re a hard room to navigate. We’re a small space.”
Smith, like Woody, is eager to embrace a new way forward for live music. He’s just not certain what that will be. “Our first day of closing,” he notes, “our immediate thoughts were, ‘How are we going to help all these folks who are now out gigs?’ We started a fund drive for artist relief … called the Keep Your Distance Festival as a marketing [tool], to get the word out. People would make videos for us. We made a YouTube playlist out of it and we got about 150 videos. We’ve raised, I think we’re up to $118,000 for artist relief. … We know we’re out too, but we are a nonprofit organization that’s there to help develop artists and help artists grow, so this is how we can help that right now.”
Artists who contributed songs to the playlist include Passim regulars like Mark Erelli, Rose Polenzani, Zachariah Hickman, Pamela Means, Miss Tess, Tony Trischka, The Mammals, and numerous others.
Mammals frontwoman Ruthy Ungar saw Keep Your Distance as an opportunity to help the community, even as she, like Blount, works to figure out how best to promote a new album in a time of social distancing. (The Mammals’ latest, Nonet, was financed in part by a grant from the FreshGrass Foundation.)
Ungar says her main concern is when “audiences [can be] safely assembled shoulder to shoulder. It’s not really [about] us. It’s them. Once they can do that, we can easily be in a van.”
When asked how she would feel performing to a room kept at 20% capacity, like the precautions taken for the Bishop Gunn show in Arkansas, Ungar says, “That’s a whole lot better than nothing, but it’s all relative. It’s way better than [not playing] any shows with humans in the room. And it’s still sadder than people just sitting where they want to sit. But it’s awesome the idea that we can figure this out.”
Ungar is also the director of arts and communications at the Ashokan Center, an outdoor education and conference center in the Catskill Mountains of New York. In addition to specializing in environmental education, the Ashokan Center hosts numerous music camps and The Mammals’ semiannual music festival, The Hoot. Ungar’s job has been to find a way to convene this year’s music camps online. It’s a lofty goal, since so much of the draw of these gatherings is the Ashokan campus — an outdoor retreat center in the Catskills that offers attendees the opportunity to take a break from computers and focus instead on wooden instruments.
Despite this digital disconnect, Ungar says, the camps conducted via Zoom have been “more fun than I thought they’d be. People from all over the world are attending who would never come to Ashokan in person, or maybe they will now because they stumbled upon us digitally.”
Indeed, creativity within a digital platform is one thing these artists and venues have in common. Passim is conducting festivals, workshops, and live performances online, and Isis Music Hall is planning to expand its ability to livestream by investing in high-quality cameras and other equipment. Woody would like to produce something “similar to the eTown model,” with discussion and performances interspliced. If all goes well, Woody believes this could be part of what the Isis Music Hall offers forever.
While venues in most states aren’t getting financial assistance from their local governments, the online connection seems to be working for now.
“There are going to be clubs that open up and start hosting shows,” says Blount. “I think I would feel pretty uncomfortable as a performer working with any venue that was not taking all appropriate steps to make sure that social distancing guidelines were still being followed and that we were decreasing transmission as much as possible, so I would probably take it on a case-by-case basis. But we’ll see. I have a feeling that a lot of places will start reopening as governments start to allow it, but patrons still aren’t going to come.”
This is something that club owners are willing to try to work around. After all, many roots music venues, especially, appreciate the power music has to make people feel less alone. For Woody, it’s also part and parcel of running his family’s business.
“We own the building,” he says, “so it’s a little more difficult for us to walk away from this. For me being retired and just doing this, it’s not a money issue, but it also can’t continue to be a hole sucking resources down. We don’t have the option of walking away very easily. The building is set up as a music venue, period.”
Club Passim’s Smith sees this situation as a challenge his venue is capable of meeting. “When you don’t have to think of something new,” he says, “sometimes you don’t. Then all of a sudden, you’re dropped into a new paradigm and you get creative really fast because you have to. That’s been the joy, if that could be the right word for this.”
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