by Abbey Marshall

The old adage demands, “The show must go on.” But during the COVID-19 pandemic, musicians are asking: Should it? If so, how? 

The days of crowded venues with fans packed shoulder-to-shoulder to get a glimpse of the guitarist shredding a thrilling solo are gone — at least for now. Music venues shuttered their doors in mid-March when COVID-19 began rapidly spreading in Ohio, and with the threat of 90% of those doors remaining closed permanently, the question looms of how to preserve local music. The many local musicians and clubs that relied on those gigs for their livelihood and have been forced to get creative in the interim.

“Shows were my bread and butter, but shows have ceased to exist,” says Jeff Klemm, an Akron-based musician. “Every musician that banked on that as their full time job was just f’ed. I relied on music for about half of my income. With schools closing down, it especially got tight.”

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Gigs move online

Jeff, who plays in two rock bands in addition to solo work, also teaches at a preschool and conducts private lessons to subsidize his income. Losing gigs, coupled with losing in-person private lessons and his preschool shutting down, forced Jeff to reconsider the way he had perceived live music.

“We’re social distancing, but we’re such social people,” he says. “People still want to request songs and interact with artists. With everybody home, people still want and need art. It’s just a different way of ingesting it.”

He gathered his band, Diamond Kites, for Monday evening livestreams, then started doing the same with his children’s music as “Mr. Jeff.” What started as a way to stay connected with his students quickly evolved into a daily novelty show for kids, including performances of original and classic children’s music, reading books and using flashcards to help teach letters and spatial recognition. Those performances have amassed dozens of viewers each week from all over the country on Facebook, Youtube and Twitch

“The reception has been great,” Jeff says, noting that donations have poured in from viewers wanting to support his music during the pandemic. “The want for live music will never go away, it’s just the situation that’s causing it. If you can get the next best thing, which is playing songs in other people’s living rooms through their computer, that’s great.”

Jeff Klemm livestreams a daily children’s music show in which he performs original and classic songs, reads books and uses flash cards to teach kids about letters and spatial reasoning. (Screenshots: Jeff Klemm.)

Others like Jeff, who relied on income from private lessons, are using Zoom to stay connected with their students and continue instruction.

“I shut down my private lessons in March, but by mid-May, it seemed obvious COVID was here to stay, and I needed to adapt,” says Akron musician Jim Ballard, who runs Skylyne Recording Studio in Kenmore. “I asked all of my students if they were interested in Zoom lessons and all of them said yes, and then some. I have more students now than I did before.”

Music venues hurting

As for live shows, physical venue spaces are hesitant to open and convene large audiences. Beloved downtown venues Jilly’s Music Room and Musica have both shuttered indefinitely.

“If it comes down to risking people’s lives, I’m not doing it,” says Jenn Kidd, who manages Musica. “We all miss and want concerts, but if it’s hard enough to go to a restaurant with two people at a table, how are you going to be OK going to a concert?”

Jenn says she’s looking into livestream opportunities to keep people connected with local music, and though those might not capture the energy of a live performance, they would fill in some gaps fans might be yearning for, such as question and answer forums with musicians and performers. 

“I know we’ll be able to reopen,” Jenn says of Musica’s financial situation. “If we were to start doing things now on a smaller scale, I can’t say that would be true. The doors are locked and the lights are off. I’m not accruing expenses I can’t afford.”

Jilly’s Music Room has already taken advantage of technology by using the hashtag #StreamingSaturdays on its social media accounts to stay connected with musicians and patrons in the community.

“Jilly’s is a relationship-based business,” says Jilly’s owner Jill Bacon Madden. “We have always nurtured the concept of family and community with each other, with musicians, and with our guests. We stay connected because we really are connected.”

Other venues, such as the Rialto Theatre in Kenmore, are beginning to open in phases as the federal Paycheck Protection Program loans begin to expire and the need to make money is coming into play. 

“Most venues say they’re closing until August, but we don’t really think we can do that,” says Nate Vaill, who runs the Rialto with his brother. “We’re worried about finances. We don’t want to lose out. We’re trying to adapt.”

A drive-in concert in Kenmore in early July. (Photos: Karen Moss Hale/New Cleveland Radio. Used with permission.)

The Rialto, which usually hosts shows and events every day of the week, began opening its doors on Friday nights in early July with caution, trying to engage music-lovers with a safer approach than its typical 60- to 100-person crowds.

For $30 a ticket or $50 per couple, about 10-15 guests can enjoy drinks, dinner and a show at the Rialto. All patrons must enter with a mask, but can take it off when seated with the person they came with. Though the venue doesn’t typically serve meals, they are partnering with another local business, Lil’ Bit Cafe, to provide dinner.

Nate says that if those shows do well, they might expand to Saturdays. Currently, the venue is also streaming live music and focusing on its recording studio to make money. 

“Every time you make plans, things seem to change,” Nate says. “It’s frustrating. Once the loans run out, we’re kind of on our own. Everyone’s just trying to figure out how to navigate that as music lovers, but also as a business.”

Nate’s fear isn’t uncommon. In fact, according to NPR, 90% of independent music venues could close permanently if financial hardships continue without an infusion of targeted government funding. 

Jill is working actively with the National Independent Venue Association, which formed in April to bring venues together to support and advocate for the music industry. Growing from an initial membership of 435 venues, it now has over 2,000 participants in every U.S. state and Washington D.C. 

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At present, the organization that Jill calls a “lifeline” says they are working to gain support from communities and legislators for the bipartisan RESTART Act introduced in the House and Senate, which aims to expand government funding for the industries hit the hardest by the economic downturn caused by COVID-19. 

On the heels of the RESTART Act’s introduction, senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and John Cornyn (R-TX) jointly introduced an additional bill called the Save Our Stages Act, which would provide six months of financial support to help “keep venues afloat, pay employees and preserve a critical economic sector for communities across America.”

“I am OK waiting it out, but not indefinitely,” Jill says. “If we’re still in the same place late fall or early winter, and we are unsuccessful in our advocacy to pass the RESTART Act to help venues nationwide… Well, it’s going to be interesting. 

“As it is, things will never be the same, for entertainment venues of any size or type.”

Socially distant concerts on the rise

In an attempt to keep live music ongoing despite shutdowns and reduced capacity at local venues, Kenmore Neighborhood Alliance launched drive-in concerts for Akronites. The pilot, hosted on July 3 in the South Alley parking lots behind Kenmore Boulevard, was a big success, with the parking lots filled with cars.

The stage was placed about 20 feet away from the cars, with performers bringing their own equipment and frequent sanitizing between sets, and the parking lots were re-lined to outline spots to keep those who sat outside their in lawn chairs distanced from the next group. The concert also partnered with restaurants on Kenmore Boulevard and employed carhops, took orders at each car and delivered food to avoid unnecessary contact between groups of people. 

“I would say it was a huge success,” says Jim Ballard. “It was a little strange that the crowd was further away, but there was a great energy. People were applauding and cheering. It was a great way to fulfill our need for art as humans.”

Kenmore Neighborhood Alliance has another drive-in concert on Aug. 7, featuring Jeff Klemm and By Light We Loom. 

“Everybody’s just trying to find their way out of their maze,” says Jim. “We are learning to do things that we never would’ve done before. It’s forced people to try alternative and creative ways of producing and consuming music, and who knows? Maybe one of those things will stick and become the norm when COVID is over.”

Abbey Marshall covers economic development for The Devil Strip via Report for America. Reach her at abbey@thedevilstrip.com.

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