Every morning for the past three months, Eddie Owen, owner of the Red Clay Music Foundry, has gone to Georgia’s COVID-19 website to check if he can reopen his venue. His last show was March 7, days before the pandemic shut down the entire country. Owen, 65, previously owned Eddie’s Attic and has been involved in the music business since 1983. He says he’s never seen anything like the current state of the world. “First to close and last to open” is the reality facing every musician, club owner, promoter and concertgoer.
For many small venues, the pandemic has left a long-lasting financial sting. Live-performance venues can reopen Wednesday (July 1) at a fraction of their normal capacity with issued safety requirements based upon their fire code capacity.
A recent executive order from Governor Brian Kemp states that “all live-performance venues are strongly encouraged to adopt additional measures to those required below that are tailored to the specific nature of the type of performance venue and events hosted.” That vague language gives venues room to establish guidelines for their spaces, aside from the required Covid-19 measures listed, most of which begin with “to the extent practicable.” For attendees, this means putting a lot of trust in venues to ensure a safe experience.
Owen says there are several caveats with which nonessential businesses must comply, including six feet of separation between people who don’t live in the same house. That means a substantial cut in ticket sales and no one knows when that will change.
Venues make most of their money on alcohol and ticket sales, income used to pay artists and employees. Not meeting this overhead means venues are economically unstable from the top down.
Also, just because live-music venues can reopen doesn’t mean they will. Eddie’s Attic hopes to schedule a few shows in July. Smith’s Olde Bar plans to open its Atlanta Room on July 10 and Center Stage has a July 25 show. Aisle 5 plans to resume live music sometime in July. The Tabernacle and Variety Playhouse are planning August shows and City Winery plans to resume concerts with reduced crowds. The Earl will remain closed for now.
Owen’s first live Red Clay concert is booked for August 8. “My 260 seats turn into 38–69 seats,” he says. “On top of that, there’s no way to know how to mark the seats off until we find a way to ask ticket holders if they are under the same household. I don’t know what we’re going to do, but we are going to continue doing livestreams. July 1 is great, but it’s nothing near normal. It’s going to be tough to book and plan knowing I only have 40 tickets to sell.”
Even as state leaders try to push Georgia toward normality, the Covid-19 pandemic refuses to cooperate. Last week, the rolling seven–day average for the state hit an all-time peak, and the number of cases has begun a steady rise following the end of last month’s stay-in-place order. Experts say Covid-19 has begun to hit younger adults harder, and that singing is an especially effective way to spread the virus, as are large groups gathered in close quarters.
States that reopened several weeks ago — Texas and Florid, among them — are now pulling back because of a sharp spike in Covid-19 and have again shut down bars. There’s no guarantee that Georgia won’t soon follow. Even if a music venue reopens, there’s no guarantee of an audience.
Emily Saliers and Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls recently told ArtsATL that they think the music industry — particularly national touring — will be shut down until 2021.
“The live-performance industry at this point has just been put on hold,” Saliers said. “I kind of gauge it myself by when would I go to a concert and be around other people and then we have to think about singing as a really, really strong way of spreading a virus. . . . My feeling is nothing is going to happen until the end of the year at least and probably into 2021.”
Many Atlanta musicians and residents seem hesitant to attend any indoor concerts right now. They cite a lack of faith in others to abide by health guidelines, especially when alcohol is involved, and concerns for the health of others. A recent concert in Nashville featured a reduced crowd, but everyone in the audience gathered in front of the stage and few wore masks.
James Kelly, 64, has played with Slim Chance and the Convicts for 34 years and attended shows in Atlanta since 1982. Kelly, also a community organizer for the Cabbagetown Concert Series, says there’s “no way in hell” he’ll attend an indoor performance until circumstances change.
“People are not following guidelines now, and there is no way they will follow them on July 1 and after,” he says. “Add the rush of people that are jonesing for live music who will show up, plus alcohol . . . that’s a big nope for me. I will stick to the front-porch solo acoustic concerts for the dog walkers in Cabbagetown.”
Frank Schultz, 59, a frequent concertgoer and member of Atlanta’s avant-garde Duet for Theremin and Lap Steel, says he’ll attend small outdoor concerts but hesitates to go indoors.
“I think Georgia opened up too soon,” he says. “Indoor shows seem too risky for both performers and patrons. It is really up to individuals to behave, versus the venue enforcing the rules, and we know how that can go. I am way more comfortable with smaller, outdoor shows. They seem safer and I am able to better distance myself according to my comfort level. I certainly miss going to see live music.”
Antonius Maximus Rex, content curator for the music library Libro Musica, agrees, saying he’ll only attend “outdoors at tables that are appropriately distanced.”
On the flip side, Jane-Beatrix Alyxandra, 26, of Atlanta-based rock ‘n’ rollers Kvrtsy and the punk outfit Gender Abuse, says she’ll visit venues that open July 1. “If everyone’s working and hanging out and a second spike doesn’t come, I don’t see the harm in it,” she said. “I’m honestly completely confused by Covid-19 now. Is it fine? Is it gonna kill us? Is there more coming? I don’t know, but if everyone else is doing it I’ll probably go out too.”
Daniel Goldberg of the soul group Citizen Gold said his band would take any gig available within reason to keep the music scene alive. “I would play a show that maintains appropriate safety guidelines,” he says. “I fear that a lot of these venues will no longer exist if we do not play or attend. Sadly, a lot of venues and restaurants are being forced to make this decision.”
The financial stresses
Some local venues have already permanently closed.
The economic impact is enormous. Music venues not only add cultural and historical relevance to a city, they are economic multipliers. A Chicago study estimated that every $1 spent at a small venue results in $12 of economic activity for neighboring restaurants, hotels and retailers.
According to the National Independent Venue Association, if a healthy concert industry doesn’t resume by September, 90 percent of independent venues in America say they’ll be forced to close for good or sell to larger corporations like Live Nation and Anschutz Entertainment Group. The loss of independence and local ownership could gentrify and damage the Atlanta music scene’s diverse aesthetic.
Concert venues came together early in the pandemic to lobby Congress for financial support. “We knew instantly that independent music venues are in crisis,” said the association’s Audrey Fix Schaefer. “These are mom-and-pop entrepreneurs who have been scrappy and never accepted handouts. The venues may be competitors, but they have the united mission in hopes of surviving.”
Not all will. Some have already announced they won’t return.
Decatur’s 4-year-old Vista Room was the first casualty, announcing on Facebook in mid-June that it would close permanently because of Covid-19-related income loss. On March 10, the venue laid off about 20 staff members and canceled all upcoming shows.
“As an independent [music venue], we simply cannot sustain the massive overhead losses, which will now run through at least August,” the post said. “Even then, judging by the surprising lack of attendance at restaurants and gyms the last month, people will hesitate to come until 2021.”
Vista Room organizers said they discussed the situation with their landlord, who has two new strong prospective tenants looking seriously at taking the space.
Also closed is The Bakery Atlanta, at 825 Warner St. S.W. As the venue approached the end of its three-year lease, it announced on Facebook that it was closing for the foreseeable future. It said farewell with a final open house June 28.
Also gone is Mammal Gallery, a DIY event venue that had hoped to open in March. Cofounder Chris Yonker planned to reopen the venue — forced out of its south downtown home by a fire — at the iconic water tower at The MET off Metropolitan Parkway.
From a musician’s standpoint, Yonker, who’s a member of the Greenscreen and Omni bands, says the pandemic has forced him to cancel national and European tours.
Federal and local grants and loans can help venues survive, says Dan Geller, a University of Georgia doctoral grad and owner of Athens-based Kindercore Vinyl pressing company, but he compared the grant process to ticket scalping because applications close as quickly as they open. “One big issue is the uncertainty,” Geller says. “You don’t really know you are getting the money until it suddenly appears in your account. Sometimes you don’t even receive an alert.”
Geller is deeply involved in the Athens music scene. By day, he works at UGA’s College of Engineering. By night, he plays with the Booty Boyz, Vision Video and a handful of other bands.
“Smaller venues facilitate the weirdos and smaller bands starting out,” Geller says. “If those go away, it’s going to cut the bottom out of the ladder and affect which bands can survive. Not having the entry-level [venues] would be detrimental to many bands’ survival.”
Atlanta venues struggle to adapt
Van Bassman is the social media director and production manager at 529 Atlanta. He’s also part of the Atlanta-based group the Buzzards of Fuzz. The club has reopened its bar and restaurant for patio seating, and Bassman says 529 is being cautious and abiding by safety regulations. Phase 2 of the reopening will happen in July, but there’s no word on when music will return.
Financially, 529’s bar is its main source of revenue. Alcohol sales have kept the doors open over the years and during this time, but upkeep takes a lot of the money.
“Smaller venues are able to operate on a smaller margin,” Bassman says. “A lot of money goes back into the bar because there’s a lot of upkeep needed, especially in a punk-rock bar — people love to punch holes. But the folks that come through here really care about seeing us stay open.”
Brian Deerfield opened Aisle 5 in Little 5 Points in 2014 with Nick Weinberg. Their biggest challenge is the uncertainty. Financially, Deerfield says they’re doing well and have funds saved for a few months. The venue will tentatively open at a smaller capacity in mid-July.
“We don’t have a huge overhead and I’ve been paying the commercial rent out of pocket,” Deerfield says. “In our leadership, we’ve seen that they are pushing to allow us to open as soon as it is safe. Nick and I have been tracking this virus since December 2019. If this lasts more than four months, we’d have to start looking at other revenue options.”
Aisle 5 will abide by all state safety guidelines, including temperature checks upon entering, sanitation stations, offering only wrapped straws, having table seating spaced six feet apart, directional lines and blocking off one stall in the restroom.
“We’ll be doing seated shows and we’re still figuring out the final count — I think we’ll come in around 48 seats,” Deerfield says. “I don’t think many national or regional bands will be getting back on the road yet. We’ll be booking local, regional bands and testing the waters there. Luckily, we’re small and nimble, so we have some flexibility to go small and still profit.”
Damon Hare, who’s worked at The Earl for more than a decade, is now its chief talent booker. The East Atlanta venue will stay closed for now but the bar and restaurant will reopen sometime in July. The venue is financially OK, he says, thanks to loyal customers it’s had for 20-plus years.
“We have regulars that love the food and bar,” Hare says. “This gives us an advantage and keeps the lights on. Financially, I’m not exactly positive. We’re probably about even at the moment because we haven’t accrued too many costs. Once the rollout of the restaurant reopens, we’ll be able to get our employees their jobs back and be financially secure.”
He says the D.I.Y. music scene is hurting and The Earl can’t wait to host live concerts again because music is critical to the neighborhood’s essence.
Jason Waller of Waller’s Coffee Shop in Decatur isn’t allowing crowds inside just yet but will soon offer a few performances outdoors and will continue to livestream shows via Facebook.
“We unfortunately will be forced to close if this continues into the fall,” he says, “but we are taking it a month at a time and doing the best we can to stay safe and remain open to serve coffee and baked goods during the day in our little outdoor tent.”
Livestreaming a part of the “new normal”
However the reopenings materialize in July and August, many venues see livestreaming as an essential part of the “new normal.”
Livestreaming has helped bands and musicians stay in front of the public and receive cash via donations.
Geller says many venues are using their open spaces to become virtual venues, livestreaming concerts for folks to watch from home. And space-less venues like Kimono My House and The Doghouse Atlanta Channel have emerged as livestreaming grows in popularity.
The Doghouse Atlanta Channel, a production and consulting company, helps fans find the music they love through digital videos and livestreams. Founder Andrew Riley says he’s seen an increase in demand since the pandemic began but since venues have closed, it’s been less about pay and more about helping the music community stay alive. “I’ve been streaming local venue shows with multicam with board input for more than two years,” he says. “I was definitely prepared for the crisis, but it doesn’t solve the money problem of operating free livestreams.”
Riley says bands recognize the value of livestreaming and expects music clubs to integrate streaming into their media marketing strategy going forward.
Says Bassman of 529 Atlanta: “I’ve been talking with Andrew of The Doghouse Atlanta Channel about how to make the livestreaming feasible for the bar. We cater to loud bands, which can be hard to capture. We need the right room; sound engineers and videographers will make a huge difference.”
Deerfield says Aisle 5 has become familiar with livestreaming and is producing videos in-house. The venue purchased about $1,500 in streaming equipment and did its first livestream benefit concert with Space Kadet on March 19. The livestream, produced by The Doghouse Atlanta Channel, successfully raised funds for the band and had more than 22,000 views. Aisle 5 hopes to continue to continue the livestream option when the pandemic passes.
Owen has used livestreams to bring in extra cash via EOP Live. The first stream took place June 6, when Banks and Shane, a longtime popular folk and Americana duo, brought in about $5,000 in tips and attracted 507 viewers.
But Owen is concerned about the future of the concert business. It requires planning, especially with touring acts, and isn’t an industry that can pick up and reopen overnight.
“There is a point we’ve reached where there are no rules,” Owen says. “It feels like 40 years have disappeared and I’m starting over.”
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