Can Live Music Make Financial Sense With Social-Distance Limits? Club Owners Weigh In

May 28, 2020

Asheville Music Hall has seen four times the number of people turn out for its weekly virtual trivia nights than those who actually came to the club to play trivia before the pandemic. Still, it’s a thin silver lining. Matteo LaMuraglia, the club’s talent buyer, says Asheville Music Hall will go out of business within a year without the return of live, general admission concerts.

“We’d be in danger with a year of no shows,” LaMuraglia said. “We can work around it for the time being, as seated comedy, as seated live music shows, but the space is built to be a GA standing-room only (space).”

While many local musicians have taken to virtual performances to bring in some money and maintain their profiles, venues built on live music face far greater challenges while dark.

Asheville band Daydream Creatures performing in September 2019 at The Mothlight.
Credit Matt Peiken | BPR News

They’ve furloughed entire wait staffs and show crews, and the few attempts at staging virtual performances have proved either too problematic in the age of social distancing or not worth the meager financial returns. Live music clubs weren’t included in North Carolina’s approved second-phase reopenings, and they didn’t qualify for the first round of federal payroll protection support because they couldn’t guarantee they would be back in business before the grants turned into loans.

“There’s an unknown finish line to what we can all sustain financially, emotionally and mentally,” said Amanda Hency, who co-owns The Mothlight in West Asheville with her husband, Jon.

“There will be a day, I don’t know what that day is, that if it’s not working, we’ll just get creative,” Hency said. “We’ve talked about building out spaces in this room where we do artist studios and change course and just reinvent ourselves.”

The Orange Peel, in Asheville's South Slope has a performance calendar largely filled with touring artists. With every state enforcing its own reopening guidelines — live music clubs in Georgia and South Carolina are already reopening — there’s the potential some artists will rebuild their tours, at least in the near term, by sidestepping North Carolina. As it is, some tours initially pushed back to the fall are now being rescheduled again for 2021.

Still, General Manager Jeff Santiago and his staff are planning for a social-distanced reopening, working with an organization called Event Safety Alliance on directing traffic flow and other measures to ensure as safe an environment as possible in an active pandemic.

“Safety first is, I think, how we’re going in, and then what does it mean for us financially,” Santiago said. “Does it make it cost-prohibitive to have anybody in the building? It’s finding that appropriate balance between the economics and health safety of it all.”

The Grey Eagle and Isis Music Hall have restaurants attached to their clubs, but managers of both say their restaurant businesses depend almost entirely on the draw of live music. They echoed Santiago’s question of the financial sense of shows in which social-distancing guidelines limit audiences to a quarter of a club’s capacity. Clubs with parking lots are also mocking up plans to host outdoor shows.

“If they come up with, say, 10 people for 500 square feet, how do you accomplish the social distancing?” said Scott Woody, who owns Isis Music Hall.

“We cap at 150 for a seated show, 450 for a standing show. Now that’s pretty packed, but when we look at putting people in there and social-distancing them, we’re down to like 32 downstairs and maybe 20 upstairs,” Woody estimated. “You’d have to probably do $80,000 to $100,000 (in monthly revenue), and you’re not going to do that with a couple shows a week at 50 people.”

Russell Keith, who owns the Grey Eagle, said he’s installing three new air purifiers and contracting with a cleaning company specifically to disinfect surfaces.  

“What really I think is hurting us is the six-foot rule. If we can somehow get that eliminated out of our practices, we can still social distance,” Keith said. “It’s more about us just wanting to put the music out to the fans and the artists.”

Hency said any return to live shows will depend on clubs, artists, promoters and booking agents working in a new collaborative spirit to lower financial expectations. Specific guidelines for reopening live-entertainment venues are expected sometime in June in Phase 3 of North Carolina’s reopening plan.

“I think musicians are really seeing how hard having a brick-and-mortar business is right now, and we certainly feel for the musicians,” she said. “We know not having us is very impactful for their livelihood. We always wanna come back and be here for the artists and musicians we love and can’t imagine ever not doing that.”

 

NOTE: An earlier version of this story had incorrectly stated the Orange Peel is owned by a nonprofit development corporation. Public Interest Projects is a for-profit development corporation.