CLEVELAND — In Cleveland — the world’s so-called Rock 'n' Roll Capital of the World — and in Akron, smaller live performance venues are barely treading water amid the pandemic.
Some are considering closing for good.
What You Need To Know
- Cleveland and Akron club owners say pandemic safety guidelines for restaurants and bars aren’t practical for live performance venues
- Save Our Stages wants Ohioans to contact their representatives to gain support for legislation that could provide financial support for venues, producers and promoters
- Reopen Every Venue Safely and Arts Cleveland worked with venues, directors, musicians and public health professionals across Northeast Ohio to develop guidelines tailored to help live performance venues open safely
But with the help of Ohioans, legislation could soon be introduced to keep these venues afloat.
For years, venues like Cleveland’s Grog Shop and Beachland Ballroom & Tavern, and Akron’s Jilly’s Music Room and the Goodyear Theatre have spoiled Northeast Ohioans with world-class entertainment in intimate settings right in our backyard.
But pandemic guidelines, established for restaurants and bars, aren’t compatible with these live venues, which operate and generate income very differently than restaurants and bars that host the occasional band.
For live performance venues, it’s all about music and entertainment, which are among the top features Northeast Ohio tourism agencies tout to draw people to the region. The venue owners say they take pride in strengthening their local economies and enlivening Northeast Ohio.
But grouped in with bars and restaurants under pandemic directives, performance venues must have liquor off tables by 10 p.m. — a time most venues are just welcoming the main act. Social distancing rules mean concert settings and packed dance floors are a no-go.
What’s more, performance venues don’t rely on food as a major source of revenue, so operating at a lesser capacity does them no good.
In fact, the guidelines have crushed their businesses, they say.
“I have been doing it a long time and I can't really do something in the meantime, like, I can't say, 'Oh, we're going to focus on food,'” said the Grog Shop’s Kathy Blackman.
Blackman has owned and operated the concert-like venue for nearly 30 years, catering to crowds who come to hear live national touring acts, with little need for seating or food.
Her normal capacity is near 400, but with pandemic guidelines, she can accommodate about 45 people in the club, she said.
“Yes, I could do a little show here and there, but it's going to be a tenth of what I could have done,” she said. “And it's going to be once a week instead of seven days a week. So, really not going to sustain me.”
Jill Bacon-Madden, who owns Jilly’s in Akron, has kept her brick-and-mortar doors closed, telling customers, “Prudence, in all things prudence” in e-blasts and on social media posts.
Her club features popular regional live acts, along with a dance floor and a gluten-free menu. A more intimate setting, the posh club can hold 244 people, so with social distancing that equates to about 38 people including staff, which isn’t feasible, she said.
“I don't have six feet of distance for people to even walk through in the front of the bar,” she said. “That’s suicide financially. You know, you try to do that for a couple of weeks, and you're upside down between the cost of staff, the cost of inventory, the cost of added electricity - all of the things that are running. There's just there's no way you can do that. So I've got to remain closed.”
But Bacon-Madden, Blackman and others in the industry are determined to survive, and have been banding together with other venue owners across the nation.
Save Ohio Stages (SOS) is a campaign of the National Independent Venue Association. A group of nearly 3,000 venues across the nation, SOS is working toward securing legislation that could provide the financial support needed to keep live performance venues alive.
The help they seek could come from House Bill 166 — new legislation soon to be introduced in Ohio by Northeast Ohio Reps. Kent Smith and Jaimie Callendar.
The $20 million bill would "authorize grants for operators of performing arts venues, producers of performing arts, and promoters of performing artists.” The money would be divided in incremental levels for venues and industry professionals whose revenue has declined 75% from pre-pandemic levels.
SOS is asking Ohioans to reach out to their legislators to urge them to co-sponsor HB 166.
Reopen Every Venue Safely (REVS), a national campaign of Music Cities Together, is also working to help reopen live performance venues quickly and safely.
REVS and Arts Cleveland recently worked with venue owners and directors, musicians and public health professionals across Northeast Ohio to release a detailed set of guidelines tailored for live performance venues, covering everything from disinfecting a microphone to sanitizing a room between acts.
The guide also includes a resource section with direction on where different supplies can be purchased along with helpful apps and software.
“We didn't want to make it strict rules, because we know everyone is different — different sets, different sizes, different abilities, and what they can enforce,” said Arts Cleveland’s LeAundra Richardson. “But it would be recommended that they follow it. It's really just to help them open in a safe way.”
In the meantime, for the Grog Shop’s Blackman, national touring acts aren’t touring. So she started hosting limited-seating Thursday night shows with local acts, but that’s mostly to keep morale up for her customers, she said.
With seating capacity normally near 400, she says she can’t get more than about 40 people in the door and still observe social distancing requirements.
Jilly’s hosts streaming Saturdays in which popular regional bands perform on her stage, but tips have been dwindling since the early weeks, she said, as her customers also struggle to make ends meet.
Even if HB 166 gets traction, said Bacon-Madden, who’s vice-chair of REVS, it’ll be a long time before people have the confidence to go clubbing with the sense of freedom they used to enjoy.
“We're still going to be an incredibly fragile industry,” she said. “It's going to take people. So willingness to come out and coming out often so that we can build our businesses back; that's going to be the next push. Because we're going to need a vaccine, a safe, effective, affordable, widely available vaccine, that people believe in, before they're going to even think about venturing out.”