"Conversations": New York City Venue Owners, Promoters And Producers Discuss The Return Of Live Music
City Winery founder Michael Dorf offers a glass-half-full take on the pandemic's brutal decimation of in-person entertainment: "There's no question that 2020 confirmed the value of live music and of people being together. What the audience feels—that can't be digitized on the screen," he observes. "That gives us all hope for '21, '22 and beyond, that live shows [are] something that people will pay for, and the value proposition is stronger than ever."
Speaking on a virtual panel as part of the "Conversations" series, presented by the Recording Academy's New York Chapter, Dorf and five other live music experts concur that "there's a light at the end of the tunnel" for live music returning to New York City.
The panel discussion (watch in full above), hosted by SummerStage Executive Artistic Director and the Recording Academy's New York Chapter secretary Erika Elliott, offered hope that some indoor concerts could resume by fall. What that will look like is ever-changing. But thanks to constant conversations, as well as a newly forged togetherness brought about by organizations like the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) as well as the Save Our Stages Act, it's moving forward.
Entertainment venues—the "first to close, last to open"—are rallying. "We can no longer wait for the virus, the pandemic, to be over," adds Ariel Palitz, Senior Executive Director NYC Office of Nightlife, Mayor's Office of Media and Entertainment. "We have to figure out ways right now to get open for our mental, economic, spiritual health."
In the "before times," New York City boasted "27,000 entertainment and hospitality venues, [which amounted to a] 35.1 billion dollar industry with 300,000 jobs," Palitz says.
Independent promoter Alex Damashekof Move Forward Music echoed the experiences of all panelists when he recalled the events subsequent to March 10, 2020: "It was like the faucet was turned off. No money coming in whatsoever. Those first three months was like being dropped off a cliff with no ground in sight."
Harlem's Apollo Theater, a nonprofit, was on track to have a very profitable year come June 2020, which marks the end of their fiscal year. "It seemed as if overnight we saw $5 million in earned revenue gone," Kamilah Forbes, the venue's executive producer, says.
While essentially all venues pivoted to streaming, it didn't monetarily aid the rooms or employees, the participants note. It is seen more as a "Band-Aid" for the lockdown era. Attempts to open doors with ever-changing virus rates and capacity rules weren't feasible.
"Streaming is not a money-maker," says Steve Bensusan, President of Blue Note Entertainment Group. Bensusan, who also operates Sony Hall and has a Blue Note location in Hawaii currently open with a limited capacity, added: "When [Blue Note] re-opened in New York as a restaurant, at 25 percent capacity with 'incidental music' [as mandated], I was wasting my time."
Dorf, who has a tent open for shows at his City Winery Nashville location, says, "Now, with vaccines and the next round of Save Our Stages, we all see the light at the end of the tunnel. We're kind of shifting from defense to offense again."
The biggest question is when and what reopening venues will look like. Vaccine rollout has been slower than hoped and testing at the door is going to be very important, all experts agree.
"There are passes being developed that will become part of the protocol for admission to all of our places," Dorf says. "Until there's enough shots in people's arms where you can prove you can have a COVID-19-free space, it's going to be very hard to have that psychological safety of being in a room with people. There's a lot of practical steps that still haven't gotten there."
Dorf offered his guesstimate: "I would say in the summer we're going to start to see some re-opening of venues—outdoor dining of course, because of the weather. In the fall, I think we're going to be back with some limited capacity." That said, open-seated rooms and flexible spaces are going to be more conducive to reopening quickly than larger, fixed-seat locations.
Even before COVID, the live music industry was facing concerns that included racial equity, safety, wages, and quality-of-life issues with neighbors, Palitz observed. On the plus side, the pandemic offered "an opportunity to take a pause, to reevaluate what wasn't working, and to rebuild and fix the things which weren't going exactly right before the pandemic," she says.
The craving for live entertainment and connection is powerful, and Palitz predicts positive outcomes moving forward. "I do see a renaissance and a revival coming," she says. "It's going to be a time of celebration, and a lot more appreciation for what we nearly lost."