As Live Music Returns, Local Venues Still Face Challenges Post-Pandemic
As COVID-19 numbers continue to drop, restrictions on large gatherings and mask mandates have been lifted throughout the state. This has sparked optimism among the live music industry, as many area venues are now able to open their doors to the public and host concerts and events at full capacity.
Still, some venue owners are taking their time as logistical challenges and delayed grant funding have caused setbacks over the last year.
Over the last year, venues have shifted to live-streaming and smaller, seated concerts, but these adjusted shows aren’t profitable for independent clubs.
Many music fans are eager to attend concerts, and artists are ready to return to the stage. But returning to full capacity likely won’t happen overnight for every venue in Northeast Ohio.
Delays in reopening
Tom Simpson, the owner of The Kent Stage, has been renovating his venue during the shutdown. Construction includes health and safety improvements that became a focus as the coronavirus ran rampant in 2020.
“It’s going to look like a brand-new place when we get done with it,” Simpson said.
These renovations caused a delay with reopening the venue this year.
Carbon Leaf, one of the last bands to perform at The Kent Stage before the shutdown, was scheduled to return to the stage June 10. The concert was moved to Robins Theatre, a Warren venue Simpson co-owns, while construction continued in Kent.
The Kent Stage has been closed to the public since March 10, 2020, the date of the venue’s last concert before the shutdown. Howard Jones performed that night, and Simpson said the venue had several sold-out concerts lined up throughout the year.
“We were kicking butt,” he said.
The Kent Stage was approved for $500,000 in renovations a few years ago, with most of that money coming from a state economic development grant. Work was planned before the pandemic, and they were going to close for a couple of months to complete it.
The venue’s facade and lobby are getting a refresh, and new areas for ticketing and merch are among the renovations. The main bar will be redesigned, and a second bar will be added.
Last year, Simpson said air filtration and HVAC systems, as well as new restrooms with touchless dispensers, will be part of the renovations to ramp up health and safety standards.
Work began in April, and The Kent Stage will reopen July 30. Steve Earle and The Dukes will perform that night.
Because The Kent Stage draws in an older crowd, Simpson said he wants to ensure the public feels confident and comfortable returning to the 662-capacity venue.
“I hope that the media and the government do enough on the PR side of promoting that, hey, it’s okay to make your own choices,” Simpson said.
Simpson, who is 67 years old, opened The Kent Stage as a hobby in 2002.
He said the past 16 months of no activity in the space has been challenging, as he’s had to relearn everything about the business in preparation for its reopening.
“Now, I have to retrain myself because all of the stuff that used to be muscle memory in my brain, I forgot,” Simpson said. “Like putting on a show on sale—very simple and something we did almost every day or two. I had to retrain myself how to do that, too.”
A slow restart
Sean Watterson co-owns The Happy Dog in Cleveland and hosted the venue's first sold-out concert Saturday since temporarily shutting its doors in 2020.
Although The Happy Dog also operates as a bar and restaurant, Watterson stayed closed during the pandemic because of the venue’s small size and lack of adequate space for social distancing.
“The only way to survive was to stay shut down, keep expenses low and wait for federal funding,” Watterson said.
The venue’s normal capacity is 250, but it’s reopening at 150 to start. The Happy Dog will be open only on weekends for the next few weeks, but Watterson said he plans to be open seven days a week by August or September.
It’s been a challenge to get the space stocked back up on alcohol and hot dogs because of supply chain issues.
“There have been plenty of times in the last weeks where we doubted whether we would get to the finish line,” Watterson said.
While the venue was closed, Watterson was spending 60 hours a week as the Ohio precinct captain with the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA).
The association didn’t exist before the pandemic, but it now involves more than 150 Ohio venues and promoters who have worked tirelessly during the pandemic to get funding for independent venues so they can stay afloat.
When capacity limits were first lifted, Watterson didn’t jump at the chance to reopen The Happy Dog, mainly because of financial strain.
“Honestly, not having the funding in place has meant we haven’t been able to staff up the way we wanted to because we can’t take the risk of bouncing somebody’s paycheck,” Watterson said.
He said the relationships he’s made with other music venues will continue, as they work to recoup funds lost during a year without normal events and sales.
“We’re organized, and we’re vocal. And we’re not going to stop advocating,” Watterson said.
The goal is to continue to help venues make money instead of being “passion projects” for owners who barely break even, he said.
"Honestly, not having the funding in place has meant we haven’t been able to staff up the way we wanted to because we can’t take the risk of bouncing somebody’s paycheck."Sean Watterson
Both Simpson and Watterson have been involved in lobbying efforts to get local arts and music spaces relief funding.
The Save Our Stages Act, which guarantees independent venues and theaters $16 billion in federal pandemic relief, became law in December 2020.
Although the act passed through NIVA’s efforts and support from music fans across the nation, funding still hasn’t been fully distributed.
“The [Small Business Association] is not typically in the business of giving out grants … especially to nonprofits and arts organizations, so it’s a complicated program,” Watterson said.
Because the legislation passed at the federal level during the last administration, Watterson said it got “lost” during the transition.
It took months for the Small Business Association to open its website for Shuttered Venue Operators Grant applications. When it finally opened, the website immediately crashed.
Watterson posted regular updates on social media alerting the public of the challenges and setbacks venue owners continued to face, even months after they were promised financial relief.
“These small independent clubs are the ones that are fighting for this money. The big guys who have access to capital, they’ve been able to run full force into this reopening,” Watterson said. “And it feels like we’re trying to run with a concrete block tied to our leg. But it didn’t stop us running.”
It took eight months for independent venue owners and supporters to lobby to get Save Our Stages passed and another four months for applications to open.
Members of Congress pushed to have the applications reopened after technical issues 2.5 weeks after it was initially supposed to be open.
With all of these setbacks and delays, independent music venues still don’t have adequate funding to fully re-hire staff, stock their bars or pay performers.
Funds have started to trickle out to live music and performing arts spaces across the country in June.
This week, more than 2,000 qualifying venues have been awarded their funding. However, Watterson says he has yet to receive The Happy Dog's $536,000.
Simpson said The Kent Stage's SVOG money has been approved, according to a letter he received.
“Financially, it wasn’t as rough for us as other people. Our expenses are low. We went into ‘just spend the minimum,’” Simpson said.
Watterson said the work isn’t done, and since independent venues across the nation now have an organized voice, they have to keep fighting to get funding and stay in business.
“If we’re not talking about this in a year, if we’ve all gone back to making sure we’re surviving, then that’s not a good outcome,” Watterson said.
He said, at the local level, funding was approved and aid was given to area venues impacted by the pandemic.
The Assembly for the Arts was launched in Cleveland to unite and provide resources to local creatives and nonprofits, for example. Watterson wants music venues to be considered for funding on the state level, too.
“That’s what I want to see going forward. Not just at the county level, but I want to see it continue at the state level to gain some traction because the arts funding at the state level didn’t take the same inclusive approach at the local level,” he said.
Music venues must be at the table when the state, counties and communities decide how to spend federal stimulus funding, Watterson said.
“They’re all going to be beneficiaries of this American Rescue Plan funding for the next couple of years. We just want to go in with a unified voice with the rest of the arts and culture sector saying, ‘When you’re gonna address those issues, we’re a part of it,’” Watterson said.
Local, independent venues still face challenges, and the state of live music will continue to look a little different post-pandemic.
Shuffle contributor Annie Nickoloff has been keeping up with reopening plans for venues across the region.
Her series on 2021 concerts and the status of upcoming, in-person music events is available to read on Cleveland.com.