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Your backstage pass to Northeast Ohio's independent music scene.

Shuffle: From Parking Lots to Sidewalks, Music Venues and Artists Get Creative to Survive

Zach Freidhof performs
Akron singer-songwriter Zach Freidhof performs an intimate sidewalk concert as part of Sidewalk Serenades NEO.

The coronavirus pandemic has dealt a devastating blow to the region’s live music scene. Most independent venues have been closed for nearly six months, with no re-opening date in sight.

After two years in business, Stella’s Music Club in Cleveland shut its doors for good Aug. 20, making it the first major music venue in the city to close during the pandemic. Thursday’s Lounge, an Akron staple for alternative and dance music for 40 years, will officially close Aug. 29. Both venues cited challenges related to the COVID-19 outbreak as major reasons for their closures. Mahall’s in Lakewood has launched a “Keep The Lights On” crowdfunding effort.

But there are some venues that are trying to reinvent themselves to keep their doors open.

New requirements were put into place this week, per the Director’s Order That Provides Mandatory Requirements for Entertainment Venues, allowing indoor event spaces to operate at 15% fixed seated capacity. However, for smaller music venues in the region, there are no fixed seats, and operating at this limited capacity could permit only a handful of attendees at each show.

The challenges of organizing music festivals during the pandemic
The concept of the drive-in concert has caught on across the nation, with artists and organizers booking vast outdoor spaces for shows, with attendees remaining in or around their cars to allow for social distancing and restrict congregating in groups.

However, the large-scale, drive-in concert idea has not gone off without a hitch—EDM pop duo The Chainsmokers received backlash following their “tailgate experience” outdoor concert. Social media photos and videos showed crowds failing to adhere to safety and distancing guidelines at the planned 600-vehicle, drive-in concert.

Ishmael Khadair, a promoter and event organizer, had scheduled a drive-in EDM music festival experience in Cleveland for the weekend of July 4. The Kukui Music Festival was set to feature 15 local DJs and sold passes for attendees to park their vehicle in one parking spot and reserve the adjacent spot for dancing and watching the show.

"If you're creative and you've got a creative team, anything is impossible."

“We came up with the idea, why not just give people two parking spots—one to park and one to rave,” Khadair said. “Yes, it’s not going to be profitable, but the idea is to get people out and get distracted with something positive.”

He planned for 150 cars per day with two to eight attendees per car. All attendees would have to adhere to strict rules, including temperature checks upon entry, bringing a “restroom backpack” full of sanitation supplies and wearing a face mask. The event was initially planned to take place at the west bank of The Flats but was moved to the popular Cleveland tailgating spot The Pit. After Cleveland city officials initially postponed the event until the end of August, it was once again postponed.

This time, Khadair decided to cancel the festival altogether as the colder season in Ohio is approaching.

“Going into this, my team and I, we knew that this was going to be challenging,” Khadair said. “It’s very rare that in the entertainment industry, during a pandemic, that they’re going to move forward. But if you’re creative and you’ve got a creative team, anything is impossible. You can make it happen. But you also need the city to back you and for them to understand.”

Planning outdoor concerts on a smaller scale
In Cleveland Heights, Grog Shop owner Kathy Blackman hosted a parking-lot concert experience in June, on a smaller scale. The outdoor Carlos Jones and the P.L.U.S. Band "Grog To Go" concert took place in Diner on Lee Road lot June 27.  The event included 25 spaces for attendees to watch the show, and it sold out quickly. A second performance was added to meet local demand.

"At some point, I'm going to have to draw a line in the sand and decide how much longer I can go on."

Blackman said the event wasn’t really a drive-in concert concept, since patrons parked elsewhere. Attendees could rent a table and chairs or bring their own chairs or blankets to watch the show. She planned additional outdoor Grog To Go events for summer but canceled them due to safety and logistics concerns.

All Grog Shop shows are postponed until spring, and some will move to next fall.

“People are eager for music. I just thought it was not prudent to do something right now, even though we have such a short window in Cleveland to do [outdoor concerts].”

The venue has hosted several livestream events, but they are not viable for making money consistently.

“There’s only so long you can sustain without having any income,” Blackman said. “At some point, I’m going to have to draw a line in the sand and decide how much longer I can go on.”

Grog Shop planned to have a small audience during the livestream events as a learning curve to see if they could ever potentially book shows this way, do it safely and reconfigure seating for a general admission venue. Those events are not a normal Grog Shop show experience since everyone is seated and normal operations and rules would have to change, Blackman said.

This summer, Blackman has been trying to figure out how to reopen The Grog Shop safely. This includes getting patrons in and out of the venue, doing sound checks, merch sales and “all the little things that we do that we don’t think about,” she said.

In July, B Side Lounge, located under the Grog Shop, reopened four days a week. Blackman started booking solo performers on the B Stop patio, who perform behind the bar. There’s approximately 10 feet of space between performer and audience, which is capped at around 30 people.

“They’re smaller enough that they’re manageable, and people were fantastic at the last one, and I think they really enjoyed being out again seeing music,” Blackman said.

The Behind The Bar patio concert series requires attendees to wear masks unless they are eating or drinking. The events are socially distanced and include limited patio seating for groups of two, four or six. Ray Flanagan is scheduled to perform at B Side Lounge Aug. 28, followed by Joey Ariemma Aug. 29.

“It’s one thing to do a solo or even duo performance,” Blackman said. “A whole band is just a little more tricky. Trying to distance the musicians from each other and also from the audience. Do they have to do masks? Singers can’t be masked. So, there’s a variety of reactions I’m getting [from musicians] from ‘absolutely not’ to ‘we’re eager to play.”

Credit Power Photography
Akron musician Nate Vaill performs in a parking lot near Kenmore Boulevard as part of a drive-in First Friday concept.

Successfully organizing a drive-in concert series
In Akron, the Kenmore Neighborhood Alliance has turned its popular First Fridays summer festival series into a drive-in concert concept.

The neighborhood’s First Friday concerts gained a lot of traction in the community, said Tina Boyes, executive director of Kenmore Neighborhood Alliance. Last year, Boyes said the crowd size doubled to 300 to 500 people per event, and it brought a lot of visibility to the neighborhood. First Friday was first relaunched as a virtual event when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the area, which bounced back and forth between livestreams of musicians and other activities.

The drive-in concerts grew out of necessity, Boyes said. She was approached by The Dragon’s Mantle, located on Kenmore Boulevard, to use their two big public parking lots for outdoor shows. 

“I tend to be that kind of person that looks for opportunity in these types of situations, like how can we step out and differentiate ourselves and make lemonade out of lemons?” Boyes said. “But it’s really hard to walk up and down that street and walk into the businesses and say, “Hey! We’ve got to come up with something new!”

Boyes said she met with local musicians to get their thoughts on hosting First Fridays in person again, but this time as a drive-in concept. The first event took place July 3 and included solo performances byJim Ballard, Zach, Marc Lee Shannon and A Band Named Ashes front man Nate Vaill. Vaill also co-owns The Rialto Theatre in Kenmore.

“That vibe that we had that night is a vibe that we’ve been trying to bring to the boulevard for a long time,” Vaill said. “We’ve accomplished it at the theater many times with the good artists around here doing CD release parties and things like that. It felt so good seeing people out and enjoying something that usually has bad press but feeling comfortable and enjoying and relaxing here.”

Vaill said he hadn’t played a show since the beginning of March. His band did a couple streams online, but this was the first in-person event he played since the pandemic started. He said the signs pointed to outdoor events being a little safer during the pandemic, so he was interested in performing.

“People seem to really miss live music, especially people who used to go out and see a lot of live music, so it was a little more meaningful than pre-COVID, probably, because people were savoring the moment—including the artists,” he said.

He said the event had the same level of intimacy as shows at The Rialto Theatre. He said people were sitting in lawn chairs and really listening to the performers.

“When we do actually play, people are so thirsty for it, that they actually sit and listen to you,” Vaill said. “The outdoor shows that we have done, most of the time we’re just background but the last time we played, people came over and sat in front of us and listened to us. I think people needed to hear live music again.”

The first drive-in concert had 50 to 60 people in attendance. Organizers painted lines in the parking lot that were six feet apart and had people directing traffic and showing attendees where to park.

“We got some temporary spray paint, and painted spots in the parking lot. Put ‘x’s’ where folks couldn’t park,” Boyes said. “We had an FM transmitter during that night where people right in the immediate neighborhood and folks in their cars can listen to the music from a distance while still seeing the performers on the stage.”

"This just confirmed that this is something we can absolutely be doing and doing safely."

Boyes said people pulled in and followed directions and naturally spaced themselves apart. Lil’ Bit Café did car hop service all night so no one had to leave their seat if they didn’t want to.

“Truly, everyone parked their car, put their lawn chairs behind their car right as we told them in the little spot,” she said. “I expected it to do well, but I wasn’t sure how well it would go. And this just confirmed that this is something we can absolutely be doing and doing safely.”

Vaill said The Rialto Theatre has been putting on limited-capacity dinner shows on Friday nights. He said it’s mostly families in attendance, as these are not open-admission events. The theater has strict safety guidelines for all guests.

He said it’s been hard to make plans for any kinds of “normal” events because of how quickly things have evolved during the pandemic. Vaill and his brother, Seth, also run Just a Dream Entertainmentrecording studio inside of The Rialto Theatre. He said this is where the majority of his income has come since the venue closed to the general public.

“Being on stage is the reason you go broke and you keep chasing it,” Vaill said. “It’s ‘cause that feeling, you can’t get away from. It’s a part of you. It’s in your blood. Only getting a taste of it every once in a while has been tough.”

Adjusting the live-music experience inside venues
One of the first music venues to re-open since the pandemic hit Ohio is Music Box Supper Club in Cleveland.

Mike Miller, vice president of Music Box, said nearly every show has been sold out since the venue re-opened in June. They’ve put on about 60 events, and Miller estimates a total of several thousand people have come through their doors. The venue has made some changes, including spread-out tables and a capacity that is half of the regular attendance for events.

“We’re filling the seats. People feel safe. We’ve had shows where we say to people, ‘Feel free to dance in place at your tables.’ And that’s what they do,” Miller said. “I thought the most difficult thing would be staff discipline. And they’ve just been amazingly cooperative.”

Music Box employs about 30 staff members and has an estimated 150 people in attendance for events. Their supper club layout allows them to be able to operate at 50 percent capacity.  

Miller said other venues and organizations, including the Cleveland Orchestra, have reached out for guidance on re-opening and hosting in-person events safely. Carlos Jones & Ghani Harris will perform a sold-out show at Music Box Aug. 27. Becky Boyd & The Groove Train are scheduled for Aug. 29, and Brent Kirby will perform at the venue Aug. 30.

Sidewalk Serenades NEO performer
Credit Sidewalk Serenades NEO
Sidewalk Serenades NEO has put on about 30 intimate shows throughout the region this summer.

Bringing live music to neighborhoods
For concertgoers and artists who do not feel safe returning to a traditional live-music atmosphere, Sidewalk Serenades NEO is another alternative. Ron Whitmer and his brother, Tony, came up with the idea to bring musicians to people’s sidewalks, porches, front yards or patios for a fee so they can enjoy the concert experience from the safety and comfort of home. The audience is anywhere from three or four people to no more than 20. The performances have mostly been in Summit, Stark and Portage Counties.

Tony Whitmer has a small lawn fertilization business. He and his brother became friends with Ryan Humbert, lead vocalist and guitarist for The Shootouts, and developed Sidewalk Serenades NEO as a way to give back to musicians when the pandemic hit.

“I came up with it as a ‘thank you’ to my customers,” Tony Whitmer said. “There are some neighborhoods where I do a lot of lawns close together, and I knew they were friends and I thought, ‘How can I thank them in a group?’"

Ron Whitmer said the concept was like a “reverse PorchRokr”—they’ll provide a mini concert experience for people and a small group of their neighbors or friends.

The idea began with six different artists playing a half-hour show. Hosts would pay $50. Then they expanded to 90-minute shows for $200. All proceeds go directly to the performing musicians. Participating artists have included Humbert, JD Eicher, Zach, Brent Kirby, Madison Cummins and Marc Lee Shannon. So far, the artists have played in front of 30 different houses, including the Whitmer brothers’ backyards, in 19 different communities without any advertising.

The organizers want to add more diverse artists to the roster, but it’s been hard because it has to be limited to individual singer-songwriters, so the compensation is fair. Sidewalk Serenades NEO will put on an event this fall for all six artists to play in one neighborhood, with all residents staying in their own yards, with each performer playing for 30 minutes. 

Ron Whitmer said the individual events and locations have been kept private for a reason.

“To make sure that these are not what you’re starting to see on the news occasionally, which explode into big, giant neighborhood parties,” Ron Whitmer said.

How concerts could be successful at limited capacity
One challenge venues have faced in their efforts to adhere to mandatory health guidelines is enforcing six feet of space between performers on stage. Events at Music Box, B Stop and the Kenmore First Friday Drive-In Concerts have featured mostly solo or duo acts this summer, where distancing between performers and between the artist and crowd is easier to facilitate.

The new Ohio Department of Health order is geared mostly at larger venues with fixed seating, where keeping concertgoers in their seats and preventing crowds is more viable. Outdoor events can only go on so long as the summer months in Ohio wind to an end, and inclement weather is inevitable.  The drive-in concert experience could continue on into late this year, but guests would have to remain in their vehicles.

Khadair said if other venue owners or event organizers are looking into creative ways to bring live music to the community, everyone involved must be on board.

“Make sure that when you’re trying to do a social distancing event, make sure you’re doing it in a city that’s willing to adapt to the change and allow creativity to happen,” Khadair said.

Khadair said 90 percent of people outside of Cleveland bought tickets for the first Kukui Music Festival date, but he amped up marketing efforts in Ohio so locals could buy the bulk tickets the second time around.

Making Northeast Ohio a destination spot for local music, and supporting area businesses, was the goal.

Kenmore Neighborhood Alliance has found success with this concept, but on a much smaller scale, as it is geared toward bringing live music to a less populated area, and the style of music performed is more low-key. Kenmore First Fridays drive-in concerts will continue with Madeline Finn, Shelby Olive and Chrissy Strong Sept. 4 and Hey Mavis, Madison Cummins and The Stirs performing Oct. 2.

Expertise: Audio storytelling, journalism and production
Brittany Nader is the producer of "Shuffle" on Ideastream Public Media. She joins "All Things Considered" host Amanda Rabinowitz on Thursdays to chat about Northeast Ohio’s vibrant music scene.