Music and live performances venues were among the first Boulder County businesses to feel the strain from restrictions on group gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic. Without a reopening date to look forward to, venues are surviving on a downbeat revenue stream.
On March 13, Gov. Jared Polis urged the cancellation of events with more than 250 people, followed by a wave of cancelled concerts, conventions and festivals. The statewide shelter-in-place order went into effect March 26, forcing concert spaces to go dark.
Z2 Entertainment LLC operates the The Fox Theatre and Boulder Theater in Boulder. The company also oversees the Aggie Theatre under Fort Collins Entertainment LLC. In addition, it books for the Chautauqua Summer Concert Series, the Mishawaka Amphitheater, the Strings Music Pavilion and the Riverwalk Center.
Since March 13, the Z2 Entertainment’s three stages have been vacant. Concerts throughout the summer are postponed and fall show dates are subject to change.
But the damage from the closures will most likely be felt beyond 2020, said Cheryl Liguori, CEO of Z2 Entertainment and Fort Collins Entertainment.
She said she believes that music will fill the Fox, Boulder and Aggie venues in 2021. But if concert-goers don’t return or if restrictions on group sizes continue, ticket sales will suffer. Ticket sales dominate the revenue streams and are the sole income for paying performers.
“Some of our live music-loving patrons may choose to sit it out for a while until there’s a vaccine or herd immunity,” Liguori said. “We rely on our patrons to buy tickets and if they’re too nervous to come into a live music setting then that’s another challenge.”
The Fox’s capacity is 700 people, the Aggie’s is 650 and the Boulder Theater holds 1,000. Even if the venues’ doors opened tomorrow, Gov. Polis’ safer-at-home mandate limits gatherings to 10 people.
Theaters employ around 200 individuals. Currently, eight full-time employees and five part-time between administration, talent buying, marketing and accounting work for Fort Collins and Z2 Entertainment. Concert night hands-on positions, such as hospitality and sound and light engineers, are furloughed until further notice.
“It really is down to the bare bones, because we know that we will be back, but the event-based staff has been horribly impacted by this,” Liguori said.
Dani Grant, previous operating partner with and general manager of the Aggie Theatre, sold her interest to Fort Collins Entertainment in April. Previously, Fort Collins Entertainment owned 75% interest.
Grant took over the Aggie’s lease in partnership with Fort Collins Entertainment in March 2019. One of the first Aggie shows to cancel was the second Sound and Light concert on March 15. Grant created the series as an industry stimulator through which bands gain access to mentorship, free practice spaces, training and spots in the concert lineup. Light and sound engineers receive a short apprenticeship with a week of training.
“It is very sad for me because I was really excited about that, we have a great program[Sound and Light] we were running, my staff was really involved, and had spent a year kind of doing the hard work of putting it all together,” she said. “So very very disappointing and had the virus not become an issue, I don’t know what would have happened.”
She’s now putting her energy into the companies that she fully operates: Chipper Lanes Entertainment, a bowling alley and event venue chain, and the Mishawaka Amphitheatre in Bellevue.
All five of Chipper Lanes locations — Greeley, Broomfield, Estes Park and two in Fort Collins — are closed. The Mishawaka cleared its event schedule for the summer and its restaurant has a skeleton crew serving takeout food.
For Grant, not knowing when she can reopen makes leading difficult.
“In this scenario you really just need to sit tightly and try and listen for the next piece of news and you can’t really take a lot of action,” she said. “And that’s a personal challenge for me: how to be a leader in the midst of not being able to take any action.
Grant serves on the leadership team for the national-based initiative Reopen Every Venue Safety, or REVS. Music Cities Together, a partnership between Music Policy Forum and Sound Music Cities, launched the program on May 7. It aims at researching and developing practices for the reopening of music venues.
REVS will use eight U.S. cities as “pilots” — Los Angeles, Seattle, Chicago, Cleveland, Albuquerque, New Orleans, Portland, Oregon, Louisville, Ky., Austin, Texas, and Charlotte, N.C. There also are affiliate programs in the United Kingdom and Canada. Later in 2020, pilot cities will share their experiences to help other communities develop reopening protocols.
Americans for the Arts conducted a national survey on the arts and culture sector, with focuses on both state and national impact. In the Colorado study of 223 respondents from the state, estimated a loss of $13.9 billion for the state’s creative industries.
The study found 649 employees were laid off, 429 were furloughed and 96 jobs remain vacant from hiring freezes. The majority of respondents, 97%, reported event cancellations.
In Boulder, there are 28 auditoriums and theaters and two outdoor stages, said Matt Chasansky, manager of the city’s Office of Arts and Culture. That includes University of Colorado Boulder stages and three churches but not “informal” spaces, such as stages in bars and coffee shops.
Venue shuttering doesn’t just threaten the livelihoods of its workers, but the musicians who make their income from gigs and contracts.
An Office of Arts and Culture survey found that 28 nonprofit live performance venues provide 275 jull-time, part-time or seasonal jobs and 800 contractors.
“The contract work tends to be where you begin the cutbacks when you need to get to personnel,” Chasansky said. “And so, those people tend to not only have lost those jobs first, but they also lost multiple jobs.”
To support Boulder’s creative workforce, the Office of Arts and Culture issued 66 microgrants through The Creative Neighborhoods: COVID-19 Work Projects. It raised $40,000 with nonprofit Create Boulder and awarded $599 each to artists of all disciplines for projects that react to COVID-19. Applications closed at the end of April.
The Boulder County Arts Alliance on March 18 started taking applications for the Boulder County Musicians Relief Fund. The applications outnumbered the funds available within two days, and prematurely closed the program to new applicants, said Charlotte LaSasso, executive director for BCAA.
The small grant program awarded 47 applicants up to $500. She said that the goal is to cover the loss of a gig and pay for musician’s personal expenses.
“We certainly want the musicians in our community that do so much to enrich our city, county, to know that we’re got their backs to some extent. We’re thinking about them. We wish we could do a lot more,” LaSasso said.
Though BCAA is not promoting the program anymore, individual donors continue contributing to the fund. She added that as money collects, more grants will be awarded.
Chasanksy said he’s noticed a trend of organizations moving performances to online streaming platforms.
“I think this is an interesting moment for artists to flex their muscles and be creative and try something new and still keep people connected,” he said.
The Muse Performance Space, a nonprofit music venue, live tapes bands from its Lafayette building, bringing the concert experience into viewers’ homes through Facebook and YouTube live.
Clare Church, executive director, and Pete Lewis, president, created Muse as a space, “designed by musicians for musicians.” Church plays drums and Lewis is on the saxophone for the jazz quartet Clare Church and Expeditions. After Muse shuttered in March, they applied for the Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security Act loans, administered through the U.S. Small Business Administration, without any success.
“The live streaming was kind of our last resort to bring in some income,” Lewis said.
Muse asks for donations to the musical acts and the organization during the live streams. Performers take most of the profits, keeping inline with Muse’s mission to support other musicians, he said.
Viewers can donate through Muse’s Venmo account or website. The musical acts receive 70% of funds raised through the streams.
Musicians are paid $100 minimum for a set of an hour to an hour and 20 minutes, Church said. If the live streams don’t generate enough money for the musicians, the remainder is supplemented from the Denver Area Local Musicians Relief Fund a program in cooperation with Dazzle Presents in downtown Denver.
The Dickens Tavern Inc, a Longmont performance venue and restaurant, has moved to takeout orders to generate revenue since shuttering in March, said event plannerNoella Colandre. The downstairs restaurant does business as the Dickens Tavern, however, Colandreo said it’s down to 1% of normal takeout numbers and the 27-member staff has been reduced to a small kitchen crew.
The upper story of the building is the Dickens Opera House, at which eight events have been cancelled.
General manager and owner Sharon Merrell said all they can do is stay in compliance with state and local orders and keep their ear to the ground for any changes.
“Just know that everything is gonna get back to normal and then just a period of adjustment,” she said. “Just keep going every single day and don’t stop.”
Boulder-based nonprofit eTown does not have any live shows for the rest of the year scheduled at eTown Hall. The building houses offices, a live music venue and recording studio. Founders Nick and Helen Forster co-host eTown’s radio and podcast show.
The radio show is a live audience variety show where Nick Forster, a former founding member of the band Hot Rize, plays guitar mandolin or lap steel with musicians before interviewing them. Helen Forster performs vocals and spoken word.
The last live show was on March 1. Though the 225-seat venue was still selling out, eTown closed down before Polis’ first urge to cancel gatherings of 250 people or more on March 13.
In any given month, the radio/podcast show recorded four times and the venue hosted 20 shows.
No events were rescheduled or postponed. Customers can either donate the ticket costs to eTown or receive a refund by contacting the office. Nick Forster said that the decision to close early permanently cancel events and shows were in interest of public health.
“We weren’t going to be — we didn’t want to be — on the wrong side of that conversation. We wanted to make sure we put health and safety first,” he said. “When the time is right, we’ll have a lot more shows”
Nick Forster forecast ticket sales would make up 40% of eTown’s 2020 budget. However, with the already multimedia, diverse business model, and sponsors, it will get by for the time being. Its 11 full-time staff has their hands full with online projects.
On May 12, eTown launched a weekly new video series, “Nick Forster’s Teach Me One Thing,” where Nick learns a new skill from his musician friends through Zoom. Guests have included Mike Gordon of Phish and Steve Martin.