Founders Brewing will resume shows later this month after two years, another example of live music’s robust return. Local Spins revisits how West Michigan venues are coping and what fans can expect.
SCROLL DOWN FOR A ‘TWO YEARS AFTER COVID’ LOCAL SPINS ON WYCE RADIO PODCAST
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Exactly two years ago this week, the world as we know it was turned upside down.
The COVID-19 pandemic literally affected every corner of the globe, with the entertainment and music industry suffering brutal losses as venues shut down, tours got canceled, health restrictions mounted and fans stayed home.
Few predicted at the time that it would be two years before we’d see light at the end of the tunnel, and some venues didn’t make it: Popular hot spots such as Mac’s Bar and The Loft in Lansing closed in 2020, along with The Union Cabaret in Kalamazoo. Other venues such as Rockford Brewing still haven’t restarted live music.
But things are picking up: With caseloads waning for now, 2022 finally shapes up as a breakthrough year for concert venues, festivals and live music in general.
“Booking for shows in the summer and through the end of the year has picked up a ton,” said Scott Hammontree, partner and talent buyer for The Intersection in Grand Rapids, and president of the Michigan Independent Venue & Promoter Association.
“It feels like from July to December this year we should return to normal in regards to the number of booked shows.”
While many West Michigan venues still aren’t hosting as many concerts as they did before the pandemic, some signs point in the right direction:
• After COVID silenced their twice-weekly live music shows in March 2020, the folks at Founders Brewing will finally ramp up concerts indoors at the Grand Rapids taproom for the first time this spring, starting with a March 26 show featuring The Bootstrap Boys and Morgan Haner. But rather than the 8-10 shows of past years, Founders will scale back “to about two shows per month,” said DJ De La Cruz, taproom manager and talent buyer. “This allows us to focus on quality acts that we are excited to host in our space, and helps out with scheduling issues as well.” Open-mic sessions returned to Founders on Sundays in late February, hosted by Jake Stilson of The Bootstrap Boys.
• SpeakEZ Lounge staged its first “Local Spins Wednesdays” show in two years this week, celebrating St. Patrick’s Day with a performance by Selkie for a packed house. Hosted by Local Spins, the once-weekly series’ next scheduled show won’t take place until May 18, when Earth Radio and The Concussions perform as part of Local Spins’ week-long 10th anniversary celebration. Because the post-COVID environment has made it difficult for SpeakEZ to support live music financially, organizers are contemplating sponsorships or other funding mechanisms to restore some live music shows moving forward.
• Audiotree Presents – which books concerts at a variety of Michigan venues – reports a “very busy” 2022 ahead, while remaining “kind of conservative as to risks” they’re willing to take on some events. “We’re not trying big new festival-type events or really pushing into bigger rooms right now,” said Nate Dorough, talent buyer. “Just taking what comes to us in the rooms we’re established in, and trying to make sure each show is the best it can be.”
FOUNDERS EASING SLOWLY BACK INTO LIVE SHOWS WITH THE BOOTSTRAP BOYS
For Founders – which has long been one of Grand Rapids’ most popular hot spots for live music on Thursdays and Saturdays – concerts will no longer be “tied to a strict show schedule,” but rather staged “whenever we like,” De La Cruz said.
“This allows us to book bands with much more flexibility, so folks shouldn’t be surprised if they see a show booked on a different day.” (The Bootstrap Boys play on a Saturday; Stormy Chromer’s April 14 appearance takes place on a Thursday. View an event schedule at foundersbrewing.com.)
For now, Founders is focused on booking regional bands, though national touring acts will eventually be “part of the picture.” He said he couldn’t comment on possible return of June’s Founders Fest.
While employees are “absolutely thrilled to get back into” live music, De La Cruz said it does represent a major change for a taproom that also has seen changes in staffing since 2020.
“Change can be a difficult reality to deal with, and in our case, shifting from being just a taproom to a taproom venue is something that we want to ease back into,” he said.
“The shock of going from a seated restaurant environment to a loud, packed rock show is something that we want to acclimate to gradually.”
Promoters and venue owners say challenges remain, and some shows aren’t attracting the ticket sales and turnouts they did in 2019. And of course, worries about a COVID resurgence linger.
“The picture, while not bleak, is still stressful and scary,” said Michelle Hanks, co-owner of the Seven Steps Up listening room in Spring Lake, which hasn’t booked as many shows this spring as it did prior to the pandemic.
“Shows that have previously easily sold out require more hand-holding, new artists are a bigger challenge and yet, some shows sell easily. We (West Michigan venues) are all fighting to rise above the noise, so to speak, within the same group of customers.”
Shifting to outdoor shows in summertime may help, but Hanks stressed that Seven Steps Up is “just looking at ways to survive through 2022.”
TICKET PRICES INCH UP AS POST-COVID COSTS RISE
Hammontree conceded that revenues have “still not returned to pre-COVID levels and I don’t expect it to until the end of the year at the earliest.”
Costs also are up in many cases, with some bands raising their fees. This is forcing overall ticket prices to go “up a notch,” Hammontree said.
The bottom line: The concert business isn’t out of the woods yet. And requirements for masks and vaccinations that vary widely across the landscape can complicate matters for some patrons and venues alike, along with continued reticence about returning to crowded shows.
“There’s going to be lingering shrapnel lying around from COVID for years to come,” Dorough said. “For those who live and breathe live music, their hunger is greater than ever. For those where it was just a casual thing, those folks are certainly harder to reach.”
Nevertheless, with summer festivals ramping up again and venues finding their footing, there’s real excitement about the prospects for the rest of 2022.
“The energy and excitement in the air as we approach these shows is palpable,” said De La Cruz, noting the Founders taproom had a successful “test run” recently with its Oracle house band.
“I’m happy to report that everything went smoothly, the crowd was having a blast and there were literal tears in the eyes of employees who had been waiting for this moment for almost two years. Needless to say, we are all absolutely pumped.”
CHECK OUT LOCAL SPINS’ MICHIGAN MUSICAL FESTIVALS 2022 GUIDE
LOCAL SPINS ON WYCE (March 18) – This week’s edition of Local Spins on WYCE — which showcases regional music at 11 a.m. Fridays on WYCE (88.1 FM) and online at wyce.org — was a special look back at artists who emerged or made a splash during COVID’s 2020 shutdown. It also spotlights music they’ve released since then along with fresh 2022 tracks by West Michigan artists. The episode features music by The B-Sides, Charlie Walmsley, Earth Radio, The War & Treaty, The Blue Pines, Loren Johnson, Jake Kershaw, Via Mardot, Adam Schlenker & Hayes Griffin, Odd Space, Les Creatif, Bruce Madden and August. Listen to the show here.
PODCAST: Local Spins on WYCE (3/18/22)
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