Coronavirus has had a massive impact on Richmond’s live music scene. We spoke to several promoters and musicians about the future of local music in the wake of COVID-19.
With the coronavirus ending live music for the foreseeable future, the music community has been turned upside-down — not only in Richmond but all over the country and beyond. From artists and performers to promoters and venues, everyone is looking for the answer to the big question: once the threat of COVID-19 passes, what will be left of Richmond’s music scene?
With everything still so uncertain, no one can possibly know all the answers. However, we wanted to check in with the artists and venues of the river city to learn their strategies for survival, what they’ve done to adjust, and what they’re expecting for the future. Here’s what they had to say.
VENUE / PROMOTERS
What needs to happen before you can have a live show again?
Jessica Gordon (Broadberry Entertainment Group, The Broadberry, The Camel): Broadberry Entertainment Group is working to reschedule all our March, April, and May shows — as well as many in June. We are also preparing to reschedule shows in all our venues throughout the summer, if needed. Fortunately, the vast majority of events are being postponed rather than canceled. We have already announced a few new dates and will be announcing more in the near future.
In order have live shows again:
We need to feel confident that the artists, employees, and ticket buyers will be safe when they attend our events. That is and will always be our top priority.
We need people stay home and wash their hands. The more they do that, the sooner they will be going out to see live music again.
Prabir Mehta (Gallery 5 & Prabir Trio): First we need this virus to be not considered a public health threat. I imagine this will require hearing from our federal and state officials and consultation from medical experts before we can open doors to the public.
Clayton Navarre (Poor Boys): After the virus passes, I believe people are going to be ready to come back out to the nightlife scene and will want to spend money and enjoy events again. One thing I feel that will have to happen is to have free shows for a little while. Hopefully bands are understanding about that and work with venues. [We] also have to take under consideration that some patrons won’t have money because they have been jobless, so as a venue we should run food and drink specials to build our patrons back up.
Mark Bradley Fries (Aspire Presents, Canal Club, Wonderland): We are waiting for the CDC and the governor to publicly allow large gatherings of people once again. Ultimately the decision will come from the government. Though there is still a discussion to be had about the ethics of being legally allowed to gather vs. being actually safe to gather, we will take necessary precautions to be as safe as possible once we re-open.
Do you see people heading out to live shows in the near future given the social anxiety surrounding COVID19?
Prabir Mehta (Gallery 5 & Prabir Trio): No, there is a high likelihood of a second surge in COVID-19 cases, and opening up too early is not going to help the long term goal of a safer and medically better off global population. I’m sure some folks will want to head out right away, but we’ll need a gradient of events and capacities to be identified… leaving these decisions up to private businesses is a bad idea.
Clayton Navarre (Poor Boys): Humans have been around for awhile. Social distancing isn’t really in our nature so I personally believe people will come out again; [it] just may take time.
Mark Bradley Fries (Aspire Presents, Canal Club, Wonderland): I think that people are longing to go out and enjoy the company of others, especially after being isolated for such a long period of time. However there definitely are COVID fears that will affect turnout. In addition, many people have tragically lost their income from layoffs related to the illness. Both of these factors will definitely affect turnouts for the foreseeable future. It might be until the fall, or even next year, that the general feeling about going to large events returns to normal.
Can you promote minimal public health standards in your venue according to CDC guidelines and still have live shows?
Jessica Gordon (Broadberry Entertainment Group, The Broadberry, The Camel): We book shows in many venues. We will not be producing live entertainment in any venues until the federal and local authorities say it is safe to do. At that time, we will of course abide by all public health standards and CDC recommendations.
Prabir Mehta (Gallery 5 & Prabir Trio): Once we are able to have people, once the staff is feeling ready to face crowds, and once the proper communications from national/state/international leadership is factored in, then and then only can we begin the process of opening doors. We’ll comply 100 percent to whatever the health guidelines are, but as of now there is no date set, and more work still needed to be done for tracking, testing, vaccination, and reducing the new cases.
Clayton Navarre (Poor Boys): We can and we will, especially after this is over. This is something else a venue or a bar has to be ready for, and will be the norm after this virus is over. We as a public place need to use all our knowledge and what we are learning to continue to keep our staff and patrons safe after this COVID-19.
Mark Bradley Fries (Aspire Presents, Canal Club, Wonderland): It would depend on the guidelines themselves; I don’t believe any are in place yet. Currently – no we cannot host, as there is an events ban and a stay-at-home order. In the future, if we have to distance folks by six feet, then it would severely limit what kinds of shows we can do, if not make it impossible. If the guidelines refer to sanitizers and masks being available, then yes, we would be happy to take on that expense and comply in order to be back in business.
Other ideas being tossed around from other clubs we work with are: non-invasive thermometers at the door to screen for potentially contagious patrons, gloves / masks available, and reserved distanced seating for patrons who want to keep a distance. However I don’t want to get too caught up in hypothetical ideas before we see what these guidelines are.
People have gotten used to watching live streams on their devices; will this be a part of your business going forward?
Jessica Gordon (Broadberry Entertainment Group, The Broadberry, The Camel): We have discussed doing live streams many times prior to the pandemic, and we were actually recently in talks with a company about piloting some equipment in one of the rooms we book that would allow us, with the artist’s permission, to stream performances. It’s clear there is currently a market for live streams; however, It’s hard to say how much that demand will remain once people can safely go out to shows again. If people continue to express interest in live streams, we will certainly consider ways to produce and share them. We’d like nothing more than to find new ways to share music with the people who love it!
Prabir Mehta (Gallery 5 & Prabir Trio): Yes, digital is not going anywhere and this global pandemic, while horrendously destructive and sad, has shown that we do have a few options and tools available to us that we could have used in the past and certainly can entertain in the future.
Clayton Navarre (Poor Boys): I hope not, because you’re not getting the same experience watching it on facebook or other platforms. If we have to adjust our way of entertainment, we will, but I will wait until we cross that bridge. It’s nothing like a live show and people around you, feeling those vibes with a nice drink in your hand.
Mark Bradley Fries (Aspire Presents, Canal Club, Wonderland): Live streaming has definitely been a part of the music industry for years, but in the past I sort of saw it as competing with actually attending live shows. People might rather stay at home and watch a YouTube video of the show when it comes out. We also hadn’t navigated the legalities yet on broadcasting copyrighted music. Now though, with people either being afraid or legally unable to attend shows, we definitely need to figure it out. We’d love to sell “virtual tickets,” so fans who are staying home for whatever reasons [can see the show]. Hopefully fans are receptive and willing to pay for streaming concerts, and the expense of properly mixing, filming, and streaming the concert is offset by the demand of virtual audiences.
How long can your industry stay afloat without any bookings?
Jessica Gordon (Broadberry Entertainment Group, The Broadberry, The Camel): “Your industry” is a broad term. Booking agents, band managers, artists, labels, promoters, and venues all work together to produce live entertainment. We’ve already seen many of the major booking agencies laying off staff and reducing wages. Obviously, artists are unable to tour, and all venues for live entertainment are closed. In terms of promoters, I think the answer to how long we can stay afloat is different for everyone. It’s going to depend a lot on the extent of the government loans that many are applying for right now.
Prabir Mehta (Gallery 5 & Prabir Trio): Promoters come in all shapes and sizes… and time constraints. There are some bookings we have lost permanently, and others that we’ll get back. As of now the promoter industry is still somewhat on hold as medical experts continue to study the situation and give us information allowing us to begin booking again. Gallery5 has a board of directors that is trying as hard as possible to keep the organization open for as long as possible in hopes of getting on the other side of this virus. There are many others in the USA that will fail and close up doors permanently since the industry of performances/events for crowds is one that often is very cash flow sensitive.
Clayton Navarre (Poor Boys): Realistically, not long. We are in the business of entertainment, socializing with one another, and enjoying food and drinks together. We believe in this city, but some laws need to change to make it better for this industry in the long run to help us survive. We at Poor Boys of RVA will keep it rolling until the wheels fall off.
Mark Bradley Fries (Aspire Presents, Canal Club, Wonderland): In the short term, a lot of venues and promoters have been taking advantage of small business loans, grants, crowdfunding, gift cards, merchandise, Door Dash, and other creative revenue streams. But all of these pale in comparison to well-attended events with solid concession sales. Every business is different; some have already folded while others could survive much longer. A lot of other parts of the music business rely heavily on venues and promoters, so it’s important that we don’t have to find out much longer. Hopefully by late summer/early fall we are able to host events safely once again and make up for lost time.
Do you have any other thoughts on how COVID-19 is going to change how Richmond goes to shows?
Jessica Gordon (Broadberry Entertainment Group, The Broadberry, The Camel): I know one thing for sure. If it is safe to resume live entertainment this fall, people are going to have far more events to choose from when they want to go out. Think about this: promoters are currently rescheduling for the fall all their shows that were originally scheduled for March-June, and in conjunction with normal fall tour for artists, there will likely be twice as many shows this fall as normal.
Prabir Mehta (Gallery 5 & Prabir Trio): I foresee a time period when we’ll “get back to normal,” but there will be some permanent changes. Some venues won’t make it and will close, closing any options of normalcy for those particular instances/experiences. I imagine there will be a smaller capacity on places. A 600-capacity venue may easily be shrunk to a 150-capacity venue; too early to tell, but I would imagine that could happen. Perhaps this will encourage more advanced ticket sales? Perhaps there will be a “stream-at-home” version of the show available for a lower price? I have yet to see proof, but I would not be surprised if new technologies are needed at front door/security to gauge temp checks or health codes for individuals to gain entry.
Clayton Navarre (Poor Boys): Not really, things will change but some things just can’t, and will hopefully be better for the Richmond venues when we do shows again.
Mark Bradley Fries (Aspire Presents, Canal Club, Wonderland): Hopefully everyone will be mindful going forward about their health and how they can affect others. Staying home if they feel sick; washing hands regularly; maybe even wearing masks in large groups. I do hope, however, that another takeaway is that everyone appreciates the ability to gather and go to live shows; we have a great local scene with tons of opportunities to participate. Hopefully this sheds more light on local businesses and independent venues, and how important they are to our city’s culture.
Do you think bands will be touring in 2020?
Tyler Williams (The Head & The Heart): I’m optimistic bands will be touring in 2020, at least nationally, if not internationally. Promoters and agents are looking to MLB, F1 and other sports to see how they decide to move forward this year so hopefully we’ll all know more in early May.
Majjin Boo (Egghunt Records): We’re hopeful that bands will be back on the road around August. I imagine it’ll be a slow trickle back with some big shows starting to get announced again in the fall.
Prabir Mehta (Gallery 5 & Prabir Trio): If the world cooperates, if the government prioritizes its citizens over optics, and if the virus is no longer a threat, then I can imagine some going on tour. But I presume it’ll be to a very different style of shows than before, with limited capacities, reduced venue options, and perhaps a more digital approach to some things that traditionally would be in person (meet and greets, radio performances, in stores, etc).
Michael York (Sleepwalkers): No, at least not successfully if you’re an independent artist, like ourselves, until spring 2021. Only the wealthy will be able to provide entertainment for the wealthiest in shipment containers or hyperbaric chambers. Maybe Drake, Jay/Bé/Ye, U2, and McCartney… but they’re chillin’ with fucking doctors by their sides at every moment if anything happens.
As a musician, what needs to happen take for you to feel comfortable performing live again?
Tyler Williams (The Head & The Heart): Besides a complete changeover of our federal government? (laughs) We need to get cases down as low as they can go through social distancing and then implement a widespread test, trace, quarantine scenario. There’s no reason we can’t all get back to living and enjoying live music this year if we reset and start to handle this situation the way it should have been from the start.
Majjin Boo (Egghunt Records): We think that not just for the musicians but for people to gather around at venues for shows we would need to see the infection and death rate drop dramatically (almost zero).
As long as there’s a chance that we can promote the promotion of the spreading of the virus it doesn’t feel ethical to promote shows and tell people to gather in large numbers.
Prabir Mehta (Gallery 5 & Prabir Trio): We need the virus to be officially not a global threat, we need venues to be able to have new sanitary standards in place, and more than anything else… [we] need fiscal recovery efforts to kick in to allow audiences to have the option of spending disposable income.
Michael York (Sleepwalkers): For careless people to stop spreading this virus. I don’t know actually. Just listen to scientists, and of course, Dr. Fauci. The CDC and community-centered prevention goes a long way.
Do you feel online performances could be a legit way to pay the bills?
Tyler Williams (The Head & The Heart): My hope is that the audience for live music gets turned on to these livestreams and unique online events and sees the value and effort put in and is willing to fund that creativity. It’s uncharted territory for artists as a real revenue source- separate from record sales, publishing and touring. It would be great to see livestream revenue as a fourth pillar that could help musicians live a more balanced life off the road.
Majjin Boo (Egghunt Records): We could see it being a great source of revenue for some types of musicians but personally we would rather just write and record if we’re going to be working from home.
Our heart isn’t in live streaming from our bedrooms or practice space and having our sound be perceived through shitty mics and regurgitated out of tiny speakers after being compressed a thousand times by instagram.
Prabir Mehta (Gallery 5 & Prabir Trio): It has been for many… for a long time. The ones with healthy YouTube accounts have monetized that for years. The rest of the world could perhaps entertain these thoughts too, but it will not be possible if the general audience (digital or in-person) does not have the funding to support performances. The next step is to go to full-on porn. I’m ready.
Michael York (Sleepwalkers): Streaming and subscriptions have crossed our minds, and it feels like a natural transition into the next generation of entertainment, regardless of what’s been happening. Netflix, HBO, and Disney + have new material readily available at a rate of $7-15 a month, and that is extremely difficult for independent musicians and artists to compete with. The other side: we’re talking about a complete grassroots movement where your friends and hardcore fanbase are paying your bills. To be honest, I don’t know if it’s possible or sustainable, but it will happen. We’ll see the decline of live music in general, and people will yearn for the real thing deeply. I think what we will also see is the merging of big businesses with people in their homes. Partitioned roles… Spotify and iTunes will take care of published works and remuneration as always (not much $), and live venues will take care of funeral arrangements. But for real – there’s no way to help the situation. It has to clear up… and that takes time.
Will your shows be a combination of online and live performances in the future?
Tyler Williams (The Head & The Heart): This is definitely the future of live music- a hybrid streamed/in-person experience. I don’t think anyone has cracked it yet the way something like Spotify opened up the streaming world but I see tiered pricing based on access to the live experience being the future. Can’t stop the future.
Majjin Boo (Egghunt Records): We will of course keep posting videos of us performing outside of venues but we hope to keep live streaming our performances to settings that are created for performing.
It’s a slippery slope to have your home space be your writing, rehearsing and also now your place of performance. What maybe is a place of creativity and reprieve from the outside world is now just a watered down venue. We’d much rather just wait to rehearse and perfect a set to play a show at G5 in 3-4 months and stream that.
Prabir Mehta (Gallery 5 & Prabir Trio): For the time being, that seems like a logical way to approach it, but who knows… things change quickly and it’ll [only] take a few small poorly-made decisions to have long ranging consequences.
Michael York (Sleepwalkers): Watching something on your phone will never equate to going out and seeing a live show, but yes… Absolutely. What excites me is the idea of new content weekly or monthly. It doesn’t necessarily have to be “live.” It’s kind of been a necessary evil, where the music industry has to catch up with the film industry. Everything in film is planned months or even years ahead. With a record – you can put everything out into the ether within a matter of days. People just want new content. I think artists need to step up and create new content unapologetically. The only thing that separates the bad from the good is the self-editing these days, but it’s a beautiful thing. You’re releasing your content directly — from the artist to the consumer.
Do you have any other thoughts on how COVID-19 is going to change the Richmond music scene?
Tyler Williams (The Head & The Heart): Local venues mostly run razor thin margins so hopefully, they can all survive and rebound after this long break. Obviously, Richmond is already in short supply on that front. What Richmond never lacks though is talent and creativity so I would suspect we’ll get some amazing music from local artists and really unique perspectives on their worlds, internally and externally, through this unfortunately tragic, clarifying moment.
Majjin Boo (Egghunt Records): We’re a bit worried about the venues. As long as the venues can weather this storm I think the scene is going to come back more galvanized than ever to create, perform and share their music with the people of Richmond. In return fans are going to be here again but in larger numbers. If there isn’t already, I think as people start going back to shows there’s gonna be a greater appreciation for how incredible our art and music community and also how fragile all this really is.
Prabir Mehta (Gallery 5 & Prabir Trio): I’m excited for musicians to wash their hands more often, perhaps it’ll spill over into other parts of their lives. I also imagine there will be more thought put into what goes up/online. Right now it’s the wild wild west and anyone is putting up anything they want/can because people are stuck at their homes. I don’t imagine that rate of creation/consumption will be sustainable long term when competing against Netflix/Hulu/etc. More planning and strategy may very well become a part of every musician’s to-do-lists moving forward… which takes away the magical spontaneity of the musician lifestyle, but adds a little bit more structure if those musicians are truly trying to make performance a part of their living/career.
Michael York (Sleepwalkers): Same as it ever was… I hope people will write better music coming out of this. Time is inconsequential right now, and that’s the coolest thing about art. Silence is your best friend. If anything, we’ve taken a step back and re-evaluated what we’re doing with our lives. It’s been a great moment of both confusion and clarity, [I’m] just bummed to see that these great impresarios and local businesses are hurting. This virus will be a part of our existence forever now, we’re just figuring out how to own it.
Hopefully we can bring some immunity to these essential workers in the music industry, and fire the non-essentials.
Poor Boys GoFundMe: https://www.gofundme.com/f/helping-poor-boys-staff-and-families
Broadberry GoFundMe: https://www.gofundme.com/f/broadberry-staff-relief-fund
The Canal Club GoFundMe: https://www.gofundme.com/f/the-canal-club-family-staff-fund
Intro by Marilyn Drew Necci. Top Photo via The Broadberry/Facebook