Illustration by Rachel Hawley
Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker responded to COVID-19 swiftly by imposing a statewide shelter-in-place order on Saturday, March 21. But even at that point, Chicago music venues had already been dealing with the onrushing pandemic for more than a week. Venues began to cancel shows en masse on Thursday, March 12—the same night Goose Island sponsored citywide concerts (some of which went on as planned) as part of 312 Day. In short order, the torrent of tour cancellations and refund requests turned the live-music industry upside down. That Friday, the Hideout became one of the first venues—if not the first—to shut down in response to the virus.
"March 12 was one of the craziest days of my life, in my ten-year career of booking shows," says Empty Bottle Presents partner Brent Heyl, who works as a talent buyer for the Bottle and Thalia Hall. Stoner-metal veterans Om were set to headline an EBP show at Garfield Park Conservatory on Friday, March 13, when the pandemic pulled the rug out from under everyone. "That show at Garfield Park—for a company our size, it's a pretty big undertaking," Heyl says. "Being on the phone with the city, and the park, and the agent, and the band . . . it's like, 'Holy shit.'" EBP postponed the show, though a new date has yet to be announced.
Independent music venues were among the first businesses undone by COVID-19. They rallied quickly to launch the National Independent Venue Association, which in April began publicly urging congressional leaders to help—at that point it had more than 800 member venues, and that number has since topped 2,000. NIVA is pushing the federal government to create new initiatives to support small businesses such as music venues, most of which will remain closed until the rollout of a vaccine. The Paycheck Protection Program built into the CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) has done little to address the problems venues face, largely because 75 percent of PPP money must go toward payroll in order for the loans to be forgivable. Many venues are barely paying anyone—they remain completely shut down, with no source of revenue at all—and thus they've got more to worry about from rent and other overhead expenses.
NIVA supports the bipartisan RESTART Act (Reviving the Economy Sustainably Towards a Recovery in Twenty-Twenty), introduced in May by senators Michael Bennet (D-Colorado) and Todd Young (R-Indiana). It would double the PPP's repayment period and allow the loans to be spent in other ways and remain forgivable. "The PPP, as I've always looked at it, was sort of a fumbled rollout—basically a Band-Aid on a bullet hole for a business like Metro," says Joe Shanahan, who owns Metro, Smart Bar, and the GMan Tavern. "RESTART will actually be more of a tourniquet. It actually could really stop the overall bleeding that these smaller venues are facing."
Last week two more bills responding to this crisis were introduced in Congress. Senators John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota) responded to NIVA's pleas with the Save Our Stages Act, which would create $10 billion in Small Business Administration grants to help venues through the next six months—each venue would be eligible for up to $12 million, or 45 percent of its 2019 operating budget. The bill also promises to define independent venues narrowly, to prevent Live Nation and other concert-business behemoths from siphoning off the lion's share of the money. The ENCORES Act (Entertainment New Credit Opportunity for Relief & Economic Sustainability), proposed by representatives Ron Kind (D-Wisconsin) and Mike Kelly (R-Pennsylvania), would give a wide variety of entertainment venues a tax credit equal to half the value of the tickets they refunded during the wave of pandemic-related cancellations.
The National Independent Venue Association has built an action page to allow supporters to send a letter to Congress about the RESTART Act and the Save Our Stages Act.
You can also call and e-mail your congressional representatives directly: directories for the House and Senate are here and here.
The Chicago Independent Venue League is accepting donations as well as aggregating fundraisers run by member venues.
RESTART, ENCORES, and the Save Our Stages Act have yet to become law, though. For the time being, music venues are on their own, forced to navigate a confusing and restrictive reopening process with little help—and many have simply opted to stay closed, since no one is touring and they can't break even admitting the modest audiences permitted by public-health measures.
On June 26, Chicago entered Phase Four of Illinois's COVID-19 reopening plan, which allows performance venues to return to business—though safety guidelines permit only 50 people indoors (or 25 percent of venue capacity, whichever is smaller) and 100 people outdoors. And unless they're also restaurants, venues can't let patrons stay for more than two hours. Of the clubs that have opted to open under these circumstances, some have added restrictions of their own: historic Uptown jazz club the Green Mill was already hosting sidewalk shows when Phase Four began, and though it's now booking musicians on its indoor stage, it won't allow singers or wind players to perform.
The choice facing venue operators today—stay closed and almost certainly fold, or reopen knowing you might spread a deadly disease among your staff and customers and still lose money—would be a difficult one even if the future were clear. But we can't know if the federal government will address its grotesque leadership vacuum and belatedly develop a coherent and compassionate response to the pandemic. We might still be stuck with a bigoted, ignorant proto-fascist who ignores and lies about the virus, denies science, politicizes and contradicts public-health agencies, pushes dangerous unproven treatments, and clearly cares more about graffiti and Goya beans than he does about more than 150,000 dead Americans.
When Chicago announced on June 22 that it would be entering Phase Four at the end of that week, new COVID-19 cases in Florida and Texas—two states that had reopened early—were already breaking records. While the city waits to see whether a similar spike will follow its Phase Four reopening, some of the previous rules are coming back: Mayor Lightfoot suspended alcohol consumption inside Chicago businesses beginning Friday, July 24. Technically we're still in Phase Four, despite this rollback, but everything about the city's response is necessarily in flux—any regulation could be loosened or tightened in response to developments in the virus's spread.
I asked people who work at local venues about how they've responded to Phase Four, and as you might expect in this uncertain environment, no two had the same answer. Several venues, especially those with access to patios or other outdoor spaces, had already found alternative ways to operate under Phase Three rules. A few venues starting going off-site for socially distant performances: SPACE began organizing private for-hire shows on people's lawns for its To-Go Concerts, and FitzGerald's used pickup trucks to drive musicians around the western suburbs playing mobile sets (it also hosted a drive-in show early in Phase Four).
Many venues began investing in livestream performances—most notably Lincoln Hall, which has partnered with co-owner Audiotree for ticketed streams with top-shelf production values, including live camera operators and light shows. Experimental Sound Studio has made the most of the suspension of in-person music with its Quarantine Concerts livestream series: it's drawn audiences 20 to 30 times larger than its tiny room can accommodate, and the organization is presenting seven times as many shows as it did before the pandemic.
Given the rapid development of the pandemic, some of my interviewees have already had to change their plans since we spoke, and more certainly will soon. Cole's Bar, which opened with Phase Four on June 26, closed again after Thursday, July 23, in response to Lightfoot's new rule. And Rosa's Lounge, which graduated from livestreams to actual indoor in-person audiences on July 9, may not be able to keep that up with alcohol sales prohibited in the venue.
To gain insight into the behind-the-scenes processes that are informing live music's patchwork response to Phase Four, I spoke with 17 people—owners, operators, talent buyers, programmers, and employees—representing 22 local music venues. I've edited these interviews for length and clarity, but everything is in the subjects' own words. I've also included the date of each interview, to help you interpret references to time frames and account for any changes that have happened in the interim.
Cole Brice, owner, interviewed July 17
The mayor announced that June 26 was gonna be the day, so we got together as a staff, we all talked about it, and we said, "Who feels comfortable working? Here's what it will look like." We put together the physical space to sort of demo it out and say, "OK, how is it gonna work? How are people gonna do orders? What are the safety precautions? How far away is the seating going to be, and what's it going to look like?" And we felt like it was "safe enough"—and I say that with big quotation marks—safe enough to give it a go.
We're cognizant that a decision has been made in America for Americans to accept a certain level of death and risk in order to safeguard financial markets. And we really couldn't see, as a group, any way to exist outside of that framework without getting ground up in the process. We got the PPP, and one of the statutory requirements is to have staff employed and off of unemployment, so we took people off unemployment—where they were making more money—to come back onto the workforce. Then it felt really bad, from an employer's perspective, to then have to lay people off, knowing that the additional unemployment help was set to expire. Also from my perspective, there's not any financial runway left for me. So we all came to that decision. I guess that's a long way of saying that I'm very conflicted about the whole thing, and that we felt like that was our only option.
One half of me is scared to be open and feeling very ambivalent about the whole thing, and the other half of me needs the business and wants to say come on down. But it's a weird space to be in.
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We're lucky that we have enough floor space to try to make it work. But the guidance is, you have to be sitting down, at fixed seating, in order to take off your mask. And fixed seating has to be six feet away from other fixed seating. We took the whole floor space, including the stage—we have church pews, and so we broke it up into sections of seating all the way back and onto the stage. We've taken down all the bar seating, and we put up a 20-foot-long plastic tarp hanging from the ceiling. It looks like some kind of a murder scene. That's sort of acting as a physical barrier between the staff and the customers, and between the customers and the service area.
I don't know that Cole's as a music venue will ever come back. Maybe it will, in a year—when there's some kind of vaccine. But until then, I'm not planning on it.
Jake Austen, talent buyer (and Reader contributor), interviewed July 9
We're not doing anything inside; we're only doing the patio. So we are actually not entering Phase Four. I don't feel that it's safe, scientifically, to be inside for Phase Four. I also don't feel like it's safe for the business. I feel like an optimistic thing, in Chicago, is to believe that we are going to go back to Phase Three, as opposed to what happened in Texas and California, where they would just shut us down.
Last week, we did a memorial for Matt Cannon, DJ Kwest_On. So we did have some of the best DJs in the city, but it was to 11 tables. And we just phased people in every two hours so that 100 of his friends could be there.
This is like sunk-cost mathematics. We are generating some income, which is better than generating no income, but we can't generate enough income. So it's just spending the least to generate the most while keeping everybody safe—which isn't enough to be a viable business, but is enough to show that you know how to run a viable business if this ever opens up again.
We've only been open for two weeks. We've been lucky to have DJs a couple times. We had one Pride event—but again, an event means 40 people sitting at tables not dancing. People reserved the tables, and we had a great DJ. It was as good of a party vibe as you can get sitting down with 40 people.
I thought I booked music, ran a nightclub, and made it go smoothly. Now, I'm a host, a busboy, a janitor, a social-media director, and I take temperatures—like, I'm a nurse. None of these things fit anything that I thought was my job description. But by doing this, I do have a tiny amount of servers who I'm able to keep safe and make a decent amount of money for them. But also, I've got 90 percent of my workforce that I'm not allowed to do anything with.
I definitely know there's some venues where nobody wants to come back to work. We are not that venue. I don't think I have a single employee who doesn't want to come back to work, who is uncomfortable right now. I guess I can't speak to their comfort level.
If it is a programmed event, then every single person has reserved a place on the patio in advance. We don't do it by individuals—you have to do it by a table. They have to get their temperature taken when they come in, and if they have a fever, they can't come in. I haven't had anybody with a fever yet. I haven't even had anybody hit 99 yet. So they get there, they have to wear a mask when they walk around, when they go to the bathroom. I've asked them all to wear a mask when they order from their server, and that's been a little bit harder to get people to do, but some of them do it. We are sanitizing everything constantly. The bathroom is sanitized as many times as we can during the day. Every table—and every surface of the table—is wiped down with a pretty strong solution every time somebody gets up.
The skeleton crew I'm working with are remarkable at hospitality, and people love seeing them—even with a mask on, even standing a few feet away. It's an OK product to give people, but it's not the funnest party in the history of parties. I don't really see how to do live music. I have a musician who is playing on my patio this weekend to people who are going to get married, and that's the whole audience; I've got an audience of two getting performed to this weekend. And that's gonna be, I think, the only live music I have on the horizon.
Eric Chial, owner and talent buyer, interviewed July 14
I reconfigured the space inside to allow for more space—shortened some tables, redid the floor, did a number of things that could never have been accomplished without being closed. I tried to put that time to good use, and it's all waiting there for some future date when we'll be open inside. We are allowed to be open inside, but we don't do it. Aside from a couple pretty heavy rainstorms and some heat, the weather has been conducive to all of our operations taking place outside.
There's an inside bar, and then there's an outdoor bar; whoever is bartending is making drinks, pouring drafts inside, but then just stepping two feet outside to the outdoor bar. All of our orders take place outside, and everybody is outside unless they need to use the restroom. We have a very large outdoor space, much larger than our indoor area, because we have two lots—half of one lot is taken up by the building in which the bar is situated, and then we have an entire other lot, which is a beer garden and patio. We've got grass, we've got two bocce courts—I guess you could call it just good fortune.
Although we're allowed to be operating at 25 percent capacity indoors—which would be, for us, 21 people—we don't do so, haven't done so, and don't intend to do so, probably until there's a vaccine, frankly. And that means that we'll be trying to make mortgage payments in January with the revenue from this summer. Thinking ahead, it's entirely possible—even likely—that there'll be further shutdowns as people go inside and the weather changes.
When outdoor bars were allowed to be open, we got into daily music programming. So every day we have live music, starting anywhere from four in the afternoon to six and going to eight o'clock. On the weekends—Fridays and Saturdays, and a couple Sundays—we've gone to nine, just in an effort to be good neighbors, to not bother anyone.
I don't find it to be conducive to full-band rock 'n' roll. We're losing the drum kit on almost everything. So far we've only had one drum kit out there—Steve Corley from the Chris Greene Quartet, he's a really dynamic drummer with great musicality. What I've been doing is having groups play either solo acoustic or acoustic duos or trios—we've had a couple quartets. We're getting a really good sound out there that allows for conversation and people not having to yell at each other, and the neighbors not having to take issue with what we're attempting to do so far.
Everybody brings their own mike, if they're singing—I don't want people using the same mike. It's very common that musicians that aren't singing keep their face mask on when they play. I've had a couple performers sing with face masks on—really doesn't make much of a difference in terms of what it sounds like.
We can't predict the weather with 100 percent accuracy. If it's raining really hard, I've called off a couple of performances. I really feel like flexibility of mind is the key, in keeping the goal of not spreading the disease while at the same time trying to enjoy a semblance of former entertainments.
Dan Conroe, marketing director, interviewed July 15
We do a lot of things at City Winery. We're a winery; we're a private event space. We're a restaurant. And of course we have a concert venue. We've been working toward getting back to a place where we can host concerts again. We are doing a series of ticketed shows on our outdoor patio in the West Loop. Tonight was our first scheduled show—unfortunately, that's been postponed due to rain, but that will be taking place next week. We are really confident that we can do that outdoors in a way that is safe, and that ensures the safety of our guests when they're on-site.
We're below 50 percent capacity outdoors, so that's first and foremost. Whether guests are coming in to dine, take in a concert, or even just take a tour for a future private event, all guests are required to complete a brief wellness check when they arrive, which includes a contactless temperature check. All guests are required to wear masks when they enter the facility or when they're walking around or speaking to staff—so anytime you're moving through or close to other guests, you're required to wear a mask. Of course our staff wears masks at all times as well. The only time that you're not required to wear a mask is while sitting and dining at your table, because it is difficult to drink wine with a mask on.
We won't have this opportunity forever to hold outdoor concerts. But we have looked at the possibilities of hosting low-capacity shows indoors with lots of space between tables. And while there aren't any on the calendar yet, that's something that we definitely are hoping we will be able to execute in the fall and winter.
We're not announcing, you know, three months' worth of concerts. We're leaving plenty of space in the schedule, if we do have to reschedule, to have some flexibility there. But I will say that these shows have been really well received, which we take as a really good sign. We do plan on continuing these at least into August.
Will Duncan, owner, interviewed July 10
About two weeks after the quarantine hit, we were on the back of a pickup truck with a generator, a sound system, and an artist, driving around the neighborhood performing concerts for no charge—and basically begging for PayPal and Venmo tips to share with our staff and keep the lights on at the club. The response was just so powerful that it became obvious pretty quick that this was something we were going to keep doing. We've hosted about 20 of the pickup-truck concerts since the quarantine kicked in. The program kind of evolved—in addition to the free roaming-around neighborhood pickup-truck concerts that we do, we're also booking private pickup-truck concerts for people in their backyards.
One of the most exciting things that we've done, even more so than the pickup-truck concerts, possibly, is the drive-in concert that we hosted last Friday. We booked an artist that has played at FitzGerald's for years and years—the Waco Brothers with Jon Langford. We sold tickets to the drive-in concert, and we hosted it at this really cool property in Maywood, Illinois, that's a little bit west of FitzGerald's, called ReUse Depot. They have this big property over there, and a big old parking lot, and a big grassy field. So we partnered with them to host the event—we've worked with them on acquiring building materials for some light renovations at the club during the closing as well. We built a stage out of five adjacent pickup trucks, side by side, with each band member in the bed of a pickup truck—so properly socially distanced. And then about 60 cars pulled in the lot and parked; people sat on their hoods, ate snacks, and watched some live music at a totally safe social distance. We had a strict mask policy—we kept the proper spacing, and it was a safe and fun event. And it felt like a frickin' concert.
Between the pickup-truck shows, the merchandise we were selling online, and the drive-in concert we were putting together, it was a little bit hard to take seriously the prospect of reopening—with so much uncertainty, and never being sure what the next announcement was going to be. What are we even going to be allowed to do? I was operating under the assumption that we're never going to open again. Then it took a turn where I started taking the reopening much more seriously, as soon as there started to be talk in other cities about how outdoor experiences were much safer compared to indoor hospitality environments.
There's a massive patio at FitzGerald's, it's like 8,000 square feet—it's huge. It's been used as a parking lot, or a place to store scrap wood and old furniture—except for once a year during the FitzGerald's American Music Festival, where they do, you know, a thousand tickets a day for a property-wide outdoor music festival. But making the most out of this outdoor patio at FitzGerald's became an immediate, urgent item. Once we learned we'd be able to have people on our patio, I immediately started grinding; I built a little stage on the patio so that we could have live music, and I brought in a bunch of new furniture, and spaced it all out correctly, and built a new bar outdoors with the slushie machine and proper under-bar equipment. So now we're doing music six days a week—live music on the patio at FitzGerald's.
We did a series of several days of training for the staff, even though I retained the same staff, many of whom have been working there 20-plus years—seems kind of odd to do training. But having been closed for three months, and then reopening with all these new systems—including a touch-screen terminal system, where this bar has always just been cash registers—we had a series of training days. Part of the goal of that is just acclimating people to being in a group on the property again.
So next Tuesday, July 14, will be our first indoor event. We sold tickets by the table so that we could properly space everything and meet our maximum capacity—a $60 table for up to four people, so $15 seats. It's for a recurring storytelling event that has happened at FitzGerald's for years called VoiceBox with Cathy Richardson. The tickets are just about sold out. I think there's a handful of tables left. The bar will be open, but we're also going to be broadcasting a social-media livestream with a multi-camera setup. That event, historically, has drawn 200 people, so we know there's more interest than the 50 people that can be in the room.
I am an optimist to a fault. And I like to project confidence and positivity. That's my personality. If I'm being honest, I still do have—like most club owners—concerns and anxieties. Yes, there are people on our patio, but let's just say the economics still don't match my business plan and my pro forma projections. So it's still a hard thing.
Subterranean and Beat Kitchen
Robert Gomez, owner, interviewed July 14
I don't have the deep pockets to sustain this. I filed for unemployment, as did my wife. We're still on it, which is fine—we've buckled down our own personal lives, and we can meet our expenses personally. But we can't float $20,000 in monthly expenses for the two bars—about $12,000 for SubT overhead, and that's shuttered, and then $8,000 for Beat Kitchen. That's my primary concern.
I have to consider absolutely everything. I'm not in a position to be highbrow about this and say, "I'm not opening until . . . " COVID aside, medically speaking aside—I don't mean that I'm ignoring that piece of it, but I would lose more money opening at 25 percent than I would just staying closed. Which makes sense. I can't pay my staff 25 percent of their pay. I can't pay a band 25 percent. Nobody's going to function in that way. My overhead doesn't go down simply because I opened.
Going to the medical side of it—the public's health—how in the world am I going to keep people six feet apart? I have stairwells—what about the bathroom? I mean, I did open two patios, so I'm not oblivious to the importance not just of following the rules, but of thinking on your own what keeps your staff and the public safe. Beat Kitchen's patio opened up, and Beat Kitchen also has the Riverwalk location, so I have two patios that are functioning. The stress of that is enormous. It's ridiculous.
I took into account the differences in the layout of each space and mapped it out from there—not only how the patios themselves are laid out, but the indoor portion of it, because we have to function as a staff as well as making sure the patrons are safe. In the case of the Belmont location, every chair is at least six feet apart. In cases where they're only six feet apart, I put in a shield between the patrons. The staff comes out to serve, but they are required to wear masks and gloves at all times. The public isn't allowed in unless they're going straight to the basement to use the bathroom. The river is different—I have a lot more space, so I was able to spread people out at a minimum of eight feet.
For the Belmont location, food has always been 25 percent of our business during the summer. So it's not going to sustain that location, but it's better than nothing. It is a little bit of a lifeline.
It took me two years to get the river location from the application process to the build-out, and permits and dealing with the city. And then they closed it down the day before we were supposed to open. Our opening four weeks ago was a true opening, not a reopening. And for me, it's been impressive because we're right at Michigan Avenue, so the revenue is reasonable. The others on the Riverwalk who have been doing it for years are saying they're at 25 percent of where they were in past years. But I'm looking at it from the other angle of like, "Hey, at least I got some water in this glass."
Empty Bottle Presents
Brent Heyl, talent buyer, interviewed July 14
With the indoor bar thing—we didn't even really consider it at the Bottle right now, because it doesn't really feel that good. Thalia is a larger space, and we're considering doing livestreaming events from there, with no audience, and then potentially selling 15, 20 tickets to people to be in attendance for the livestream—then you'd be very distanced. With a room that size, that doesn't seem reckless; that's still keeping it pretty safe. But right now, with how things are kind of up in the air—with whether or not we're going to go back a phase—it's anybody's guess.
It's kind of the same thing with EBP, with our outside production arm. I'm not alone in this idea of having some kind of outside grid system, where you find an incredibly large area, and where you section it out and sell these large sections, and you kind of preorder drinks—that kind of thing. But even now, it's just this constant debate of, "Is this necessary? Is this safe? Who will ultimately benefit?" With what's going on, it just seemed weird to do things purely for money. We're trying to figure out ways to improve people's mental attitudes. It's a really hard time.
At some point, inevitably, we'll have to raise money. We've been selling merch and coming up with other creative ways that don't involve people gathering—using our brand and whatnot—in order to keep some money coming in. But what I fear is at some point we'll have to make a harder decision than we'd like. At this point, I'm hopeful that something better will come along.
Experimental Sound Studio
Olivia Junell, codirector, interviewed July 17
ESS has livestreamed our weekly series—anything at the studio really—for the past three or four years now, so we actually already had a little bit of experience in that space. We decided what we could do is switch over to virtual concerts—try to create a hub for people to come to, so that they didn't have to depend on their own networks. So that became the Quarantine Concerts. That's become our online live-performance platform.
We're a staff of six part-time people who all have other jobs and other gigs around town, in addition to ESS. So we were a little bit used to working remotely, or communicating and working independently. So it wasn't such a hard transition. We did become people who use Slack, which has helped a lot actually.
We're focused on working with artists and supporting artists who are experimenting in sound. That may take the form of presentation—that's one way that we do things—but we also have artist's residencies, we do workshops and different educational things. We have the recording studio, and we have the archive. So we try to think of all of these as having equal weight. And so it's been a real switch for the staff to go from really concentrating on all of these different components, and these much longer timelines, to daily programming—which, out of necessity, you have to work on a much shorter timeline. We're trying to give as much as we can to each one. But there's a little bit of a loss there. I think that's something that we're struggling with the most really right now—trying to figure out that balance while still providing what feels like a necessary space.
Michael Zerang and Hamid Drake did their solstice concert from the ESS studios, and then this weekend, on July 18, Damon Locks and Ben LaMar Gay will be streaming live from the ESS studios. Last weekend we had Marker out in the garden—we set up our big tent, and we were able to have them out there playing live. For each of those, we were very mindful to only have the minimum number of people on-site. Everything gets wiped down constantly. We have a very small building. I don't know that we'll go back to in-person audiences this year. It's hard to even imagine—with proper distance, we could probably have five audience members in the space. But we are moving into having bands come in.
Tony Mangiullo, owner and manager, interviewed July 9
We are reopening—tonight is our first night. We have sold exactly two tickets. We can sell 20.
We did one week of livestreaming every day; we did two bands in a day. Then the order came down—that coming into Rosa's and doing a performance as a livestream, basically, that work was considered, from the order, not essential. So we had to stop. Then we went to Phase Three, which the language of the order allowed us to start streaming again. And that is the only activity that we have done through this time, basically: livestreaming. Now with Phase Four—we didn't immediately open when the order came down.
We're still sensitive to this; we want to make baby steps. We're going to open at seven o'clock, the first show will be at 7:30, and the show will be only an hour and 15 minutes—people can come at seven, and they can stay 15 minutes after the show ends. The maximum time for one individual to be in a club is two hours—that's why we structured two sets. If you come for the first set, you actually cannot stay for the second set. It gives us 15, 20 minutes to resanitize the bathroom; we're going to have one bathroom for the musicians and one bathroom for the customers. Anything that the customer will touch will have to be sanitized. With 20 seats available, that's an easy task. And we have five people on our staff, so that's nothing—we can do that in ten minutes.
So then we have the second batch of people coming in. They cannot come until everybody's out and everything is cleaned up—it would be about 9:15. So by 9:30 the second set starts, and the last call for alcohol would be at 11. We're ready for tonight.
We'll see how this weekend will go. Looking at the presales, I've got a mixed feeling about it. Some people might not be ready. I mean, for us to have 80 or 100 people in the club, on a weekend, it's kind of usual. We put the tickets for sale, and we have sold, like, two for Saturday. I know it's not the weekend yet. I think we will probably fill it to 20.
Would this turnout encourage me to pursue the following weekend? I don't know. It's hard because it is already a losing proposition, to open it at 25 percent. I can't just tell the band, "Just come and see who's coming." I can't do that. I can't do that to the staff. I can't say, "You work for me—I don't know if I'm gonna pay you." It's the same concept. So if this weekend turns out to be not successful, then we'll definitely reconsider before I pursue the following weekend.
The stage, it's already configured to be six feet apart, each musician. So if I have a group of four people, a group of three, or a group of five or even six, where before everybody can stay onstage, right now it's all spread out into the dance area. Tonight, we have a group of five, so four of them can actually be onstage, but the main act—Lil' Ed—will play offstage, because there's not enough space on the stage. And we'll have a screen in front of him. The closest you can get to the stage right now, it's about 15, 20 feet from the singer. So half of the club is basically the stage.
We want to make sure we don't contribute to this crisis. But we wanted to pay the artists, making sure the staff gets paid—this is what we like to do. Mainly it's the music. The music is not something you can stop, and we like to be the one that takes the right steps to keep the music alive.
Sheldon Randolph, owner, interviewed July 9
I did my first event in Phase Four this past weekend. It was weird, trying to be in compliance with the rules—and you still have to make money. The rules are kind of counterproductive. You really can't sell liquor after 11; I open at ten, so how do I get around that? I really can't.
You think about more than just the event itself. You think about liabilities that can go on down the road. Somebody might get infected with COVID, then they want to come back and say, "I got it from that place." I'm doing my due diligence, as far as taking temperatures and signing the waivers with people at the door. You have to have a mask.
With the 50-people limit, I have enough space for everyone to keep their distance to a certain extent. But disco, house music, is a coming together of people, not a keeping apart of people. So it's weird. I'm just trying to feel my way through it and try to find the best formula to make this all work.
I had maybe 25 to 30 people. It worked out pretty decent. I had a couple people that were having issues with the waiver and the temperature check. I told those individuals, "This is the new normal here, and until we are instructed by the powers that be that we can do something else, this is the way it is. So you take your temperature or hit the door." They had a quick change of heart, so to speak.
I'm kind of playing it by ear. I talked to a couple of people, and they're still not ready to come out and play. They're still a little leery about COVID, so they're like, "Talk to me later." And I have people that are still into it, and so I'm working on some events to keep it going.
Constellation and the Hungry Brain
Mike Reed, owner and director of Constellation and co-owner of the Hungry Brain, interviewed July 17
I got contacted to be involved with discussions for a task force convened by the city with different arts venues—everybody from the Art Institute and the CSO down to folks like me—to talk about reopening recommendations. I was pretty surprised that they were talking about it happening this summer. I was like, "Really?" I thought it was maybe something for the fall, or next year. I sat in on these meetings, gave my advice when I could, and I was kind of surprised that we are at that stage right now—at least for the moment.
For both places—well, Hungry Brain's trickier. It's a smaller space, although we could reopen and have about 24 socially distanced seats. We had a meeting with the staff, like, "How do you guys feel about it?" Not everybody was quite ready to come back to work. It's like, "All right, well, we're not quite ready to reopen." Then we thought about it—we had an outline of things that we were going to do to help make the place much more COVID friendly. So plexiglass across the bar, touchless payments, instructions for the audience—we want them to bus their own tables, limit the amount of time. Right now, one of the things is putting windows in—because the place doesn't have any windows—so we can increase circulation. We're still in that phase of trying to do that. I think next week we'll do the windows.
We don't need to reopen. Myself and my partner at the Hungry Brain, neither one of us rely on that business as our income. We can be careful about it. I would like to do it if we can do it safely, because I do think—if people can figure out how to behave themselves, which we're kind of all going to have to figure out how to do—people still need to perform. I'm not really as interested in the bar, although of course being able to sell some drinks helps keep the lights on. But it's more that I'd want to open it up for performances. If there's a lot of things that are not open, where are people going to play? I'm really talking about people in the jazz world that play a lot.
Constellation is slightly different, because obviously the place is bigger. Once they started saying we can have up to 50 people, in this room where we can fit 300 people we can actually socially distance. That's all we could fit, if we just put everybody at the six-foot social distancing.
In general, the music that we present is kind of on the fringe anyway, and 50 people is like—that's not unusual. Fifteen people is not unusual for some shows. So it's partially feeding into the whole not-for-profit thing. It's a big place with good ventilation. We can do this safely, from the guidelines that were issued. If they're saying that we can open if we do this, I guess we should open? Because it's kind of part of our mandate to do something.
So I was thinking about it, and we just came up with an idea. Because there's all these at-home streaming concerts—most of which are terrible quality, in some people's attics and laundry rooms—I was like, "What if we were able to set up our own video stream?" I've always wanted to do it. Here's the time period to do it. And we can offer something that's better.
At this point, we are going to reopen on a very limited diet—like one or two performances a week. We're gonna let artists choose the comfort level that they want to participate. So we could just do a livestream from the venue. If they want to do a paywall, we could do a paywall; if they want to do a donation, we can do a donation. The other options are artists could say, "Well, I'd like to have a little audience, because it's weird just to be playing by yourself in the studio." All right, well, if you have your small crew—eight to 12 people—you can invite them, and it'll be a livestream. The third option is like, "I want to do a ticketed show for a 50-person capacity, and we'll do the livestream." So it kind of depends on what level of comfort.
Metro, Smart Bar, and the GMan Tavern
Joe Shanahan, owner, interviewed July 16
It's been extremely hard on the staff—lots of long days, long nights. Agents trying to reschedule, managers trying to reposition and pivot. "Would September be OK? Would October be OK? Would November be OK? Would December be OK?" That's the question. Now we see a different landscape based on the fact that we will not reopen until there is some kind of vaccine or immunization—Phase Five. That's where we sit. We were closed by the state, and we remain closed by the state.
There might be potential to do a private event or a streamed event to no audience. The city and the state are allowing up to 50 people in a room like Metro. The economic model does not make sense, for us to take that on as a business model; between what you have to pay for your expenses, for the venue, for staff, and then guarantees for the band, those ticket prices would be $500 apiece, and that would not be something we think would be right to do. Most importantly—and this is something that came up in several of the staff meetings, and we have a regular weekly staff meeting—is that we don't feel safe. We don't want to put our staff in jeopardy, or in any way in the line of harm. Or the patrons—and that's hand in glove.
Katie Tuten, co-owner, interviewed July 10
I told our staff early on, I said, "Look, you guys, we're not gonna be open till January. I'm just telling you—save your money." Now it's looking like it could be much longer. We're considered what they call a Phase Five. Some venues will try to open in a very limited capacity. So we would be at 25 percent capacity. That would be like 18 people. It just cannot work for us.
OK, picture if you will, you have to go to the bathroom at the Hideout. People have to be six-foot distancing, and only one person could be in the bathroom at a time. Right there, that doesn't work. Which way would the line go?
What I keep saying is, "I'm listening to the scientists, not the politicians." That's why we're trying so deliberately to make the Hideout Online engaging to our community. The one thing I worry about is that people feel engaged—that they're not out there on their own. That's the thing we miss the most. I can't wait to walk into a bar where I don't know one person and walk out with ten new friends. That's what I miss. We're social people. I'm like, "Hideout bartenders, you should all be contact tracers." You're just calling random people on the phone. "Where were you last night?" These are your talents!
Lincoln Hall and Audiotree Presents
Patrick VanWagoner, talent buyer, interviewed July 10
We're still trying to be active in the music scene, just mostly from a content perspective, and trying to give people something—with the limitation that we can't have in-person shows at all. Looking forward, it's interesting to plan around.
Once it became clear that there was going to be some sort of approval for us to have at least a small number of people in a building—not necessarily open to the public, but just for purposes of a livestream—we put our foot on the pedal and started doing a lot of research on platforms, places where we can actually host these, and how we would kind of structure the deal, the promo, and everything. That was the biggest thing, in building Staged from the start. There's so many unanswered questions because it's not really something that existed before—so it's just kind of piecing it together.
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We were very, very fortunate to get Facs in for the first one—an incredible local band with a great reputation, and a band that we knew would put on a really, really good-looking show. And I think that alone really helped start to pique some interest and make people feel a little bit better about it.
We're also taking extreme measures when it comes to how we're sanitizing the building and keeping it safe. We're not booking these within days of each other. There's no extra bodies in the building. It's our audio and video staff and that's it, along with the band. No mikes are used within five days of each other, no mike grilles are ever used by two people—we have a bunch that we're replacing and tossing. Sanitize the stage between sound check and the set—trying all these different steps that we can, to try and make people feel as safe as possible.
Personally, I don't like the idea of doing limited-cap shows at Lincoln—for safety reasons more than anything. With the livestreaming that we're doing, with the camera work that we're able to provide, while you're not physically there it does at least help you feel like you're right there—versus if you're standing distanced from a bunch of people at a show and you're at the back of the room. I'm not sure that that's the best environment and best look for anybody to be watching a performance.
We're really lucky to have Audiotree supporting us at this point. Obviously we're selling tickets to Staged, and the idea is to try and continue to build this to start to cover some of the expenses. A portion of our proceeds are going straight to CIVL for all of our Staged things. The food business over at Schubas is a source of income. It's really just trying to do enough to stay afloat so we can come out the other end.
Ed Warm, owner, interviewed July 9
When the pandemic hit and everything closed, we took a month off, give or take a week or two. Then we tried carryout and delivery, and we did it with mixed success for a few weeks—it just was exhausting our staff, and we didn't even do that much business. I thought we did a good job with it, but it really wasn't a really good use of our time. When we were able to open at any kind of capacity, we jumped at the opportunity. We didn't open initially, when outdoor dining was happening, because we didn't have a patio license at the time. We've been able to get one in the interim. We just timed it to open our sidewalk cafe and be inside at the same time.
There's zero margin for error. You have to watch every dollar spent on payroll. You've got to watch every dollar that you're spending for goods—for food, liquor, dry goods, and everything—because it's just so tight. Nobody in the city is making money at 25 percent. You're just trying to keep your name out there, and keep the goodwill that hopefully you've built up over time.
You have to redraw your floor plans, first of all—that's the most important thing. The second most important thing is retraining your staff. We've gone through a lot of different trainings—meaning my management—on the right way to serve people. Cleanliness, sanitation, cleaning the bathrooms, washing your hands every half hour. Everything that everybody else that's been operating in the city is doing. It's just been a lot of training with staff. And it's been a lot more intense than we've ever done before.
The staff, they were all trained beforehand—we've done a dozen hours with each employee. It's like rehiring them, because it's such a different world now. There's no margin for error with the way you scoop ice, for example. The way a sandwich is delivered to somebody's table. And we're a corner bar. I can't even fathom what it's like for places that do a higher level of service.
I knew that we couldn't do full bands out there. When you have 30 people in your place, you can't afford to pay a full band. We have some great artists that we work with, who have been very accommodating to come in and are playing acoustic for us. There's adjustments; they're not playing at the front of the stage, they're standing further back. We're not putting a plastic divider up in front of them—there's got to be some kind of experience. And then there's distance from the front of the stage, to where the first set of tables is. People can't get up and dance in front of the stage at this point.
It's very difficult—you think about things that you've never thought about. How are the microphones getting sanitized? We haven't had lines, but I think about, in the future, how people are entering and exiting—you really see that being a bottleneck.
We're not doing any glassware—we're doing everything in plastic and throwing it right out. You bring a tray over to guests sitting at a table, and you either set the tray down and you walk away—you get the tray later, and you sanitize it—or customers remove the drinks from the tray on their own. Things you never thought about. If you want to do things right and build trust with people, you have to do things the right way.
Adam Zanolini, Elastic Arts Foundation executive director, interviewed July 10
We were hoping that we would enter Phase Three, and we made a plan to make our space available for artists for recording, rehearsal, and for streaming shows with no audiences. We had to institute and come up with a whole range of safety protocols to ensure the safety of our staff, of our artists. So that took a while to figure out—at that point, there really weren't any official guidelines from the city or state as to what performing-arts organizations needed to do in order to keep everybody safe. We were sort of making it up based on our understanding of the current state of science and public policy.
We came up with a protocol that involves cleaning the space, providing ventilation and hand sanitizers, and mask wearing being required—and especially the appropriate distance between performers and limiting the number of people in the space. We started to make our space available, on a very limited basis, for people to come in and perform here in front of the camera, whether it be recorded and distributed later or to livestream it.
As soon as we got that in place and started being able to make space available for people to do streaming concerts, small performances, rehearsals, and things like that, almost immediately they went to Phase Four. We didn't really have a plan in place to open the space up. At this moment, we are still in our Phase Three posture, even though we're in Phase Four—we're not planning to have our space open to the public in the near term. We're not convinced that it's not going to have to go back pretty soon.
We have a small number of staff that are working on these now—basically two, and they've been with me as we've been developing these protocols and this idea. As the artists come, they are reminded that they have to sign in at the door. We keep a record of everyone who comes in and out of the space—the time in, the time out—just in case anything bad happens, so that we have a way to contact people if we find out that someone has been in the space who was infected. We have a temperature gun—we take everyone's temperature. Hand-sanitizer station. We kind of lead them through that process, and then help them set up and go from there.
Everything is different with the programming. We were doing five, six, maybe seven shows every week. Now we're down to three or four events per month. It's really just the beginning.
Jake Samuels, talent buyer, interviewed July 9
The To-Go Concerts were born out of a need to do something—to keep the lights on, to keep music happening in our community. In early May, we started doing those, and we've probably done about 40 of them, with another 20 or 30 on the books. People are getting creative, and re-envisioning their own yard as a venue; everyone's really getting the safety component of it and how important that is. We desperately wanted to get out from behind our computer screens and livestreaming for a little bit, and try to do something—even on a really small scale—where people could actually be in the same proximity as music being made.
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We’ve brought some of the area’s best musicians to perform more than 40 concerts on lawns from Avondale to Highland Park and everywhere in between so far this summer✨ Have you hosted a SPACE To-Go Concert yet? Learn more about these one-of-a-kind shows and let’s bring a little live music to your yard or block party this summer. Link in bio.
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We have a website that lays out how they work, and what musicians are doing them regularly or are at least up for them. I'm talking directly to people who inquire about them; we're setting up dates and times and taking care of logistics. For artists, it could be really easy for them to go and do these on their own, and I hope that a lot of them are, because it's proving to be a way to at least keep some money coming in while touring is off the table. We bring food—pizzas from the restaurant that's attached to SPACE—and drinks, all the way down to the rug that's onstage at the club.
We're eager to keep our business alive. We're eager to bring our staff back to work. And we're super eager to see shows happen again. But we're just not at a place where we're even really thinking about reopening the venue itself. It doesn't feel appropriate with the way this pandemic has played out, and it doesn't feel fair to ask that of staff or customers at this point. v