The Bomb Factory. (Photo by James Coreas) James Coreas

Coronavirus

Music Venues Struggle To Imagine a Safe Reality

The safest way for everyone to live is to avoid others. So how will music venues make it out of this?

While businesses across North Texas begin to reopen amid a pandemic, concert venues remain stuck in limbo. From 10,000-seat arenas to Deep Ellum dives, they’re all facing the same challenge: You can’t space out audience members the way you space out dining tables. So, when can we gather again?

The reopening of live events—especially large-scale tours and festivals, but even intimate shows—is still ways off. You can’t distance yourself in a mosh pit or screen an entire stadium for symptoms. Touring is another complicated issue. 

So, how much longer will it be? That’s a question local venues, bookers, and festival organizers struggle to answer. In a New York Times article published last month, bioethicist Zeke Emanuel predicted that large gatherings, including concerts, would return no sooner than the fall of 2021. In the music industry, they’re hoping to get back to business much earlier. 

“It seems like everything started getting rescheduled for June, July, and now all that wants to be scratched between October through February of next year. It’s hard to grasp what will be people’s comfort level to even go to events,” says John Iskander of Dallas-based booking company Parade of Flesh. Iskander hopes to salvage some shows this summer, but he’s still playing it by ear. “I have stuff in June, but I was mainly going to just focus on local, where it’s not a big deal if they need to reschedule.” 

National tours, Iskander concurs, are a much trickier matter. Most have been canceled through the summer, and even those that were rescheduled for the fall are looking a little iffy at the moment. 

“How, from a booking agent standpoint, do you route a tour if Texas is clear to go, but then Louisiana is not?… I don’t know how strict Austin is going to be comparatively to Dallas and Houston.” he says. “Do people even want to book and route tours right now until they know that the whole nation is on the same page?”

On the venue side, there’s really “no idea of when things will start again,” says Mike Schoder, owner of the Granada Theater. He adds, “It’s an incredibly dark time for everybody in the world. We can just look forward to enjoying those things again.” The owners of The Bomb Factory declined to be interviewed, saying they did not want to play into speculation. At this point, the people running the show don’t have a better idea of when it’ll start back up than the general public does. 

“The honest response is that no one knows what they are really doing yet. We do not have enough information from our leaders to make informed decisions,” says Matthew Harber, owner of SPUNE, another local, independent booking company. “Many shows have moved and some will likely move again.”

SPUNE does still have some smaller shows on the docket this summer, though. 

While many major events have been rescheduled for the fall, October in particular–see Coachella and the Dallas Art Fair–it’s a possibility that they’ll have to reschedule yet again. That’s something that Fort Worth-based Fortress Presents, the team behind Fortress Festival, was concerned about after its April fest was canceled. Ultimately, they decided to push back a full year, rescheduling the 2020 headliners for April of 2021. 

“With a festival, there’s just such a monumental task of getting everything over, that it did seem increasingly like we were taking a very big risk by counting on the fall. I think we reached that decision and that conclusion fairly early,” says co-founder Ramtin Nikzad. In the weeks since, he’s seen more and more people reaching that same conclusion–Germany canceling Oktoberfest, for example. “It just seemed like the right decision.”

Like SPUNE and Parade of Flesh, Fortress Presents is looking to start back on the scene with smaller, locally-focused shows. 

“That’s something that we’re looking closely at doing in Fort Worth, and something we had in our plans before this all developed,” says Fortress’ other co-founder Alec Jhangiani. “That’s something that we could start to look at in June, July, and August and see how things are progressing in terms of the pandemic before we make any more commitments there.”

The industry–from artists to bookers–is learning to adjust to these difficult circumstances and make it work where they can. While real, bass-thudding concerts might not be coming back anytime soon, the music plays on. 

Over at The Rustic, a restaurant and bar that doubles as a music venue, and is therefore allowed to be open, they’ve already brought musicians back to the stage. But owner Kyle Noonan knows that they won’t be selling out shows or packing the backyard anytime soon. 

“We have no set time table right now [for ticketed concerts],” says Noonan. “We have our restaurant and patio open and we have live music for free–we have great live music for free–but doing a national act and shutting the space down from a restaurant standpoint and turning it into a concert venue … I’d be surprised if it happened this year.” 

Still, he’s not counting out the fall: “A lot of it will be driven by football, by NFL and college football. If they start having games and letting 100,000 people into a stadium again, then I could see the concert world opening up.”

Before that happens, though, venues will have to figure out ways to make packed audiences safe, artists will have to relearn how to tour, bookers will have to accept an unpredictable schedule. And it’s likely that the solutions that they come up with won’t be what we’re used to at a pre-pandemic concert. 

Dallas native and electronic musician Marc Rebillet made national headlines last week as one of the only artists in the world to go on tour this June, traveling through five cities, including Fort Worth. Here’s the catch: Instead of playing on a stage, he’s playing at drive-in movie theaters. The audience will sit in their cars, watch him from a distance, the music pumped in through a radio transmitter. 

“I think it depends what your definition of a concert is. A ticketed show where it’s standing room only? I don’t see that happening anytime soon,” says Noonan. “Having an awesome act on stage while people are dining? Yeah, we’re already doing that.”

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