Just about everyone’s heard the 1971 megahit “American Pie,” by Don McLean, who famously sings a line about “the day the music died.” While actually an oblique reference to a 1959 plane crash that killed rock legends Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson, listeners who don’t know the backstory to that tragic refrain tend to hear a song about a sudden stop to all music, which is what’s happened during the pandemic on virtually every stage, big and small, throughout the world.
Fortunately for music lovers, that’s about to change.
The venues that went dark over the past year and a half and managed to make it into the spring of 2021 with enough cash to stay in business are beginning to reopen. And they’re finding artists anxious to get back onstage and a public eager to enjoy live performances again. Professionals in the music business are anticipating that live shows are going to play a big role in lifting people’s spirits as the world begins to see signs of the pandemic abating, much like jazz did in the United States in the wake of World War I.
“Nobody in our industry was thinking about a global pandemic that would shut things down for a year and a half when they were doing their day-to-day business,” says Geoff Brent, owner of The Black Sheep, located on Platte Avenue in Colorado Springs. “But I think everybody is generally super optimistic now. People are absolutely ready to go out. I feel like everyone is wrapping their heads around a sense of normal coming back. I think there’s a great year ahead for us.”
Brent reopened early this year with some socially distanced deejay events and movie nights to help keep some revenue flowing and his regulars comfortable with coming back to his venue. Then he began hosting live performances with socially distanced seating. On May 8, he held the venue’s first live performance in over a year, featuring Letters From the Sun and The Amber Gene, which he says saw a solid turnout.
“It was incredible,” he says. “The energy of people there was just like, ‘Oh my god, I’m so happy to be here right now.’”
Around a dozen artists also came out for The Black Sheep’s open mic night on Monday, May 10, even after a late-spring rain had turned into snowfall. Some of the musicians commented to the crowd during their sets about how long it had been since they had been on a stage as snow accumulated on their cars parked outside.
The lack of live music in 2020 and into the first quarter of this year wreaked havoc on the music industry, in large part because musicians didn’t have the touring opportunities they typically rely on to support the new albums they create, according to Marc Benning, owner and talent buyer at Lulu’s Downstairs in Manitou Springs.
“We primarily work with touring bands, and that system totally seized,” he says. “It hasn’t opened up yet because it’s so dependent on every city in the country. It’s not just about our city’s venues. It’s about New York and Nashville and Dallas. For these bands to be stringing together a tour across the country it has to be viable in most places.”
A study by Goldman Sachs estimated that the music industry lost about 25 percent of its revenue worldwide by the end of last year, after live music came to a standstill. The study estimates that live music revenue dropped by a whopping 75 percent.
The closure of live music venues — which often employ sound operators and stage designers, along with food and beverage professionals — was also a major contributor to the 17 percent unemployment rate the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported last year for the arts, entertainment and recreation category in the U.S.
Daniel Eaton, who plays at Lulu’s in a band called Briffaut, said he was grateful that he had a day job at Jimmy John’s to fall back on during the pandemic, but other musicians, who bet it all on their music, suffered the most. “I feel like a lot of other people got hit really hard because music is all their income,” he says. “But for me, I was financially OK still, and so I was able to just focus on creation.”
The Goldman Sachs study also found that while the live music business plummeted, streaming revenue on sites like Spotify and Bandcamp — where Eaton and many other smaller artists publish their work — rose by about 18 percent as more people turned to piping music in through their phones, in their cars and on their computers. That’s a problem for many artists, however, who earn in many cases half of their income from live performances.
Scott Wilson, a partner at Sunshine Studios Live in Colorado Springs who also plays bass in rock band Saving Abel, says major sports events that were canceled or stripped down as a result of the pandemic also took a toll on the music business.
“The big advertising pushes also closed down quite a bit,” he says. “Most of the large sporting events that were going to be televised didn’t happen, so a lot of the companies that do placement for music for those events were completely shut down and out business, too, because nobody was buying songs for these giant events.”
Increasing vaccination rates and looser restrictions on businesses show some light at the end of the tunnel, however, and music venues are ramping up for a strong return in the latter half of 2021. Goldman Sachs estimated last year that, despite the pandemic, the industry will double its value worldwide by 2030.
When Colorado ended the state COVID-19 dial framework in April, El Paso County opted not to add any restrictions beyond what the state has kept in place. According to the county’s website, unseated outdoor events have no restrictions, while indoor events with between 100 and 500 attendees must maintain 6-foot social distancing and comply with the state’s standing mask order. Managers of indoor events with more than 500 people must submit a variance request through either El Paso County Public Health or the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment.
On May 13 the CDC also took another step signaling a shift in the pandemic and increasing confidence in the efficacy of vaccines, when it stated that people who have been fully inoculated against COVID-19 no longer have to wear masks indoors or out in most cases.
As a result, show lineups are beginning to fill out calendars at many venues.
Benning, for example, held a soft opening at Lulu’s on the weekend of May 8 and is planning to open a smaller venue and a patio area above his main venue later this month.
“Then we’ll start to do some smaller shows within the guidelines of what the state is still requiring,” he says. “Then we we’ll add to that as much as feels safe, like we’re taking care of people. Hopefully we don’t take any steps back, and we can just kind of chug away slowly but surely and let the capacities get a little bit bigger and let the confidence of touring bands and that commerce come back so we can start getting people into the downstairs room, which is the bigger room. It will be an incremental plan for us.”
Liz Borris was promoted to become the new manager of Oskar Blues Grill & Brew on Tejon Street just before the pandemic hit the U.S. in March 2020. She said it’s been a very long road to get to a place where the restaurant, bar and music venue could begin to reopen to the public — but even longer before she could safely bring back live entertainment that tends to draw large crowds.
“We have just recently brought back our trivia night on Wednesdays,” she says. “We have a comedy night on Sunday evenings, and then in the next week or two, on Fridays and Saturdays, we will have live music in the basement and on some nights onstage. And then Saturday afternoon, if the weather permits, we’ll probably do more of an acoustic set upstairs on our patio area and kind of open up our breeze doors and let the whole restaurant kind of enjoy that vibe.”
Larger music venues are beginning to schedule events for the end of spring and summer as well.
“We’re going to have our grand opening on May 21,” says James Ragain, vice president at Weidner Field, the new home of the Switchbacks FC as well as an event venue. “We’ve been in communication with the state and local county health department directors. Basically, they told us that in May we would be able to host above 50 percent, but we’re going to stay at 50 percent at least through the month of May. That will be for Switchbacks games and for our concerts at the end of the month.”
The Switchbacks will face off against New Mexico United for the field’s grand opening, followed by the kickoff of a summer concert series, beginning with STAR Festival on May 28, featuring a lineup of Latin music performers. A country music show is set for the following day, played by Justin Moore, Chris Janson and Mackenzie Porter.
“I believe wholeheartedly that live music and live entertainment is an essential business because it’s essential to human beings to be able to gather with other people and create memories and create special experiences,” Ragain says. “That’s really what life is about, and when you can’t offer those things, I think people get into a place where they’re not happy and there are things in their life that aren’t where they should be.”
For musicians like Brent, the experience of performing live is what fuels his music. The punk band he plays bass for, Cheap Perfume, thrives on the thrill of interacting with an audience.
“I think there’s a great year ahead for us,” he says. “I don’t know how long the high is going to last, but I think it’s going to stay for quite some time.”
Editor’s note: Indy contributor Bryan Ostrow works for The Black Sheep, a venue mentioned in this story.