In the Indy’s Aug. 11 cover story, Mountain Goats leader John Darnielle talked about his band’s return to the road for their first post-lockdown tour. Initially, he’d been totally excited by the prospect of once again playing for fans live and in person. But as the tour approached, the Delta variant brought with it a new surge in infections, and it was soon clear that this would not be the kind of victory lap the band had been expecting.
“A week ago, we were all thinking it’s just going to be amazing,” Darnielle told the Indy, “but now the COVID numbers are so bad in parts of the U.S. that it’s feeling different for us. You’ve got this shifting state of play here, and the massive failure of we, as a populace, to confront this crisis by uniting and all getting vaccinated is just dispiriting.”
Sadly, the situation is only growing worse. According to The Washington Post, 46 of the 50 states saw a double-digit growth in COVID hospitalizations last week. The rising infection rates reached the point where the Mountain Goats convinced venues, including Colorado Springs’ The Black Sheep, to require not only masks, but also proof of vaccination, prior to entry.
“Our policy so far has been to honor whatever the artist requests,” says Black Sheep owner Geoff Brent. “They’re obviously the ones who are traveling the country having to make decisions about what they think is safe for them personally. And I have no problem handling specific requests as they come in. We’re in a tricky spot, as is everyone, where there’s no overall guiding health mandate for us to do anything specific.”
Brent’s best guess is that as many as 90 percent of music venues will be requiring COVID vaccine cards or negative test results at the door. Come Oct. 1, The Black Sheep will be among them. “We can’t afford to have our industry get shut down again,” he says.
The tipping point for a number of venues may be recent announcements by the country’ two largest music promoters.
Live Nation, whose venues include Denver’s Fillmore Auditorium, Summit Music Hall and the Marquis Theater, first required proof of vaccination at this year’s Lollapalooza festival and, come October, will be expanding the policy to all of its shows. Their rival AEG Presents, which owns or operates 46 clubs and theaters across the country — including Denver’s Bluebird Theater, Mission Ballroom and Ogden Theater — will be doing the same. Also onboard are Colorado mega-venues like the 1stBank Center and Fiddler’s Green Amphitheatre
In an Aug. 12 statement announcing the new policy, AEG Presents’ CEO Jay Marciano expressed much the same sentiments as Mountain Goats frontman Darnielle. “Just a few weeks ago, we were optimistic about where our business, and country, were heading,” Marciano said. “The Delta variant, combined with vaccine hesitancy, is pushing us in the wrong direction again. We realize that some people might look at this as a dramatic step, but it’s the right one. We also are aware that there might be some initial pushback, but I’m confident and hopeful that, at the end of the day, we will be on the right side of history and doing what’s best for artists, fans, and live event workers.”
Unlike the 20 percent of the country that still identifies with the anti-vaccine movement, Brent is convinced that the live music industry’s efforts will make a real-world difference — not only in terms of reducing super-spreader events, but also in convincing more people to get vaccinated.
“You’re looking at a combined capacity of probably [60,000] to 75,000 people just in Denver,” says Brent, who also books Live Nation’s Denver shows. “Most of my friends who are running venues or doing shows in Denver have put a policy in place already, or are about to. And I think it’s an easy decision in Denver, because it seems like you’re gonna get a lot more praise than you’re gonna get pushback.”
Brent is less certain about how that’s going to play out in Colorado Springs. “We’ve gotten some refund requests for the Mountain Goats show, and some of them were very polite, just saying like, ‘I haven’t gotten vaccinated yet, so I guess I can’t go to the show.’ And others were less polite. So I think that’s a good indicator for us when it comes to what we’re going to be up against. But I do think it will reach a critical mass of band requests where it will just make sense for us to have a blanket policy.”
And while it’s still early days, Brent believes venues currently requiring proof of vaccination are already making a difference in Colorado. All of which places the people who vilify clubs for adopting these policies near the bottom of his list of concerns.
“At the end of the day, I’m not worried about angering the people who are going to be angry about it,” says the venue owner. “... They tend to be the people who aren’t coming anyway. You know, people who are just on the internet looking for fights.”