Is it safe to open venues right now?

Photo: John Mazzetta • The Sentry Denver's music scene struggles amidst COVID-19

COVID-19’s music industry Catch-22
Photo: John Mazzetta • The Sentry
Denver’s music scene struggles amidst COVID-19

Many of the country’s industries are faced with an unstinting Catch-22. The music industry is a tragic paradigm of the conflict. On one hand, live shows are needed to keep thousands employed and venues in business, but the cost can be severe. Even with the FDA’s recent authorization of using blood plasma from recovered COVID patients, the agency’s commissioner, Stephen M. Hahn, reported being “‘encouraged by the early promising data that we’ve seen,’” according to The New York Times. Most scientific experts, including Dr. Fauci, reveal a less optimistic timeline to a developed vaccination than that purported by the Trump Administration. Yet, the world seems to be reopening.  

To some extent, industry reopenings have been introduced cautiously within stipulated guidelines, but even then, it has not stopped large numbers of groups from gathering, especially within social contexts, despite the fact that thousands of people are dying every day from the virus. Some industries like the live-music scene are reliant on live gatherings for not just economic prosperity but survival, and steady action to reopening seems to be a necessity.  

While earlier in May, Live Nation’s CEO, Michael Rapino, announced their plan to steadily reopen by 2021 without a vaccine, this full re-emersion into concert-life, as wonderful and dearly missed as it is, may end up being unrealistic.  

But the current reality still stands that many smaller venues have reopened, and for good reason—they need income. The Event Safety Alliance’s (ESA) Vice President, Steven A. Adelman, wrote the introduction to their recent reopening guidelines:  

“As a matter of common law, everyone has a duty to behave reasonably under their own circumstances.  Consequently, there is no such thing as ‘best’ practices.  There are only practices that are reasonable for this venue, this event, this crowd, this time and place, during this pandemic.  Because few operational bright lines would make sense, The Event Safety Alliance Reopening Guide is designed to help event professionals think through their own circumstances.  In the order that one plans an event, the Reopening Guide looks closely at the health and safety risks involved in reopening public spaces, then proposes risk mitigation measures that are likely to be reasonable under the circumstances of the smaller events and venues that will reopen first.”  

A key understanding is introduced within Adelman’s words, that everyone must act reasonably “under their own circumstances,” but this does not mean it is simply safe to reopen. As the guide reads, “a government directive legally allowing you to reopen does not mean you can do so safely.” Everyone must evaluate carefully. For some, this may look like a full shut down. The Levitt Pavilion Ampitheatre, one of the few independently owned major venues in Denver, came to the decision despondently to cancel the remaining shows of the 2020 season. Despite that burdensome decision, as a larger sized venue, it may have been the wisest decision for their specific circumstance. 

Artists have their own individual decisions to make. Jen Korte, a full-time performing  musician of Denver for 15 years, has been in a devastating battle deciding how to engage with her new circumstances. “On stage is the only place where I feel I belong,” she says, but as someone who is at risk with the virus, she has had to be very selective about re-engaging with the live scene.  

She has been performing at Dillon Ampitheatre since the outbreak began, with it being an outdoor venue, but much of her time has been spent reflecting on creative alternatives for the time being. “A lot of the music industry is just waiting to go back to live shows… rather than create a renaissance.” In the shambles of a global crisis, there is the opportunity for evaluating and changing what can be done in the rehabilitation and rebuilding of the industry. “I’m not accepting the grief as an artist; I’m accepting the grief as a caterpillar that has to emerge a new being,” Jen Korte stated.  

But as for the venue-operating side, the service-flexibility does not look the same. The National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) posted a report that included a member survey saying “90% of independent venues report they will close permanently in a few months without federal funding.” NIVA’s report made the case for their economic importance, bringing in nearly $10 billion annually, and voiced its support of the RESTART Act, which would help finance costs, extend flexible loan proceeds and forgiveness (up to 90%), help with payrolling part-time employees, and more, but it was still not passed before Congress went on recess in August. According to Billboard, venues across the country will be lighting up red in motivation for Congress to pass the bill, as part of the #RedAlertRESTART campaign, seeking to bring awareness to the crisis. Director of WeMakeEvents North America, Brad Nelms, shared his reasoning for the campaign: 

 “The entire live events industry is on the brink of collapse. Without financial relief, many businesses stand to permanently close, and families risk bankruptcy and homelessness. We want to take this opportunity to show the world the scale of what it takes to make live entertainment events happen and demonstrate how much this crisis has affected our community. This is a human issue, not a political issue, and it requires immediate action. While we realize there are a lot of issues going on right now, and other organizations will be staging events on other dates, we feel very strongly we must act now to save our industry.” 

While musicians, producers, venue-operators, and all of the vital employees of the musical industry are making the hard calls involving their paychecks along with their health, so too must all of the supporting listeners and viewers in finding ways to help support the industry while still paying heed to the pandemic at hand. 

This is a selection from the September 02 issue. To view the full issue, visit:

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