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WAITING IN LIMBO: Local concert venues face revenue losses and an uncertain future

Riverfront Park will host a 6,000-plus seat amphitheater, managed by Live Nation, still slated to open in 2021. Courtesy photo

 

“What do you miss most in this new quarantine life?”

“Live music.”

Behind going out to eat, it’s been the most popular answer I’ve received when talking to friends about what they yearn to do most while living in self-isolation. COVID-19 shut down concerts, tours and summer music festivals to the tune of $9 billion in losses, according to the LA Times.

Some artists are getting creative, still bringing their sounds to the masses, even if to their living rooms. John Legend, Willie Nelson, Chris Martin, Miley Cyrus, Ben Gibbard, Garth Brooks, The Roots and many others have been streaming for fans. Keith Urban hosted a concert in a drive-in movie theater outside of Nashville for 125 cars. On May 29 at 6 p.m. (via Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Twitch), Dropkick Murphys, joined remotely by Bruce Springsteen, will be the first to head back to Boston’s Fenway Park to play to … empty seats.

Locally, bands have figured out how to keep the music going by either participating in livestreams, releasing new music or doing neighborhood concert series. But our small and large venues are having to figure out ways to recoup lost income and keep the music going, while mentally doing cartwheels around what this “new normal” looks like for concert-goers.

“I see the model for less is more, singer-songwriter scenarios that tend to attract tamer audiences,” Bourgie Nights owner Billy Mellon predicts, “[attracting] those that are at ease with sitting and focusing on the artist, and not be in the crowd because it is crowded.”

The downtown music venue’s capacity is already 150, so making it more intimate may not be much of a problem. Mellon believes both artists and audiences could benefit from a small listening-room experience.

“We may be set up a little bit better than most venues because we might be able to incorporate the right performers to play in front of a dinner crowd,” says Mellon, who also operates the fine-dining establishment manna, next door to Bourgie. “Obviously, space will be an issue, but if agents [and] artists are willing to strip down their budgets to fit into these types of scenarios, it could work.”

At Reggie’s 42nd Street Tavern in midtown, where heavier acts are booked throughout the year, co-owner Charles Krueger already has been ruminating on measures they’ll need to take once music venues and bars get the go-ahead to open in NC. Hand-sanitizer stations will be put around the bar and fewer bar stools will be positioned to host guests.

“I’ve heard we’ll be able to open at 50% occupancy and most of the shows we put on are below that anyway,” Krueger says. “We’ve been meaning to nice up and expand our outside area anyway. We also, with the help of Charlie Smith, had planned on doing a Sunday artisan market with an outside stage, so maybe we’ll take advantage of that outdoor stage for some of the other shows when they aren’t too loud.”

 

 

 

During normal times, when it’s not hosting shows, it’s doing karaoke nights or welcoming patrons for beers and camaraderie. These days Reggie’s has been struggling with lack of income; outside of a small SBA loan, Krueger and his partners have depended on T-shirt sales (“quarantees”) for revenue.

“Pretty much between the shirts and the loan, we were able to pay rent for one month,” he says, “but like everyone else, we’ve been closed for two. So that other month’s rent, and every other bill that comes with owning a business, still need to get paid.”

Reggie’s has pushed springtime shows, like The Ataris and The Queens, to the fall, and added Dead Meadow and Windhand to September. “Luckily, we do well enough where we’re not going anywhere,” Krueger assures, “but it is disheartening, to say the least.”

In the Brooklyn Arts District on Fourth Street, Brooklyn Arts Center (BAC) was picking up its pace with more scheduled live music. (Most of its revenue is generated from weddings, of which it’s been forced to reschedule 35.)  BAC had six shows scheduled for spring that have canceled or rescheduled. “It’s detrimental because everyone who works in the event business has lost two or three months of income,” executive director Rich Leder says.

How it will look when BAC reopens depends on Governor Cooper’s requirements—which, as of press, hadn’t been made public. Everyone’s in a holding pattern for phase two to happen and to receive clear direction from the state. During this downtime, BAC has renovated, deep-cleaned and installed hand-sanitizing stations in the venue.

“Best case scenario, when phase two hits, Governor Cooper allows event venues to open at a high percentage capacity,” Leder surmises. “Worst case scenario, when phase two hits, Governor Cooper allows event venues to open but his stated capacity is too low to allow us to host meaningful events.”

Leder doesn’t think promoters BAC works with would be interested in hosting smaller concerts either. Mainly, they can’t make enough money for a venue the size of BAC (600 and under).

“If a band wants to do an event that allows us to adhere to our lawful capacity—whatever that turns out to be at any given time—then we will certainly consider it,” he clarifies.

Greenfield Lake Amphitheater (GLA)—which seats over 1,000—has lost all of its spring revenue, and what summer and fall will look like remains unknown. Beau Gunn—who works with Live Nation, which took over management of the venue from the city—canceled six concerts and rescheduled others but is in a holding pattern. The possibility exists GLA will lose 40 shows or more if the 2020 concert season gets canceled altogether.

“We employ anywhere from 25 to 30 local people at every show,” Gunn says. “The impact on their income spread out over what could be the entire concert season is a harsh outcome for many. On average around 25% (around 325 people) travel from out of town per show. They are buying meals, drinks, gas, hotels, etc. The ripple effect carries into hundreds of thousands of dollars lost to our local economy.”

If GLA gets the all-clear to reopen by June, Gunn does not see it being at full capacity. Yet, he hopes, like Krueger at Reggie’s, they can operate at least by half. In that scenario, there is a silver lining for smaller acts.

“I see a lot of talented local/regional acts being able to perform at GLA that otherwise may not get the chance,” he says. “And knowing the community’s affinity for GLA and live music, I foresee a wonderful opportunity to have some great shows with talented bands.”

Another ray of sunshine in an otherwise dreadful COVID-19 tale: Riverfront Park continues to make headway on opening its 6,000-plus seat amphitheater by next year. Also operated by Live Nation, the 6.6-acre site will include playgrounds and green space to be utilized when concerts, festivals and other live performances aren’t happening. It will be located on the north downtown Riverwalk off Cowan Street.

“I encourage anyone looking for something to look forward to, go down to the site and check it out,” Gunn says. “It’s pretty exciting and still scheduled to open mid-2021. We are all remaining optimistic we will be producing shows there by next year.”

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Encore Magazine regularly covers topics pertaining to news, arts, entertainment, food, and city life in Wilmington. It also maintains schedules and listings of local events like concerts, festivals, live performance art and think-tank events. Encore Magazine is an entity of H&P Media, which also powers Wilmington’s local ticketing platform, 910tix.com. Print and online editions are updated every Wednesday.

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