How Independent Venues Are Dealing With Large-Gathering Coronavirus Bans, Inevitable Loss of Small Rooms

Brooklyn Bowl
Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images

Audience members at Brooklyn Bowl in New York City on July 25, 2010.

"If this is a two-week hiccup, then that in itself for businesses that might be running from show-to-show is too long."

Since Wednesday when Washington Governor Jay Inslee issued an emergency declaration banning large events with 250 people or more due to the spreading coronavirus outbreak, a wave of other states including California, Ohio and New York have followed suit. Over the weekend, those states, as well as Illinois and Maryland, have called for the closing of all concert venues, while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended banning any gathering of 50 or more people. The large-gathering bans and closures, will impact live music events of all sizes, but for independent venues and promoters they could be make or break situations.

Most bans enacted have called for a halt on large gatherings until the end of March. For smaller rooms like 500-capacity Lodge Room in Los Angeles, that means putting off 15 shows.

"It is super unprecedented and we are taking it day-by-day doing what we have to do. We are a family-owned, one-off independent venue and we have some reserves that we have set aside," says Lodge Room owner Dalton Gerlach. "I never thought we would be using them like this. Depending on what happens, we’re just going to be burning through it."

Venues that haven't planned for a rainy day -- or, in this case, a global pandemic -- may not fair as well.

"Without intervention on a government level, [losing venues] is inevitable," says Rev. Moose, managing partner of Marauder, the agency that runs Independent Venue Week in the U.S. "The general feeling is that there will be a future, but we have to get to that point. If this is a two-week hiccup, then that in itself for businesses that might be running from show-to-show is too long. This could be a six-month delay in the touring industry. We don’t know."

"We are going to face trouble. This is going to be hard. The smaller, the harder," says Peter Shapiro, who owns all the Brooklyn Bowl venues, including the new Nashville location that suspended its grand opening scheduled Friday due to the coronavirus and the tornado that hit the city earlier this month. "These things are so fluid and fast-moving, all you can do is watch and adjust. I am really hopeful that there can be some gatherings of some kind in the near future."

Shapiro had been working on a three-night celebration of Phil Lesh's 80th birthday at the Capitol Theatre in upstate New York over the weekend that was also forced to be postponed. One benefit to being an independent venue, Shapiro says, is the flexibility to postpone more shows rather than cancel.

Indies "have more flexibility, as do the bands. These aren’t huge bus tours with 100-person crew. Arena dates are complicated. They are going to be hard to move on a dime," Shapiro says. "For the bigger things, there will be more cancellations."

STG Presents in Seattle, which books the Paramount, Moore and Neptune theaters, was able to immediately begin rescheduling shows instead of cancelling. and less than 24 hours after the ban, the promoter opened up livestreamed shows for anyone stuck at home.

"We have an excellent program with Melodic Caring where we stream several shows a year into hospitals so that sick children have the opportunity to take part in the arts. We had a school matinee performance scheduled, when schools started closing down and cutting field trips we made the decision we should open our stream up to let anyone have access," STG Presents director of marketing Ken Potts tells Billboard. "The current situation shines light on the need for programs like this to help lift the spirits of those unable to attend in person events."

Following New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's ban of gatherings with 500 people or more on Thursday, the Love Rocks benefit being held at the Beacon Theatre reacted quickly, turning to Shapiro's media outlet Relix to livestream the event the same night. According to Shapiro, 50,000 people tuned into the stream that featured performances from Dave Matthews, Leon Bridges, Marcus King and more.

Thursday, Independent Venue Week hosted a call of more than 75 independent venues and promoters to serve as a platform for those struggling to come together and share ideas including ways to create revenue during bans, including livestreams and GoFundMe campaigns like Austin venues have after the cancellation of South by Southwest. Austin venues have received more than $33,000 in pledges at the time of posting.

"These are people who have not stopped working for days on end because they are dealing with a complete and total systematic change in their business, potentially the existence of their business," Moose tells Billboard. "The idea that you have a market competitor is being pushed aside. Instead you’re talking about survivability and you’re talking how do we get through the next week, how do we get to the next month. It’s not just you as a business owner, it is the industry."

In addition to hosting shows without audiences to live stream or creating GoFundMe campaigns, the call garnered ideas of selling gift cards and creating subscriptions for the venues that would help money come in, even during days with no shows.

Postponing, rather than canceling shows, also serves as a way for venues hold onto some of the ticket revenue they would lose if they are forced to cancel.

"In a perfect world, we would reschedule for the moment that we are allowed to do shows but these bands are playing all over the country and the world and we have to be flexible and malleable and understand their situations," says Lodge Room talent buyer Raghav Desai

But if customers can't make a show or request a refund it would be “irresponsible and unfair not to” provide that, says Desai. He adds that denying refunds would result in consumer's losing trust in the industry and cause more damage in the long run. 

With a heap of shows being postponed until later in the year, it promises added income for venues that can outlast the pandemic -- as well as complications for scheduling.

"Some shows are going summer, but a lot is going to the fall," says Shapiro. "October 2020 has the potential to be the biggest month of live music ever. The bands are all going to want to tour. The fans are all going to want to see them."

"Let’s say this all passes, what happens in September and October when every single band is trying to play the same rooms at the same time?" questions Moose. 

For independent venues facing more immediate concerns, that question will have to be answered in the coming weeks and months.

"Things are changing for us every hour. We are hoping this thing moves through and it is just March, but we are also preparing for April. It’s not even that we are preparing, we are just dealing with it day-by-day as best we can. It is our full focus," says Gerlach. "We are working more than ever in a way, but not in the way you want to be working."

Coronavirus

THE BILLBOARD BIZ
SUBSCRIBER EXPERIENCE

The Biz premium subscriber content has moved to Billboard.com/business.


To simplify subscriber access, we have temporarily disabled the password requirement.