The last in-person event held at the Art Sanctuary in Louisville’s Schnitzelburg neighborhood was March 7. It was a wedding.
“It was packed, and everybody was dancing and drinking and celebrating,” Art Sanctuary president and co-founder Lisa Frye said.
The following day, Frye learned that someone at the event had tested positive for COVID-19, and it all went to hell from there.
“Just slowly, everything, we had to start canceling,” Frye said.
Art Sanctuary holds all kinds of events: concerts, private parties, art markets and variety shows put on by the organization’s resident burlesque group, Va Va Vixens. Upstairs, there are studios accommodating about 40 artists.
Frye said 2020 was going to be a big year. But the pandemic derailed everything.
“We postponed a few things and then ended up having to cancel those, refunding tickets,” Frye continued. “It was an absolute nightmare. It seemed like sand just going through your fingers.”
About $150,000 dollars in revenue gone, just like that.
A few months ago, they pivoted to producing a weekly live-streamed concert called “Late for Dinner,” featuring local musicians. But there’s no real money in that, Frye said.
“It’s more of a just so we can still have a platform for artists to perform.”
Last year was a slog for independent venues and promoters because large gatherings put people at risk of getting sick, and drawing crowds drives a venue’s business. There’s still a lot of anxiety about how 2021 will pan out as industry professionals keep an eye on mass vaccination plans and await news on how recently passed targeted federal relief will work.
Unknowns Keep Indie Venues On Shaky Ground
State guidance limits venues and event space to operating at half of their capacity. In venues where six-feet of social distancing isn’t possible at 50%, Kentucky requires an even further reduced capacity.
Rupp Arena in Lexington seemed to make that work. It hosted a country music concert last month; 2,800 tickets were available. Ticket holders, plus staff, accounted for about 15% of the indoor facility’s capacity, director of arena management Carl Hall told WFPL ahead of the show.
But the math doesn’t make sense for the little guys.
“It costs money to just unlock the door. In some ways, it’s cheaper just to keep it locked,” Billy Hardison, co-owner of Headliners Music Hall in Louisville, said.
There hasn’t been a concert at Headliners for almost a year.
Nervous for their future, Hardison and his partners sold the building to cut costs. The new owner, “a true angel,” is renting it back to them free for a year, Hardison said.
Some of his colleagues haven’t been so lucky.
They’ve sold their homes or dipped into retirement funds to keep their business afloat.
When live music and performance can return is on the minds of a number of Louisville groups.
More than a dozen Louisville independent venues and promoters, including Art Sanctuary and Headliners, formed a coalition last fall called Louisville Operating Venues Safely, or LOVS. They created a set of guidelines for welcoming audiences back into spaces.
Jazz club Jimmy Can’t Dance recently started having limited-capacity concerts, at about 35 to 40 tickets per show.
Brian Goodwin, a partner in Jimmy Can’t Dance, said the margins are “super tight,” so they’re still feeling out whether it makes financial sense.
“It’s more about getting back into a routine, getting the doors open and getting the machine running again, more than anything else, not being forgotten, you know,” he said.
Another Place Sandwich Shop, located above the club and also owned by Goodwin, wasn’t able to survive the pandemic. On social media, the 50-year-old business announced it was closing for good. Goodwin said he’s not sure what that means for Jimmy Can’t Dance yet: “it’s TBD, we’re figuring everything out.”
Hardison, who also co-owns Louisville independent promotion company Production Simple and is a former Louisville Public Media employee, is itching to get back to work.
He thinks Headliners could safely hold concerts in a parking lot by late spring. Maybe Production Simple could book some shows at Iroquois Amphitheater in July, he said. But indoor shows probably aren’t feasible until late fall. Early 2022 might be more realistic.
“I’m trying to stop talking in hypotheticals and start talking about what really can happen,” he said.
Getting in-person concert dates on the calendar is largely dependent on the COVID-19 vaccine.
President Joe Biden had set a goal of administering 1 million vaccines a day in his first one hundred days.
That could mean a return of larger outdoor events, with precautions, late summer and indoor events by late fall.
“I think everyone is kind of guardedly optimistic that we’re going to be in a totally different place by the end of this calendar year,” Dr. William “Paul” McKinney, associate dean for research at the University of Louisville’s School of Public Health and Information Sciences, said.
To hit those benchmarks, a lot has to go right.
Manufacturers need to produce enough vaccines, and quickly, McKinney said. There also needs to be massive cooperation at the federal, state and local levels.
McKinney would also like to see a much more aggressive vaccination plan, closer to 2 million doses a day, and he’s closely monitoring the variant strains of the coronavirus.
“We are getting some mixed messages about vaccine availability and the impact of new viral strains is currently unknown,” McKinney said in a follow up.
If those variants spread widely in the U.S., it could throw off any current projections for returning to pre-pandemic activities, he continued.
Much Needed Emergency Aid
In the meantime, venue owners are counting on $15 billion dollars in federal funding called the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant.
The National Independent Venue Association, or NIVA, lobbied hard for the money.
The association formed early in the pandemic and includes Kentucky organizations such as Art Sanctuary and Headliners.
NIVA director of communications and board member Audrey Fix Schaefer said it was an “exhausting” 10-month long battle for this legislation, which was signed into law with bipartisan support on Dec. 27.
“[It was] imperative because we had no choice,” Schaefer said. “This industry would have had an absolute mass collapse had emergency relief not been possible.”
The independent live entertainment industry needed targeted support because other federal aid, such as the Paycheck Protection Program, didn’t quite suit the specific needs.
“The premise of it really is to be able to hire employees back in eight weeks… and then start paying them and then the loan is forgiven,” Schaefer said. “Well, we were still shuttered.”
Bartenders can’t return to work if there’s no bar to tend, and stagehands can’t return if there are no shows to run.
The bulk of the loan also had to be spent on payroll. But for a lot of venue owners, most of their expenses are overhead, Schaefer said, like rent or a mortgage, utilities, and insurance — stuff that has to be paid even when closed.
What You Need To Know To Apply
The Small Business Administration is managing the venue grants and hasn’t yet started accepting applications.
Live music venues, concert promoters, movie theaters, live performing arts organizations and talent representatives, as well as some museums, zoos and aquariums, are eligible.
The business has to have been open since Feb. 29, 2020, and not have applied for or gotten a PPP loan on Dec. 27 or later. The monetary amount received will be determined by gross earned revenue not to exceed a $10 million award.
Venue operators must set up a profile in the federal government’s System of Award Management database before applying for a shuttered venue grant. A representative with the SBA said that process can take up to two weeks. The Kentucky Procurement Technical Assistance Center can answer questions on this.
People with the most need are at the front of the line.
The first 14 days that applications are open, those who have lost 90% or more of their revenue due to the pandemic get priority. The next two weeks are reserved for people with 70% or more in losses. And the next window is for those with a 25% or larger loss before it opens up to supplemental funding.
As big of a victory as it was for this to pass, Schaefer said it wasn’t fast enough for the venues that have already closed because of the pandemic.
“And that broke my heart, knowing that if this had happened six months before, their fates would have been different,” she said. “They didn’t do anything wrong. It’s just math. When you’re completely shuttered, and you have no revenue, and all the overhead, no business can hold on like that forever.”
Going forward, the industry will also need more detailed reopening guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Schaefer said.
He’s worried the pandemic’s impact will be felt even after it’s safe to reopen. People have changed their habits, ordering in and watching movies from home.
“People have gotten used to living this way,” McGowan said. “And it’s not like a light switch is going to happen, and they’re just all going ‘Oh, yeah, I’m going to go back to the way it was in 2019.’”
He hopes Louisville’s indie venues will come out on the other side of this, possibly even stronger. But he thinks that could take a few years, and a drawn-out recovery puts more businesses at risk of going under.