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Music Venue Owners And Artists Reflect On How The Pandemic Changed Their Industry

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

There's a famous music venue in Minneapolis. It's called First Avenue, and it's been around since the '70s. Prince used to play there a lot. The company that owns the place also owns five other venues and clubs in the Twin Cities, and in normal times, they host more than a thousand live shows a year.

DAYNA FRANK: And for the last 11 months, we have had two. And that was a livestream.

CORNISH: You're saying that like you can't believe it.

FRANK: It's shocking when you say it like that. I actually hadn't thought about it until you asked the question.

CORNISH: Owner Dayna Frank is in the same boat as so many performing arts venues around the country. They've been more or less hibernating for 11 months.

FRANK: We were at around 500 employees before the shutdowns. We furloughed 98%. I think we have, you know, a handful still working to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic.

CORNISH: And Dayna Frank is one of the lucky ones - able to keep paying mortgage, insurance and utilities by scraping by on grants and federal aid. But the outlook for a return to normal...

FRANK: I don't think anyone, you know, knows for sure, and I think anyone's guess is as good as anyone else's right now.

CORNISH: Of course, the loss of live performance doesn't just mean little or no work for artists or a loss of connection in a time of isolation.

JIM RITTS: But I think we also have to think about this deeply from an economic standpoint.

CORNISH: Jim Ritts runs the Paramount and State Theaters in Austin, where, in a normal year, his venues draw 275,000 people.

RITTS: That means we drive 15 to $20 million of economic impact for those bars, for those restaurants, for those hotels, for those parking lots. We're the Venus flytrap that brings people to these areas and all the ecosystems that are supported by our industry.

CORNISH: Theaters, music halls and nightclubs were among the first places to shut down, and every indication is they are last in line for return to normal. And it's not just the artists who bear that impact.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: Back at the start of the pandemic, Zoe Keating sat down to crunch the numbers.

ZOE KEATING: And last year - well, 2019 - live concerts were half of my income.

CORNISH: Keating's a cellist. She performs original compositions using computers and electronic looping to create work that sounds like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: She also composes for film, TV and dance. And she wasn't feeling too worried last spring...

KEATING: I don't know if I ever panicked.

CORNISH: ...Until she had to cancel live dates in May...

KEATING: I did feel this sort of sense of dread.

CORNISH: ...And then in August.

KEATING: And then the concerts in October got canceled. And I was like, wow. And those concerts were rescheduled for 2021. Now those are all in question. And if you had told me last March that I wouldn't perform again for two years, I just would not have believed it.

CORNISH: Keating is doing all right for the time being. She's got a gig composing live music for a TV show. But she worries when things do finally open up, a lot of the places where she used to perform won't be there anymore.

KEATING: You know, I'm one of those artists that - you know, I play in mid-sized venues. I'm not huge. And I am concerned that they're not going to be able to make it all the way until 2022. So...

CORNISH: Some artists, like Keating, are lucky. They have other stuff to fall back on. But so many other people do not, and we're not just talking about performers.

TERRY MORGAN: People don't realize how many behind-the-scenes personnel it takes to pull off, you know, a major show.

CORNISH: Terry Morgan is a live events producer in Seattle.

MORGAN: Truck drivers, the bus drivers, the caterers, the sound guys, the light guys and the electricians, the clean-up people, the ushers, the ticket takers, the concessions people - I mean, it goes on and on and on.

CORNISH: Morgan says he's gotten by in the pandemic by focusing more on digital events and by slimming his staff down to just two people.

MORGAN: Knock on wood, you know, this next two years, we'll be able to recover more and get more people employed. But you're not going to just be able to jump up and be playing a 3,000-seat venue in a year.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: In the meantime, the performing arts industry did get some hope in December with the coronavirus relief package. Congress allocated $15 billion in grants for theater and music venues, funding that had come to be known as the Save Our Stages Act. Once the grant money becomes available, the qualifying venues, which have hung on this far, will get some federal help staying afloat. That does not mean they'll be out of the water anytime soon. I spoke about why with two of the venue runners you heard from earlier, Jim Ritts in Austin and Dayna Frank in Minneapolis.

FRANK: You know, one of the extra challenges that our industry has is that we are, you know, hyper-local small businesses, you know, mom and pop venues. But we rely on a national network of touring artists, an entire ecosystem. And so, you know, at First Avenue, we rely about 80% on touring artists, and they need 20 to 25 dates in order to pay for their tour. And so, you know, just opening up Minnesota doesn't really help us that much. We need 100% of the country to be open up at 100% capacity in order to get our industry, you know, back fully on its feet.

RITTS: Well, one of the problems the bands who are touring - and just following on what Dayna was saying - is they need for there to be consistent regulations. If they're coming and doing a Southwest tour, they need Oklahoma and Arkansas and Texas and New Mexico and Louisiana to have some semblance of the same kind of regulations because, you know, coming in and being able to play 25% capacity in Texas but, you know, maybe it's 50% percent somewhere else - it's very hard for them to build and for us to build a business model.

CORNISH: When do you expect that you can be making bookings for full-capacity crowds again?

FRANK: I think everybody is hoping for something outdoors this summer, some partial capacity or some way to make it work as soon - as close to Labor Day as possible.

RITTS: We're forecasting the same thing - sometime just after Labor Day. We're hopeful. We don't know where patrons' heads are going to be at that point in time, which is why having the opportunity to work on these kinds of protocols become really important because I think they will still remain in place even when we reopen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RUTHIE FOSTER: (Singing) Love is a burning thing.

CORNISH: So one more thing. Jim Ritts told us about a moment in his Paramount Theatre - this is back in October - that really drove home the desperation so many people in the industry are feeling.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FOSTER: (Singing) Bound by wild desire.

CORNISH: He was standing in the balcony, watching singer Ruthie Foster and her band do this blues rendition of "Ring Of Fire" by Johnny Cash. The performance was being livestreamed. Save for a few staff members, the theater's 1,300 seats were empty.

RITTS: Just such artistry and emotion being played to an empty house.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FOSTER: (Vocalizing).

RITTS: I had to turn and walk out of the building because it just made me so essentially sad. And I literally started to tear up, going, we can't keep doing this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FOSTER: Thank you. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.