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New state orders won't open performance venues yet

By Gary Graff
ggraff@medianewsgroup.com, @GraffonMusic on Twitte

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Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's executive order of Sept. 25 was ostensibly a high note for the state's music venues, which have been on indefinite pause since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in mid-March.

And it gave some hope for the music fans who have been waiting more than seven months to return to them.

But the truth is it's unlikely to bring back the beats in a significant way.

The order provides for the reopening on Oct. 9 of movie theaters and other entertainment and recreational facilities, including performance venues. But its strict limits, to generally 20% of capacity, make it prohibitive for businesses on the live entertainment end of the spectrum — including stage theaters and comedy clubs — to profit from events, meaning that despite permission most of their doors will be staying closed for the time being.

That could, of course, be altered by the state Supreme Court's Oct. 2 ruling striking down Whitmer's emergency powers and negating executive orders -- including public mask mandates, capacity restrictions and indoor bar closures since April 30. Attorney General Dana Nessel said her office will no longer enforce those orders, though some of the restrictions may remain in place as public health decrees rather than emergency orders. Individual counties, municipalities and businesses can also -- and in some cases immediately have -- impose their own COVID precautions and restrictions.

"It's a great gesture. I don't think it hurts, but it definitely doesn't help," explains Scott Hammontree, who owns the Intersection and other clubs in Grand Rapids and is the Michigan precinct captain for the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA), an organization lobbying for financial assistance from federal and state legislatures.

Speaking, like others in this article, before the Supreme Court ruling was announced, Hammontree added that, "I can't really open my business now to 106 people. If I have a band that has four to six crew members and extra staff to make sure we're being safe and following protocols and guidelines, it doesn't work. I'm happy for other business this helps, but most of us are going to stay closed."

Marianne James, executive director of The Ark in Ann Arbor, concurs that the order "doesn't change things" for the music world. "It could provide some creative one-off opportunities here and there, but we can't open large-scale at all under these circumstances," says James, whose 400-seat venue would likely be allowed to hold 50 or fewer once social distancing is applied. "So the environment will be the same on Oct. 9 as it was before Oct. 9. No significant difference."


The situation for the nearly 80 Michigan members of NIVA, and others of their ilk, is complicated and exacerbated by the nature of their business, with its tight profit margins and heavy, constant expenses. It's not they don't want to open; Nearly all have been operating with zero income since March while still paying for rent or mortgages, and utility and insurance bills, and NIVA reports that up to 90% of its 2,500 national members face closure if things don't change.

Some venues have been able to host small private affairs or are raising money creatively -- such as the streaming performances of the Ark's Family Room Series or Lake Orion listening room 20 Front Street's "vertical concert" partnership with the Royal Park hotel in Rochester. The Crofoot in Pontiac has announced a series of drive-in shows in the city parking lot at Pike and Saginaw streets near the Phoenix Center.

But nobody is making anything near what they did when they operating normally.

"I'm hesitant to book any kind of bands," notes John Anton, who operates the Token Lounge and Joy Manor in Westland. "They all want guarantees. If I can only have (20%) and people are scared to come out, I don't know if I'll be able to meet the guarantee, along with my expenses. It's kind of a Catch-22.

"In a way I don't even feel like opening. Is it worth the aggravation?"

On top of those concerns, there's also a notable lack of product to actually put in the venues at the moment. Artists, by and large, are not touring right now and don't seem likely to start any time soon. One talent booker says that most agents he's contacted have told him their clients are not entertaining offers through the first quarter of 2021, and some even later.

Some within the touring industry, in fact, predict that the entirety of 2021 is in jeopardy as artists grapple with whether there will be enough places to play and enough money available to make it worth their while to take the risk of being on the road.

"For a venue, all your costs are up front," explains Carey Denha, who owns the Magic Bag in Ferndale and manages and books bands such as the Mega 80s and Boogie Dynamite through Tangerine Moon Productions in Clawson. Denha contracted COVID early during the pandemic and still suffers some residual effect.

"You have to pay the band, production costs, hotel rooms, bring in the staff," he says. "you have all these costs up-front, then you have to try to make it all back on your ticket sales. With a capacity of 20% (about 80 people at the Magic Bag)...you're just going to open up and lose money. So if the goal is to go into the red, this it he way to do it."

Nate Dorough of AudioTree Presents, which books venues around the state, adds that "everything is intertwined. If you have less people, you're making less money. The artists are going to have to take a bit of a reduced rate, if not a considerably reduced rate, which hurts that community as well. And you'll still have to jack the ticket prices up. It's a very fine balance. What we definitely don't want to do is become a place that works only for the rich."

The challenges apply to larger venues such as Little Caesars Arena, the Fox Theatre and the metro areas various amphitheaters. The executive order puts caps outdoor crowds at 500 indoors and 1,000 outdoors, making it cost-ineffective to operate. 313 Presents, which operates LCA, the Fox and others, has hosted a successful run of Jurassic Quest at the otherwise dormant DTE Energy this summer as well as some streaming online performances that would normally have played at the Fox.

313 Presents President Howard Handler said in a statement that the governor's order, "is encouraging and another step forward to keep Michiganders safe while carefully re-opening important businesses and re-energizing our local economy. 313 Presents will continue to be thoughtful and creative about evaluating opportunities and hosting events that work within these new guidelines.

"We will continue to work closely with promoters and other trusted partners to determine what programming is most attractive to the community, economically feasible as well as to ensure we are taking all precautionary measures and protocols to keep everyone safe and happy."

Touring theatrical productions that play the Fox, the Fisher Theatre, Detroit Opera House and Music Hall Center, meanwhile, require larger crowds in order to be profitable and to serve subscriber bases.


The independent venues' hopes currently lie with the U.S. House of Representatives' HEROES package, a $2.2 trillion package that includes $10 million in SaveOurStages act relief aid for the venues as well as talent agencies and other independent music businesses. The act — which also includes another round of stimulus checks for families, more loans and grants for businesses and other measures — is now in the hands of the U.S. Senate and is the subject of intense negotiations in Washington D.C.

Many performers have put their support behind the effort as well, signing letters and petitions and supporting the campaign via social media.

"It's a giant step that (venue relief) is in there," says Hammontree. "It might all be for naught; There's no guarantee the Senate will approve it, and it might get kicked 'til January. The general feeling is fingers crossed."

And if the federal government doesn't provide assistance, the #SaveMIStages campaign will focus on state aid from Lansing -- although the new Supreme Court ruling could make full-capacity reopenings a possibilty. "We're asking the governor to see if there's a way to give us a financial bridge to get from keeping our doors closed to when we can open them and conduct business properly," the Magic Bag's Denha says. "Nobody wants to line their pockets. Everyone wants to be able to pay the taxes, pay the landlord, keep the heat on in January so the pipes don't freeze — just pay our building costs and overhead."

Despite the challenges, which include increased costs for sanitation and PPEs, some venue operators are planning to see what they can do within the current circumstances. The Diesel Concert Lounge in Chesterfield Township is beginning to line up acts, starting Oct. 17 with Rockstar, a local 80s tribute band, while its sister venue, Motor Cafe, recently hosted an intimate "Storytellers"-style session for 100 fans with Mr. Big and has another coming up Oct. 10 with Sponge.

"We're going to have to reshape our business model," says co-owner Mike Scott. With a limited capacity of about 200 for the two-room Diesel, he says the focus will shift from national acts to local and regional acts and change the tenor of the music scene.

"My whole mantra during all this is it's going to be the local artists’ time in the spotlight — I even started a hashtag #localisthenewnational," Scott says. "That’s my positive spin on it. People are starving for live entertainment and we're trying hard to give it to them. While we wait for national acts to be able to come back, I'm perfectly content showcasing the giant pool of talent we have locally."

A number of restaurants in the metro area, such as the Cadieux Cafe on Detroit's east side and ROAK and Fifth Avenue in Royal Oak, have created outdoor spaces to present live music from local acts. And despite Anton's reservations at the Token and Joy Manor, he has some shows on the books, including a recent appearance by the Chris Canas Band.

"I'm just trying to book some shows for 30, 50, 60 people to pay the bills that keep pouring in constantly," says Anton, who's hosted just one concert, during late June when bars were briefly allowed to open, since March 15. He, like other operators who have postponed shows, has $30,000 in deposits in the hands of booking agents who are holding onto the money for now, in addition to the expenses.

And many venue owners are wary of another shutdown during the fall if there's another spike in COVID cases alongside flu season.

"I have a lot of sympathy for these places that simply can't do it," Diesel's Scott says. "I wish someone up the food chain would finally say, 'Enough's enough. We have to help these venues.' It's going to kill the middle class of bands if all these venues go away. The whole industry is going to crumble form the inside. There's only so many Metallicas or Guns N' Roses in the world, y'know? Where are all the other guys gonna play?"

There are clearly more questions than answers, of course — and no answer in sight to the most common issue of when venues will be able to open and host concerts in a familiar fashion. As James from The Ark notes, "the whole industry is an eco-system, and nothing's going to happen until the eco-system itself is more righted." And re-opening venues remains the first step in that recovery.

"Right now we're all doing our part," James says. "We're laying low, and planning. We're not trying to create situations where people will turn something into an event that spreads the virus. We're all trying to be safe — that's what's most important right now."

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