Saving Our Stages: Concert Venues Look to the Future

Tori Cook Oct 30, 2020

Learn more: humor and inspiration, concert operations, emergency preparedness and response

Simsbury Meadows Performing Arts Center

Photo of: Simsbury Meadows Performing Arts Center; Photo credit: Capture, LLC

 

"The entire entertainment industry is imploding." This is what I heard in the first of many interviews I recently conducted with concert venue representatives from across the country. Shelley Brown is the President & CEO of a 1,549-seat union house theatre, the State Theatre Center for the Arts in Easton, Pennsylvania and we were discussing the many challenges that concert venues have faced during this global pandemic. She continued, "I think that the country will be shocked when this is over and people will be surprised at how many restaurants and venues don’t reopen because they simply ran out of money."

A bleak perspective, perhaps, but not completely off-base. Concert venues in the U.S. have been essentially shut down since March of 2020, having had to cancel or postpone nearly all of their events, a critical source of income for them. After talking to more than a dozen concert venues, I found that they all shared a similar fear for the arts and entertainment industry: losing venues.

Marilyn Nash, Owner of Canby Pioneer Chapel stated this simply, “My biggest fear is definitely the fear of losing the venue because, no matter what anyone tells you, it costs a lot of money to run a venue."

Losing performance venues could have devastating consequences for arts organizations and performing artists. Given that we're all in this together, I dug in more to find out what we can do to help save our stages.

 

COVID-19's Impact on Concert Venues

"Everything has been shut down. COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on everything. We’ve taken a massive hit," said Denny Young, President of The Elevation Group which manages four concert venues and two music festivals in Ohio.

Ric Waldman, Vice President, Programming, at The Bushnell concurred, "The loss of revenue is devastating."

We know that COVID-19 has had a negative impact on these businesses, but just how much has it impacted their revenue? Considering that live events and ticket sales make up a majority of their income... well, a lot.

"I'd say our revenue is down by about 99.9%. Financially, it doesn’t make sense for us to reopen and morally, as well, we just don't want to contribute to the spread of COVID-19," explained Ward Johnson, Co-Owner of The Parkway Theater.

Meanwhile the Morris Performing Arts Center was smack dab in the middle of a three-week The Lion King run when the venues had to shut down back in March. Their Director of Booking & Event Services, Jane Moore, reported to me at least a $1 million loss on that show alone. And in the case of one large performance venue, the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County, they're projecting up to an $11 million loss for the year. Quite substantial, to say the least.

Concert venues that serve the sole purpose of presenting or producing live events, such as concert halls and performing arts spaces, seem to be in the most financial trouble. But even venues that rely on other sources of income are in somewhat of a predicament — more specifically, faith-based venues.

"Churches are houses of worship and we’re about creating community. Our role as a performance venue is a very tiny portion of why we exist but hugely significant because bringing people together for music is part of creating community. Our ministry is the care and feeding of the soul and coming together in our sanctuary enables us to feed that. While revenue impact is a fact, and we have created a dynamic virtual program music series, the harder reality is the huge loss of togetherness which is the heartbeat and pulse of any house of worship," said Franca Gargiulo, Director of New Programs at St. Ignatius Church in San Francisco.

Kirsten Manville, Director of Operations at First Church Cambridge in Massachusetts agreed, "We want connection with the community. We want people to come and enjoy music, meet other people, and for us to be that gathering space. To lose that ability to be that community center is really taking an arm away from our overall ministry. It’s hard. It's definitely hard."

 

Making Changes and Raising Money

Bankhead Theater

Photo of: The Bankhead Theater, Livermore Valley Performing Arts Center

 

With revenue down across the board, concert venues have had to take drastic actions to cut expenses. They've had to do everything from trimming down their insurance coverage to reducing staff salaries to full-scale furloughs and layoffs.

"We had fifty-five people on payroll and now we have eight. We reduced staff significantly, mostly part-time employees, but even for our full-time staff we had to reduce salaries by 40%. It was pretty scary," said Chris Carter, Executive Director of the Livermore Valley Performing Arts Center. "We got some federal relief with the PPP loans but I think the industry is in a lot of trouble unless there's another round of funding."

Which begs the question, how are these organizations surviving without live event income? The answer is that most are relying on the generosity of donors and sponsors.

"We did a fundraiser really early on and raised over $18,000 on Facebook and through other private donations. We’re not a nonprofit but people were still super generous," said Kate Carson-Groner, Social Media and Marketing Manager at the Reeves Theater & Cafe.

"A vast majority of sponsors kept their commitment regardless of the fact that the deliverables were not close to what they were before," shared Missy DiNunno, Executive Director of the Simsbury Meadows Performing Arts Center.

Meanwhile, others are busy applying for grants. "North Carolina Arts Council is our biggest help. We get grant funding from them as we are a nonprofit organization," praised Sarah Smith, Executive Director of the Yadkin Arts Council.

But it's still a struggle.

As Ric Waldman pointed out, "We’re not the highest priority for donations, there are a lot of other issues that require immediate aid but we are still out there raising money."

A few venues have succeeded in temporarily restructuring their business models and thinking creatively to come up with new sources of event and ticket income.

I spoke to John Moynihan, Executive Director of the Firehouse Center for the Arts in Newburyport, MA. While John's venue has been entirely closed since March, they recently hosted a drive-in theatrical production of Godspell in which they partnered with a local farm for space and charged $35 per car for the showing. (Side note: The concept of drive-in performances has taken off and it's wonderful to see more organizations being able to take the idea and run with it!)

Other creative solutions have included taking on livestreaming and other virtual projects, accepting filming projects, creating educational programming for schools, selling gift cards for future events, and hosting small events such as weddings, fitness classes, and music classes in the space.

Chris Silva, Executive Director at the Bardavon, shared some of the exciting projects they are working on, "We’re doing a lot of streaming content. With the orchestra, we started a virtual concert hall where musicians would perform on iPhones and send in their videos for use. With the chorus, we do the Messiah every year as a sing-along. This year we recorded them all doing excerpts of the Messiah and we’re going to project the score with the lyrics onto the screen so people can read the music along with the performers at home. We’re also doing an ‘albums revisited’ series in which we’ve asked a lot of terrific artists to cover songs on an album such as Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited and Carol King’s Tapestry."

Even with these new sources of income, venues still aren't ushering in the same type of revenue they did pre-pandemic.

"Everyone talks about streaming. What they don't know is that most of those streaming programs don’t make any money. Most are a branding exercise to keep the venue relevant," said Denny Young.

Mary McDonald, Executive Director of the Princess Theatre Center for the Performing Arts agreed, "A lot of people are doing streaming for ticket vendors. It’s just not my thing. I’m not sure if the return on investment is really there."

While these are certainly creative solutions, concert venues are still relying on uncovering new sources of income and growing their existing donor base to sustain their organizations. To do this, they need help. This is where I think mutually beneficial opportunities for concert venues and performing arts organizations could come into play.

 

Working With Choruses and Performing Arts Organizations

The good news is that it seems that most performing arts venues are booking events already and are being incredibly flexible with booking organizations. By and large, venue representatives affirm that they are more than willing to work with performing arts organizations in the coming years to find mutually beneficial projects to take on.

"We want to throw our doors open to as many artists as possible. For choral groups looking for venues, we are as flexible as we possibly can be around this uncertainty. With deposits and everything like that, we’re flexible. It will always be a conversation between us and the organization about when is right time to return. They will never be at risk of losing deposit. We’ll be there for them," said Ric Waldman.

"As long as organizations follow mandatory protocols, there’s no reason we wouldn’t book them," said Kevin Sweeney, Director of Marketing & Communications at Shea’s Performing Arts Center.

The one exception I could find is union stagehand houses. With venue capacity limitations, it's nearly impossible for them to cover the required union fees to operate an event. Jane Moore elaborates on this challenge, "Financially we don’t see much benefit in a socially distanced show in our theatre. We are a union stagehand house and the expenses associated with operating a show would require ticket prices to be double what they would be normally. Because we don’t book any shows in house, we are not equipped to do that financially." Shelley Brown, Kevin Sweeney, and Denny Young who also work at union stagehand houses, shared similar concerns.

Denny Young expanded, "If someone wanted to rent the venue, they’d be welcome to do that. But they would face the same issues we face. How are they going to sell tickets and make money when capacity is limited?"

But as a whole, venue representatives agreed they are open to booking future shows and are being as flexible as they possibly can be. "We are definitely booking future shows for 2021. We have a full refund policy in place. If The Parkway is not able to be 100% open for any reason, you would get a full refund," said Ward Johnson.

But more than just being open and flexible, I found that venues were generally excited for the opportunity to build partnerships with choruses during this time!

Missy DiNunno said it best, "The name of the game is partnership. Arts definitely have support, but we all have to figure out a way to work together to save our stages. Leveraging partnerships is going to be the name of the game in order to help each other."

Christine Howlett, Artistic Director of Cappella Festiva, works closely with Chris Silva at the Bardavon and had this advice for her colleagues in the choral industry, "If you don't have a personal relationship with a venue, cultivate one. Call and be open to advice and ask questions and be supportive. These venues want to be able to support concerts and theater and whatever else. But they are also worrying about insurance costs, how many people they're allowed to serve, that sort of thing."

From my own perspective, I found a disconnect between what venues were saying and what I was hearing from choruses. What I had been hearing from choral organizations was that they were finding it difficult to get in touch with venues.

Ric Waldman shares why he thinks that is the case, "The root of the problem with communication between venues and arts organizations is that many venues have had to completely furlough their staff. Even managing simple things like putting a 2021 date on the calendar, normally we have event managers taking those calls."

So understaffing could be an issue. Another issue is simply that it's hard to keep up with the government restrictions and the ever-changing situation.

"As we speak, the rules change every day. We’re trying to figure out what can we safely do in the church to keep performing arts alive," shared Franca Gargiulo.

"We’re under government-ordered size restrictions. Until that lifts, there’s nothing we can do. But, we’ve used that time to develop the plan. We have a full plan in place that our internal team has been working on since April for how to protect audiences artists, staff, and performing stage hands and to provide all of the necessary equipment and ventilation. So, when we are able to resume programming, we’ll be ready for it,” said Ric Waldman.

So patience and friendly persistence may be key!

Chris Carter had this to say to choruses, "Don’t give up on us. Please be flexible and patient with us. We’re still capable of delivering a good product. Continue to engage, follow, and advocate for us!"

Many continue to keep a positive outlook for arts organizations and are encouraging them to not give up on themselves either.

Ric Waldman advised, "For artists and venues, this is proving to be a time to reflect, not necessarily on how we get through, but what we will look like on the other side. It is an interesting reflective period and we often don't get that when we’re busy preparing for shows. The challenge is: how can venues and arts organizations stay together and stay solvent so we live to fight another day?"

Sarah Smith also had advice to share, "You just have to try to keep providing art to the community in any way possible. Keeping our audience for the future is very important. Don’t lose the audience that you've been building and just hope they remember you. Put as much content online as possible and keep providing access to the arts no matter where you are!"

 

Supporting Concert Venues Amidst the Pandemic

Willingham Theater

Photo of: Willingham Theater, Yadkin Arts Council

 

In addition to garnering support from arts organizations, concert venues are asking the public to support them as well.

"These places are going to die if people don’t start supporting them. The first things to go are nonprofits because they can’t sustain. Venues that are open are trying to do everything in their power they can to keep their patrons safe," explained Mary McDonald.

"The important thing for people to know is, for the most part, concert venues are 100% out of business. And even so, we still have to pay mortgage, utilities, and expenses. Even when we were open, we were always operating on razor thin margins. These businesses are hurting and if you really love your live music and you do care and you want it to come back, go to saveourstages.com, send a letter to representatives, and support the cause," requested Ward Johnson.

The Save our Stages Act, endorsed by The National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) and introduced by U.S. Senators, Amy Klobuchar and John Cornyn, helps make the case for providing additional funding for concert venues. You can express your support for this act by writing your representatives directly via NIVA's website.

NIVA is an umbrella organization for independent concert venues which also recently created an Emergency Relief Fund to help raise money for their most vulnerable venues. The public can donate directly to the fund on NIVA's website!

"Bottom line is there needs to be funding and people need to make a living off doing this. If we think it is important enough and there’s value in the arts, we need to support that. Nobody’s asking for a lot. People in the arts don’t ask too much. Nobody owns a jet or anything like that. We do it because we love it," said Chris Carter. He continued, "I’m hopeful that people will recognize how important it is to our culture."

Jane Moore shared a similar request, "If you want to go to a live show in the future, you have to realize these are real people and this is their profession. These types of people still need an income if we're going to continue in this business. Even the biggest promoters in world are furloughing people because there are no shows. Their jobs have been eliminated just because there is no money. They're going to have to move on to another career at some point if we don't receive the financial support that we need. I hope when the time comes we are able to bring it back in full force."

Apart from requesting funding, others shared a more holistic approach to helping the arts and entertainment industry get back on its feet.

“For me, the biggest thing is to be safe in day-to-day life so that we can all reopen sooner. The sooner we can all unify and be responsible, the sooner we are able to reopen more businesses, and the better for everyone,” pleaded Kate Carson-Groner.

Johann Zietsman, President & CEO of the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County, expressed similar feelings, "Do everything that you possibly can to be healthy and safe. Our own behavior could impact how long this thing goes and how serious it could be in our community. If we all do the best we can to look after our own health and those around us by acting responsibly and safely, we will shorten the wait for venues to reopen."

He continued, "The role of the arts in society is so incredibly key to humanity and has always been. A moment like this just shines a bright light on it. I don't think anybody that’s been through the last six months can imagine going through a day without listening to music or reading a book or looking at a lovely painting. We all needs those moments where we can be inspired or transported to another time. The arts will always play that role in making our lives better. Continue to support whichever arts organization or group or artist that you know and that you like. If you believe the arts are important, convince someone. Tell someone that, advocate for it, support it, and invest in whatever arts organization or artist you feel drawn to."

 

Summary

The arts industry is hurting. But we, in the industry, are also creative and resilient. Concert venues are willing and excited to work with choral organizations. Continue to reach out, build partnerships, and support each other. If we continue to work together, I believe we can deliver great value to our communities while also sustaining our organizations.

 

Acknowledgments

Thank you to the following people and organizations who generously gave their time to be interviewed for this piece. We encourage readers to learn more about these venues and donate via the links below.

 

working with concert venues

Tori Cook

Tori Cook is the Director of Sales & Marketing at Chorus Connection. She sings with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and is a board member of the Greater Boston Choral Consortium. In a past life, she was the Music Director of the Harborlight Show Chorus and President of Chorus pro Musica in Boston. When not making music, she daydreams about adopting a golden retriever puppy and scuba diving to exotic locations around the world.

Tori Cook