Q-C Live Music Venues Seeing Varied Responses to Covid, Reopening - The Echo

Across the country and the Quad-Cities, independent live music venues are finally getting back to a sense of normalcy. The reopenings have varied over the past year, with some local indoor gigs happening regularly since last summer.

After more than 16 months of sonic darkness, the TaxSlayer Center in Moline didn’t reopen to rock until July 9, with its first concert since the Zac Brown Band on Feb. 28, 2020. They hosted a powerhouse lineup of arena rock bands — Dokken, Lynch Reunion (with special guest star guitarist George Lynch), Firehouse, Jack Russell’s Great White, and special guest Brandon Gibbs (a native of Burlington, Iowa).

While Illinois indoor venues have been able to open to 100-percent audience capacity since mid-June, TaxSlayer Center executive director Scott Mullen said about 1,000 tickets were sold by about a week before the first show; the arena seats about 11,000. Mullen expected to hire 100 people to work the rock show, including stagehands, security, ushers, maintenance, and ticket sellers, plus concession staff. The July 23 Queen tribute concert (“One Night of Queen”) is one of the better selling dates on their tour, at about 2,500 sold so far, he said.

Two big upcoming concerts that are selling well, Mullen said, are The Doobie Brothers Aug. 28 and Michael Buble Sept. 16. 

Independent Venue Week returns July 12 – 18, 2021, bringing together venues from across the country for a series of shows and programming in celebration of the spirit of independence.

“Getting ready for this year’s event feels particularly meaningful,” said Cecilie Nielsen, director of special projects at Marauder, the firm that runs Independent Venue Week in the U.S. “For the past 16 months, independent venues and promoters have collectively fought for their very survival and this feels like the turning point that we’ve all been working for. We were happy and proud to grow Independent Venue Week last year—to even have it, under the circumstances. This year, we hope and believe that fans will return with a renewed appreciation for these uniquely important spaces.”

The extended Covid closures (since March 2020) cost the Moline arena (at 1201 River Drive) over $2 million in operating expenses, plus over $700,000 that TaxSlayer Center spent on Covid-related improvements, Mullen said.

They received $468,000 from Illinois CARES grant funding, and have applied for $2 million in the federal Shuttered Venue Operators Grant (SVOG) program, but haven’t heard back yet, “since governmental entities receive last priority,” he said. “We also have asked the city and state for additional relief grants, but have not yet been approved or rejected at this point.”

The Small Business Administration changed the bill that Congress passed “to bump governmental entities phase 3, so we have to wait and hope the money doesn’t run out,” Mullen said. “They hope to have decisions made by next Friday but so far they have failed to meet any of their scheduled dates, so I’m not holding my breath.”

In December 2020, Congress approved the SVOG program, securing $16.1 billion in desperately-needed financial aid for thousands of business owners nationwide. Over six months after the SVOG program was approved, and two months since applications opened, the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) reported last month that less than one percent of applicants had received any funding.

“The biggest challenge was not having any indication of opening at 100% capacity with no restrictions,” Mullen said recently of trying to survive during Covid. “We had shows that wanted to confirm but we’re reluctant to do so without an assurance there would be no capacity restrictions. Those shows ended up in other states that were fully reopened. We also will have a challenge getting our employees back from unemployment since they are being incentivized to stay home from the government.”

He worked with the International Association of Venue Managers as their director of arenas, to get Congress to include more venues in the “Save Our Stages” relief bill.

As of July 6, the SBA made much greater progress on issuing SVOG grants. Out of the total of 14,884 grant applications seeking $11.7 billion, 4,222 grants have been awarded, totaling $3.2 billion (an average grant of $758,000), including the following Quad-Cities venues:

Tyson Danner, RME executive director, said federal funding is crucial to make up for 2020-21 lost revenue. The SBA calculated grant awards so those approved would receive 45 percent of 2019 earned revenue – which includes things like ticket sales, concessions and bar revenue, but not grants and donations.

“It worked out for us,” Danner said, “That made up the rest of the difference we had lost from the shutdown, which is great. It worked for us, but I’m sure it didn’t work for everybody. Everybody is in such a different situation. Whether you’re a small bar that has music, or a big performance venue, those Covid restrictions hit everybody really differently.”

“The shutdown had a huge impact for us. We lost approximately half of our usual revenue,” Danner said. “Luckily, we were able to secure PPP funds and other federal support available to businesses. And, as a nonprofit, we were privileged to have access to additional grant funds. As a funded partner of the Quad Cities Cultural Trust, the additional support we received from the Trust made a huge difference in our ability to continue our educational programming and online live music offerings. So, even though we were physically shut down for concerts, we stayed just as busy providing streaming and virtual content, and socially-distanced Curbside Concerts. It was anything but a slow year!”

RME is presenting its traditional Live@Five outdoor schedule this year, June-September, and a variety of other outdoor shows. “We’re focusing on outdoor activities over the summer, and we’ve seen a great response to that,” Danner said, noting the Redstone Room reopens on Aug. 29 with KT Tunstall.

“Our biggest challenge – regardless of Iowa’s restrictions – has been making sure we are confident in our ability to keep our patrons safe. There have been times throughout the past year when we were technically allowed to host indoor events, but we decided we would not do so until we felt that each person in the building would be safe. That meant we did not offer indoor performances over the winter. Now that the weather’s nice, we have plenty to offer outdoors as vaccines continue to be distributed. When we reopen in August, we are not planning any capacity or distancing restrictions.”

“Our first Live@Five show in June was absolutely packed – our biggest audience ever in the courtyard. We are constantly hearing from our guests that they are so happy to be hearing live music again,” Danner said. “It was definitely missing in people’s lives. Thankfully, we are able to continue providing it – and doing it in a way that’s accessible and welcoming to everyone.”

Other Q-C music venues react

Terry Tilka, owner of Rock Island Brewing Company, 1815 2nd Ave., re-started live music at the end of March, limiting crowds to 25-percent capacity. “A lot of bands said they just wanted to play, and other bands said they didn’t want to play and some people haven’t seemed to have gotten over it yet,” Tilka said. “It’s been weird.”

“Being on a border state, Iowa was way more open than Illinois was for a long time,” he said. “Illinois didn’t even open up until a few weeks ago and it was funny how certain parts of Illinois enforced the rules, and other parts of Illinois didn’t enforce any rules. It was a real hit and miss for clubs that actually do bands on a regular basis. It’s been interesting and very strange.”

Tilka brought in more new bands that seemed hungrier to play, since it was hard to book many acts and most touring bands hadn’t come back.

“We brought in some new bands that had never been here before that absolutely blew me away,” he said. “Some of ‘em drew pretty good, to the half capacity we were gonna be at. They were just hungry to play; they missed it.”

Everyone reacted differently to Covid and being around people, Tilka said. They had a lot of phone calls with questions about wearing a mask, and he told people to do what made them comfortable, but they weren’t going to pack people in. They didn’t ask anyone about their vaccination status.

RIBCO saw better audiences before the end of May, when there were still college kids in town. “It seems like we went from an odd spring with Covid directly into summer,” Tilka said. “So we didn’t expect to see a huge June and a lot of sellout crowds with new bands. I still don’t think it’s gonna kick back into reality for another six or eight months.”

“It was bad enough struggling with Covid, with the great amount of help we got from the federal government,” Tilka said sarcastically. “Without the relief, I don’t think you’ll see a lot of them survive.”

Of his staff, some moved on and got jobs in Iowa, or worked at other venues. “Iowa really didn’t close down altogether, compared to Illinois,” Tilka said. “Now the most difficult thing is finding help. Everyone and his brother is screaming for help, and this entire service industry is struggling, looking for help.”

A lot of the touring bands are still getting their routing together, he said. “The roadies and the crew guys haven’t worked in a year and a half,” he said. “Trying to get people back together, getting their lives together is not going to be easy.”

RIBCO’s regular bar and restaurant business also is slow, and the numbers still haven’t returned, Tilka said. “People got used to being home for over a year; it’s changed. You put a drastic lifestyle change like that in people’s routine, they change with it. I don’t know if it’s ever gonna come back the way it was.”

Less than 70 percent of the public has even gotten one shot of the Covid vaccine, which prevents full recovery. “That’s their right; they don’t have to get one if they don’t want to,” he said. “When people work in bars and restaurants, they’re used to one level of speed and consistency.”

“Talking to all my peers, everyone is screaming for help. You can’t flip the switch after 16 months of Covid and all the other crazy stuff and say everything’s back to normal,” Tilka said.

Virgil Richardson, owner of Gypsy Highway, 2606 W. Locust St., Davenport, reopened to indoor live music in June 2020.

“Not having live music shows certainly hurt the weekend revenue. Alcohol sales are a large portion of business for any music venue,” Richardson said. “When we first reopened, a large portion of our income was still only carryout food and the occasional carryout alcohol drinks. We were able to secure a small grant to help out early during the Covid closures that helped cover our rent expenses for a couple months.”

“The biggest challenges about re-opening was the unknown about what the future held for our industry depending on what was happening in our state with the changing weekly restrictions and operating practices,” Richardson said. “We were doing what we could on our end with constant cleaning and weekly fogging to disinfect the venue, at the same time trying to ensure our patrons and staff had fun. There were opinions coming from all directions about what we should be doing and about what we were doing. We were just doing our best to try and keep everyone happy and safe.

“That is a whole lot easier said than done,” Richardson said. “We invested in sanitizer stations everywhere and bought a commercial air compressor fogging system to spray disinfect everywhere. That added additional costs to operating a business not working with traditional revenue streams. Luckily for us, our loyal customer base continued to support us with take out, even if they didn’t feel safe dining-in at that point.”

Richardson noted life is starting to return to normal now that people are vaccinated. “The crowds are coming back out and having fun. We’re still practicing disinfecting procedures to keep the people safe. People love live music. It makes them feel good,” Richardson said. 

“We knew this happening meant we needed to expand our outdoor space sooner rather than later,” Richardson said, noting he’s building a large outdoor stage and beer garden with a covered pavilion. “It is coming along nicely and is partially complete. Our love of food and live music always will be our main focus at Gypsy Highway.”

The Rust Belt, 533 12th Ave., East Moline, reopened for its first show May 7 with Badflower, Goodbye June, and Alborn, after having no revenue for over 13 months.

“Ownership stayed strong with the belief that the live music industry will come back strong,” Kyle Peters, promoter for Rust Belt and owner of Rock Island’s Daiquiri Factory, said.

“PPP helped for its intended eight-week use. The state of Illinois offered a Business Interruption Grant to venues, and The Rust Belt did qualify. That helped soften the burden for awhile, but no venue big or small is supposed to go 14 months with no revenue,” he said. “Our first show in May had a few challenges such as, pod seating, temperature checks at the door, sanitizers at all points of entry, extra signage on Covid guidelines, and mask requirements.”

“The Rust Belt is open and going full send on live music,” Peters said. “Our artists and audience have been electric, respectful, and very appreciative of our team’s efforts to bring live music back. I have been in the business for 17 years, and I get more thank-yous, fist bumps, and handshakes post shows than I have in the past! That shows me how hungry and appreciative our audience is!”

A couple of their big upcoming concerts are 3 Doors Down with special guest Chayce Beckham on Sept. 10 at and David Allen Coe on Sept. 11. For more on Independent Venue Week, visit www.independentvenueweek.com/us.

Jonathan Turner loves music and loves writing, so The Echo is a harmonious marriage of his twin passions. A pianist for 50 years, his undergrad and grad degrees are in music from Oberlin and Indiana, and he’s an accompanist for Zion Lutheran Church, Davenport. Turner has covered the Q-C arts and culture scene since 1995, including for the Dispatch-Argus and Quad-City Times, and for QuadCities.com and WVIK since March 2020.

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