What Will Local Shows Look Like in the Future?
Venue operators imagine live music reshaped by pandemic
Despite Austin's global identity as a live music capital, for the first time in its known history stage concerts remain anathema. That will change this Friday as economically anxious state leaders compel bars to reopen, followed by musicians and fans' reluctant return to public gathering, but even then – and long thereafter – going to shows will look different.
"I'm having these conversations every day ... many times a day," Mohawk owner James Moody reports in regard to how venues might adapt to the pandemic era. "Sometimes we're tackling what the TSA process will be for bringing [artists] to shows, then your brain quickly flips to: 'When are we even going to have shows again?'"
"It's all I'm thinking about," Hole in the Wall owner and Stay Gold co-owner Will Tanner tells the Chronicle. "There's so many unknowns and bars – especially venues – have gotten very little guidance. So we're having to figure out our own way forward."
"When live music does come back, it's going to be a different world," affirms Cactus Cafe Manager Matt Muñoz. "We're collectively talking about this every week, trying to prepare for something that's hard to prepare for because the impact of the virus and the information around it changes week to week."
Jason McNeely respects his peers trying to "think their way out" of this predicament, but he's admittedly at a loss for answers. Atop concerns that a rush back to public events could spike infections, the Hotel Vegas and Barracuda co-owner – ever the curatorial idealist – sees a painful incongruity between safety protocol and putting on enjoyable events.
"The whole business of entertainment, we're creating excitement and atmosphere," he offers. "I don't know how we fit into that right now. I can't visualize an amazing show where the staff, the clientele, and the band are covered in protective gear and people are walking around spraying everything that anyone touches. I don't want to be part of a situation where people feel uncomfortable in a room.
"We never quit, but I'm okay with waiting it out until people feel safe."
Pulled from wide-ranging discussions with venue owners and promoters over the past month, here follows some spitballs, solutions, and strange realities for what live music may look like in an uncertain future.
Whether self-imposed or government mandated, venue owners fully expected to be operating with a reduced capacity of one-quarter in initial phases as dictated by Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday. Can a club sustain itself at 25%?
"Very few can, and it depends on their fixed costs," appraises White Horse co-owner Denis O'Donnell. "Not many venue owners in town have a low rent advantage or own the property. Anybody who signed a lease in the last five years got caught on an upswing with high rent and property taxes.
"At the White Horse, 25 percent capacity would be 38 people and that wouldn't be enough to break even. That's because of operating costs: air conditioning, sound engineer, door guy, booker, managers, and bands. We could break even at 50 percent under the best conditions."
Mohawk's Moody, who favors a three-phase capacity increase approach – based on customer attitudes as well as state and city rules – says his two-stage outdoor venue couldn't meet its expenses with a significantly reduced capacity.
"Our overhead is supported by 1,000-cap shows, but we're not going to be doing 1,000-cap shows for a long time," he concedes. "So the question becomes, 'Is it worth it to do small shows and operate at a loss just to have a relationship with our customer?'"
Empire & Parish co-owner Steve Sternschein, a board member for the National Independent Venue Association (see "Faster Than Sound: Locals Join Over 1,000 Independent Venues Fighting for Survival," May 15), says it will depend on the size of the room.
"The approximate starting point for the cost of throwing a show is how many people need to work it," he explains. "That has to do with how large the stage is and how much production is involved. The Parish could operate at one-fifth capacity, but if you're a 3,000-cap room, you have to sell 40-50 percent of your tickets to break even."
"We have a lot of stuff happening this fall. There are artists planning on touring, but it's all just much smaller," reveals Graham Williams, co-owner of Margin Walker Presents, one of the state's largest independent concert promoters. "I think everyone rightfully assumes that when venues open, it's not going to be the larger rooms. And with such little known about what the capacities will be, it's hard to plan around. I think club-level bands can probably plan a tour, because if you're playing to 200-300 people that's doable almost everywhere.
"If you're a band that does 1,000-2,000 people, you can't really plan a tour this year."
Williams also notes that the unpredictable timeline for clubs reopening and when concertgoers might feel comfortable returning to them portends a long recovery for roadshows:
"Most venues that have touring bands book three months out. So, just theoretically, if the virus were gone tomorrow, a smaller venue could scramble and have local bands, but for a larger venue where it's touring bands getting people through your door, you wouldn't have bands until August or September."
"A lot of booking agents are talking about multi-night residencies with bigger artists," Muñoz reveals. "We're talking to one artist to – hopefully – do something in September."
Ryan Garrett, general manager of the 2,225-capacity Stubb's and owner of Beerland, says there's "a lot of hearsay" about fall concerts.
"Certainly I'm not expecting anything close to the typical scale we operate under to happen anytime in the next couple months, but we're going to monitor for September and October and see if there's opportunity to launch again," he ventures. "So much of it will depend on capacity. If it's 25 percent, that's not enough to pay production. We're able to start having a discussion at 50 percent."
Colleen Fischer, GM and booker of the 2,700-capacity ACL Live and adjacent 3ten, indicates that, while the vast majority of large concerts in the northern U.S. are postponed until 2021, agents are holding dates at ACL Live for the fall. She can't say yet how distancing will be instituted at large shows, but believes there will be nationally consistent practices.
"Our team is talking to C3 [Presents], Live Nation, and AEG weekly because everyone is trying to solve the same problem," reveals Fischer. "When it does get solved, we'll go with the industry standard in terms of how to space out a general admission floor."
Tables & Chairs
"If you have to keep people separated, the only way to do that – in an environment like ours – is to seat everybody," sighs veteran club owner Steve Wertheimer. "It can't be standing room only, it can't be dancing. You basically have to turn the Continental Club and C-Boy's into a cabaret type situation.
"There'd be tables all the way up to the front and it'd be a different kind of vibe, and yeah, the tables up front are much more expensive than the tables toward the back. It's all so foreign to me and what I've been doing for the last 35 years.
"I don't know if I can do it."
While social distancing presents specific hurdles for Austin's dance halls – "I run a business based on people grabbing strangers and dancing to country music," laments White Horse's O'Donnell – some clubs will adapt easier to a table-and-chairs scenario. Antone's co-owner Will Bridges envisions a setup where customers reserve specific seats online.
"I think you can get away with a little more range in the pricing tiers and that's going to be really key – for the band side," he offers. "You don't want to price gouge, but overall you'll have higher prices because there's less people. So maybe a normally $20 ticket is $35 and you get a bar stool. If you want that front row table, maybe that's a $100 ticket, for the rich people that want to support and maybe want that status."
He adds that presenting consecutive performances by marquee acts to offset reduced headcount would generate money for bigger Austin artists grounded from touring.
"Maybe with a show that would normally sell 300-400 tickets, you start thinking about spreading it out over four nights or doing two shows a night and turn the room."
Garrett says Stubb's will lean on its existing restaurant element.
"We're looking at putting tables outside in the amphitheatre because I think there's going to be a strong desire for people to be outside," he explains. "Then putting local acts on the outdoor stage with a smaller PA system and having table service with servers dropping buckets of beer, pitchers of margaritas, and a mess of barbecue. Tables will remain under six persons and the only reason someone would have to leave their designated area is to go to the restroom."
Indeed, Cheer Up Charlies co-owner Maggie Lea predicts her half outdoor venue across the street will forgo walk-up bar service altogether.
"We've talked about keeping the inside closed, having wait staff serve separated tables on the patio, taking those orders to the service window that we have next to our back door, then we deliver them out," she outlines. "We'd amplify the use of our patio because we have so much outdoor space. I don't know yet about having shows, but I'm thinking about how the outdoor stage could be used."
Tanner says HITW will cease performances on the middle stage, while continuing to operate as a sit-down joint in the front room and back patio, with designated distancing, which he knows will be complicated for his staff to enforce. "I'm going to have to become a social distancing cop and that's gonna suck," he grumbles.
Forehead Thermometers & Masks
"We need a formal standard on health and safety that every business has an obligation to meet, then ask ourselves, 'How do we make them creative and still effective?'" offers Moody. "It can't feel too clinical. If it starts to feel like a hospital or detention center, then we've lost because we're in the business of entertainment and customer experience."
Additionally, Mohawk's owner sees the current venue shutdown as an opportunity for businesses to initiate new basic policies:
"When you're clocking in for work, you should be able to verify your temperature. You should wash your hands a number of times. We can change the way we wipe down a bar without ruining the customers' experience.
"And I think the glassware on Red River could use an audit."
Saxon Pub owner Joe Ables uses the closure to overhaul the surfaces inside his venue. "We just redid the whole bar with this high-dollar, sealed epoxy process so it's much easier to clean," he discloses. "We also got all new tables and bases in there. Psychologically, it'll show the customer that we're cleaner and, for us, the process of cleaning's going to be more efficient. Of course we're going to have all kinds of sanitizers and all that. We're going to do all we can without being crazy, putting on face-shields and aprons."
O'Donnell anticipates taking customer's forehead temps at the door with an infrared gun, offering sanitizer, and having everyone wear masks. Fischer says ACL Live staff already acquired and is practicing with thermometers, hospital grade disinfectants, and electrostatic sprayers. Bridges emphasizes the importance of cleaning production gear for the safety of musicians.
Tanner takes that one step further.
"Everyone who plays needs to have their own vocal mics," he states unequivocally. "That needs to be the new normal for a while. It'd be difficult for Hole in the Wall, which has between four and eight bands a day, 364 days a year, to have enough microphones that we could be constantly swapping out and disinfecting. Anyway, who knows what gets into the capsule?"
When Will It Be Time?
"In my opinion, there's only one way to run a live music venue and that's maximum capacity every night and everybody paying a cover so bands get full pop," professes Saxon Pub's Ables, who doesn't plan on opening at a heavily reduced capacity. "We rely on selling alcohol and the bands rely on the cover. It's all about a high number to me. I can't make money at the bar. They can't make money on the stage.
"I lose less being closed."
O'Donnell believes music venues are going to be among the last businesses to reopen. "We'll see when the rubber hits the road," he says. "I'm gonna take lessons from what others did right or wrong."
Moody's also content with watching other clubs that open first. "The Mohawk's going to phase into it and slowly build trust," he says. "I wish I could tell you it's a light switch, but I think it's a dimmer."
Lea, who is immunocompromised from a recent bout with cancer, would like to "wait and see" the impact of similar businesses, but acknowledges serious economic realities. "The bills do pile up," she says, "so at some point, if we don't open, we'll just never open again."
Wertheimer points out that many venues are in a precarious position, where they can't unlock their doors, but still owe rent. A green light from the government puts them in an even tougher spot with landlords.
"When the government says it's okay to open, that puts me in a vulnerable position where I don't have a leg to stand on with the landlords anymore because technically it's our choice," he says. "Well, it's not that easy, because I'll not only be dealing with public sentiment, but also the health and well-being of everyone who works for me and everyone who walks through that door."
For Tanner, returning to work means doing his part in the most responsible way possible. "And by my part, I mean fulfill the role I've chosen for my career: to run a business that has live music and hires musicians," he insists. "The best I can do at my job is to go to work when the people who I think are smart say to 'Go to work' and be as thoughtful and careful as I possibly can. Then stop if they tell me to stop."
So is he waiting on a reopen order from Gov. Greg Abbott?
"No," he shudders. "I think Dr. Fauci has his finger on it the best."