When the show can’t go on: Live music venues assess their losses, consider plans for reopening

  • John Paul White performs at The Parlor Room in Northampton on March 12, the last show the club hosted before closing due to the pandemic. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Jim Olsen, president of Signature Sounds in Northampton, says it remains unclear when live music can come back to The Parlor Room. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • When it reopens, the Academy of Music will likely be hosting considerably smaller audiences, says Executive Director Debra J’Anthony. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • One of many shows rescheduled from the spring at the Academy of Music was this anniversary concert of Bruce Cockburn. But the October show is also unlikely to take place. Image from Academy of Music Facebook page

  • Lori Devine, co-owner of Gateway City Arts in Holyoke, says the multi-purpose venue will not reopen until it can do so at full capacity. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • A note pinned to a poster listing shows at The Parlor Room in Northampton.   GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Published: 6/24/2020 1:22:44 PM

Is live music in any position to make a comeback in the Valley?

According to state plans for the phased reopening of the economy, theaters and music venues of “moderate” capacity can open their doors in Phase 3, which begins June 29 at the earliest, though no specifics have been provided on what exactly constitutes moderate capacity. “Large” performance venues — again, the capacity is unclear — can reopen in Phase 4, which begins July 20 at the earliest.

But local music venues say there is still too much uncertainty to know when they’ll be able to reopen, how they’ll present live music while observing safety protocols dictated by the COVID-19 pandemic, or even how many people might be willing to see a show — all of which means their financial futures also remain uncertain.

A recent report by what’s known as the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA), for instance, noted that among 2,000 American independent venue owners, promoters and bookers that the organization surveyed, 90% believed they would have to close permanently within the next few months, barring some additional government funding.

At Gateway City Arts in Holyoke, co-owner Lori Devine says the music and event space has been forced to spend between $10,000 and $12,000 a month since March just to avoid closing its doors permanently. In a recent post on Gateway’s Facebook site, Devine and her husband, co-owner Vitek Kruta, noted the club, as a multipurpose venue, is obligated to maintain what they call a host of “costly permits, licenses, different kinds of insurances and general overhead.”

Some income from takeout orders from Gateway’s two eateries, The Bistro and Judd’s, doesn’t come close to making up for the loss of revenue from multiple canceled shows and a lack of public dining, she noted.

Gateway has had to furlough 15 of its employees, Devine added, with only a maintenance worker and office administrator remaining on the current payroll. And it’s unclear to her and Kruta when they’ll be able to reopen and bring their staff back.

“Until we can have our full capacity, we just don’t feel like we can afford to open,” said Devine, who noted that Gateway will soon launch a GoFundMe campaign to try and offset loses. “We love our staff [and] our community, and we don’t want anybody to get sick. We don’t want to be a breeding ground for this virus.”

At the Academy of Music in Northampton, Executive Director Debra J’Anthony estimates the venerable theater has lost about $100,000 in revenue since closing March 12, and 11 staff members have been furloughed. In addition, 35 union stagehands the theater calls on for many events have also had no work there in over three months, J’Anthony said.

Reopening is still well down the road — J’Anthony says she’s confident it will happen — but until state guidelines are clarified, only preliminary planning is possible, she adds. “For us, a lot of it will be based on what we need to do to make our audience, our performers and our staff feel safe.”

Jim Olsen, president of the Northampton record label Signature Sounds, also oversees The Parlor Room in Northampton and puts together concerts in other venues, such as the Academy, through his production company, Signature Sounds Presents. Signature has weathered the worst of the downturn so far, he says, yet he still doesn’t see a ready means for bringing live music back.

“We’re dying to do stuff, but until we get some clear guidelines from the state on just how we do that, it’s really impossible to plan anything,” Olsen said. “And the reality is, even when we can bring [live music] back, it’s not going to be the same as it was — it’s going to be months and months, maybe longer, before we can get back to where we were” before the pandemic.

Olsen and his staff have discussed potential scenarios such as staging shows with reduced audiences. But at The Parlor Room, which on a good day can seat about 65 people, that would likely mean limiting audiences to at most one-third that number to insure social distancing protocols are observed.

“I just don’t think [artists] want to play for 20 people wearing masks,” he said. “It doesn’t appeal to us, either.”

What might be possible

Olsen has talked with staff from other area venues about staging shows this fall; with the Academy of Music, for instance, he has broached the idea of limiting Signature concerts there to 200 people, a little less than one-quarter of the Academy’s seating. But these plans also remain speculative, he notes, given the Academy and other venues have their own decisions to make on how many people they feel safe enough to seat.

Despite the pain COVID-19 has brought Signature and the artists with whom it works, there have been some bright spots. As of mid-June, a livestreamed concert series, “Home Sessions,” that the company debuted in March had raised donations of almost $90,000 for Signature and participating artists.

And though Signature had to cancel its main annual event, the Green River Festival, which had been scheduled July 10 to 12, Olsen said 84% of ticket holders agreed to forgo refunds and hang on to their tickets for the 2021 festival.

Earlier this spring, the company, with help from its bank (Greenfield Savings), also got some funding via the federal Payment Protection Program, and Olsen says Signature’s “diversified business model” — record sales, streaming shows, festivals and concert productions — should help them continue to weather the current downturn. They’ve avoided layoffs, he said.

The fact that so many people have held on to their Green River tickets “was a big boost for us, and we’re really grateful to our fans,” Olsen added. As a thank you, Signature, working with 93.9 The River/WRSI-FM, has now organized a simultaneous radio broadcast and webcast for July 10 to 12 of favorite shows from past Green River festivals, along with artist interviews and other material.

Olsen also hopes his company will be able to stage a live show, The Arcadia Folk Festival, in September at the Mass Audubon Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary in Easthampton; it would be the third straight year of the festival. “Outside, I think we’ll be in a better position to do social distancing and still have a fair-size audience,” he said. “But like everything else, it’s still uncertain.”

Messages from the Gazette to the Iron Horse Entertainment Group and to Hawks and Reed Performing Arts Center in Greenfield were not returned by Wednesday afternoon.

Trying to be ‘nimble’

At the Academy, J’Anthony says she and her staff have had some “early conversations” about reopening. But exactly how to do that is still in question, and it will certainly be with smaller audiences on hand, she noted.

That could mean a concert or other event with 100 audience members rather than 200, J’Anthony said, or possibly just 50. Though the Academy still has a number of concerts — Peter Wolf, Bruce Cockburn, The Young@Heart Chorus — and other events listed for this fall, she says the reality is those shows are unlikely to take place (many had already been rescheduled from the spring).

Instead, the Academy has been primarily booking smaller shows for next winter and spring, focusing primarily on local and Northeastern artists — from, say, New York City — who don’t have to spend a lot of time traveling to Northampton. “We want to start small and build on that,” said J’Anthony.

That will include slowly bringing back furloughed staff members. The Academy, as a municipally owned building, has been able to weather many losses, but it still has utility bills to pay and upkeep to tend to, J’Anthony says. The theater and its main concert promoter, Dan Smalls Presents (DSP), have now organized a July 1 virtual benefit concert by regional musicians to raise some funds for the theater.

Meanwhile, much has to be considered to observe social distancing once the building reopens, J’Anthony notes. How many people should be allowed into the bathrooms at a time, for instance? How will concessions be handled? One possibility would be having people order items ahead of time, with staff delivering a package to a person’s assigned seat before an event begins.

J’Anthony says she hasn’t had any conversations with musicians about accepting a smaller fee to play before a smaller audience, but she is keeping in touch with DSP and with Signature Sounds Presents to hear what musicians and bands are thinking.

In the end, the decision on how many people will be able to attend shows at the Academy will be based “on state guidelines, on our safety protocols, and decisions by the local health board,” said J’Anthony. “We’re trying to be as nimble as possible.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com. Chris Goudreau can be reached at cgoudreau@gazettenet.com.
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