With stages silenced and most employees laid off, the region’s live music industry faces brutal losses, an uncertain future. Will things reopen this summer, this fall? No one knows. But some remain hopeful.
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The silence is deafening.
West Michigan’s bars and concert venues are reeling from the coronavirus pandemic that’s shut down businesses and unplugged thousands of performances in recent weeks with no clear end in sight.
Nationally, the cancellation of major music festivals and tours is costing the industry billions of dollars.
The industry publication Pollstar estimated last week that live music businesses would lose nearly $9 billion in revenue if the rest of 2020 remained “dark” or about $5 billion in lost ticket sales if touring returned by late August.
But as stunning as those numbers might be, it doesn’t begin to illustrate the untold human cost of the shutdown for music venues, especially small and mid-size operations with tight profit margins who employ countless part-time workers and support the lion’s share of performances by local bands and solo acts.
“The sad thing is that we were having a record year and were really on pace for an amazing full season,” said Scott Hammontree, partner and talent buyer for The Intersection in Grand Rapids.
“We have so many hourly employees that are now left with no income. That’s what frustrates me the most. They are the ones working behind the scenes making the shows happen.”
As of early April, only four of The Intersection’s 81 monthly employees were still on the job.
Tami VandenBerg, co-owner of The Pyramid Scheme in Grand Rapids, called it “very devastating. Out of all the fears we have had as small business owners, a pandemic never was on our list. A complete shutdown is terrifying and very sad. Canceling so many shows, some of which were years in the making, was brutal. Tears were shed. We have laid off our entire staff of 24 people.”
Based on a Local Spins survey of several West Michigan venues, literally hundreds of shows already have been scrapped due to the COVID-19 crisis since the shutdown began in March.
And the uncertainty about when some of these concerts might be rescheduled – and how concerts packed with fans might even take place – has put these businesses in limbo.
Some venue owners and managers hope to reopen early this summer, but many speculate they won’t be back to normal until fall at the earliest.
A GROWING ROSTER OF CONCERT CANCELLATIONS
The counts of lost shows thus far are like a morbid scorecard: 50 shows at The Pyramid Scheme, more than 40 at The Intersection, more than four dozen nights of entertainment at Billy’s Lounge, 40-plus shows at Mulligan’s Pub, 18 and counting at Seven Steps Up, 19 shows at Holland’s Park Theatre, the entire rest of the season at St. Cecilia Music Center, shows through April and most of May at Listening Room, and the list goes on and on.
“This has been a very tough transition for our staff members at both Billy’s and Mulligan’s,” said Kali Swan, general manager for Billy’s Lounge and Mulligan’s Pub in Grand Rapids’ Eastown neighborhood.
“Forty-five employees have been laid off between the two bars and have entered into a new world of financial unknowns. Although these seem to be unprecedented dark times, we are looking ahead to the days when we can see all of our customers again.”
Quinn Mathews, general manager and talent buyer for Listening Room, said he’d “love to be able to have some live music in Listening Room by June and July. Even if it’s somewhat of a ‘soft reopening’ with limited seating and just a few events, just to try and get functioning again.” But he conceded the venue will have to follow any government guidelines, so there’s no predicting a timeline.
Some venues have created GoFundMe pages to help employees and tide operations over; others are focusing on merchandise sales and live-stream concerts by stay-at-home artists where donations are accepted online. (To help out, see a list of those links below.)
And while some restaurants and bars have been able to lean on takeout orders to help ease the pain, others – such as the Seven Steps Up listening room in Spring Lake – don’t have that option.
Co-owner Gary Hanks said one of the biggest worries is “that this could continue way past current projections. Difficult for a small venue like us to continue with no revenue coming in. There are many expenses that continue even if we’re closed for shows.”
Hanks said the best thing patrons can do is “hold onto their tickets for rescheduled concerts. We’re offering refunds and have paid out thousands of dollars, but fortunately, the majority has held onto their tickets.”
Although a few venues have arranged for live-streamed, stay-at-home events featuring local artists during the shutdown, the financial impact of these online shows has been minimal.
So how long will all of this last?
“Impossible to say,” conceded Hammontree, who encouraged folks to stay home as long as possible to help speed recovery from the pandemic.
“It really depends in my opinion on the total damage done to the economy once we come out of it. We went through the 2008 recession and struggled, but we made it through. I will say with 100 percent confidence that we will do everything we can to come back out on the other side. I have zero doubt we will get back to it. It’s the when that I don’t know.”
AN UNCERTAIN TIMELINE FOR REOPENING WITH RADICAL CHANGES AHEAD
VandenBerg said “the severe challenge of this situation is that so much of it is dependent on the choices of millions of individuals in addition to policy decisions at four different levels – federal, state, county and city. I think best-case scenario, we could operate at reduced capacity in spring/summer in the front bar, then reduced capacity in the venue beginning fall/winter. It would be a dream to open sooner, but for financial reasons, we need to be very realistic.”
Grand Rapids’ SpeakEZ Lounge laid off all of its staff and canceled all events and concerts — including all Local Spins Wednesdays shows — but has continued to offer a takeout service during the “devastating” shutdown.
Even when things reopen, said Calin Skidmore, a partner in SpeakEZ, things will be radically different.
“It seems highly unlikely at this point that we would be able to open and operate as we did before for quite some time,” he said, speculating that a restaurant’s allowed capacity might be cut in half or even more.
“I think we, and the dining and entertainment industry as a whole, will be dramatically and possibly permanently altered after this.”
And that means smaller venues might no longer be able to afford live entertainment.
“It’s really hard to say. But even if a miracle happens and there is a vaccine for this virus available in the next few weeks or even months, it just seems hard to imagine a packed house for a Wednesday concert or a Sunday brunch in the same way it was back in February for a very long time. Remember those halcyon days of February?”
Holland’s Park Theatre has put 12 of 13 employees “on hold” and the rescheduling shows has been “pretty muddy water to navigate,” conceded Brandon Blank, general manager. “We are most certainly hoping to be back into the swing of things by August at best. There is so much unknown at this time. Projections on our end are hopeful, but those variables are solely based on our communities confidence they will be safe.”
For venues such as St. Cecilia Music Center in downtown Grand Rapids, the coronavirus shutdown also has wiped out its music education programs and rehearsals for the rest of the season as well as building rentals, adding to the financial crisis.
“SCMC is looking at a huge deficit at the end of the year,” said executive director Cathy Holbrook, who said St. Cecilia so far has laid off one employee.
Most devastating? “Once the announcement that schools would not resume for the year was made, we had to make the decision to cancel the remainder of our School of Music year. … Obviously then it follows that the spring performances for those groups will not take place. It’s sad that the students were working towards that goal and now cannot see it to fruition.”
Two Acoustic Folk series concerts – Marc Cohn and Shawn Colvin – are being rescheduled. “Personally, I am devastated by leaving this season unfinished,” she said. “We work so hard to put together these great events and not seeing them through is hard for me.”
CAUTIOUS OPTIMISM ABOUT THE RESILIENCE AND POWER OF LIVE MUSIC
Some remain cautiously optimistic, noting there will be pent-up demand from fans tired of being locked up at home.
“One (artist) manager said he thinks our industry will have a huge boom when this is over and people will appreciate live music more than ever,” Holbrook said.
“Having it taken away from them will make them crave it in the future. I am hopeful that is the case as well and that we will have great response to next season because I have a great lineup.”
Added Hammontree: “We have an amazing team, a great partner and we are used to dealing with some levels of chaos. I think once the restrictions are lifted for all businesses, people are going to be eager to resume some sense of normalcy.
“Music to me is what eases our anxiety, softens an emotional hardship, brings people together to remind us of our humanity and friendship.”
Mathews calls it “really amazing to see the positivity in our communities, being our Michigan community and the entertainment industry, musicians, agents, managers. Everyone is just ready for when we can have groups of people together again. … We all know that one day this will end and I have no doubt that live music events will once again thrive here in West Michigan.”
Said VandenBerg: “Music brings us joy, and life, and community and solace. To not have access to live music in person is very crushing for those of us who are music lovers and supporters. Our patrons have promised they will all be back and can’t wait to come to another show or buy another drink. We will rise again.”
HOW YOU CAN HELP
The following is a list of links to GoFundMe pages and other places where you can assist local concert venues, bars and their employees. If you know of others, email information and links to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Intersection (T-shirt sales to support employees): https://sectionlive.com/product/section-fam-shirt/
The Pyramid Scheme: https://www.gofundme.com/f/the-pyramid-scheme-a-virtual-dream
Tip Top Deluxe Bar & Grill: https://www.gofundme.com/f/help-for-tip-top-and-employees
Billy’s Lounge: https://www.gofundme.com/f/bucks-for-billy039s
Mulligan’s Pub: https://www.gofundme.com/f/virtual-tips-for-mulligan039s
St. Cecilia Music Center: http://scmc-online.org/support/
Park Theatre: https://parktheatreholland.org/donate
Meanwhile Bar: https://www.gofundme.com/f/the-meanwhile-bar-support-your-local-bartenders
Michigan Music Alliance’s Michigan Artist Relief Fund: https://www.michiganmusicalliance.org/artist-relief-fund
Copyright 2020, Spins on Music LLC