One year into a pandemic, live music barrels ahead in Green Bay area
Our pesky-question asking column explores local musicians and venues wrestling with the severely wounded music industry and a new rush to host indoor shows this spring.
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Any of a genus (Quiscalus of the family Icteridae) of large American blackbirds having iridescent black plumage.
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Is live music safe right now?
For the past year, performers who used to rely on ticket sales, merch sales, and touring to pay their bills have been struggling to navigate a new world that goes against every aspect of their normalcy. When venues pulled the live-music plug last March, many believed they would be the first businesses to close and the last to reopen.
Lyric Room in Green Bay has held off on holding shows indoors through the entirety of the pandemic, opting for outdoor shows in its beer garden throughout the summer and fall. More recently, the venue has announced the return of its open mic series and currently has shows scheduled for May and July. Lyric Room operates out of Keggers Bar in the Broadway District. A representative from Lyric Room declined to speak to The NEWcomer.
Some venues in the area have not stopped hosting shows since the pandemic hit. Phat Headz II, a live music venue and bar, has been hosting indoor shows throughout the pandemic and is currently promoting a show for Louisville's post-grunge outfit Tantric on Mar. 26.
Tantric is accompanied by Minneapolis-based 90’s alt-rock band Strange Daze, who played the Clay Street venue back in September when COVID-19 was ravaging Green Bay and the Fox Valley, alongside Green Bay rock band Off Kilter. The March show is advertised as a limited capacity event.
According to the event page, Tantric “rocked” Phat Headz II right before the shutdown last year and the venue believes “it’s only fitting that they help us crawl out of lockdown.” Phat Headz II did not return a request for comment.
The Kentucky buttrock band has been touring the country throughout the pandemic including a June 27 gig in Ohio and an early February 2021 show in San Antonio, Texas with the early aughts nu-metal group Smile Empty Soul.
While the Texas venue promoted masks and distancing at the time, Texas is not a hallmark state for pandemic-related live entertainment safety. At the direction of Republican Governor Greg Abbott, Texas will soon lift all mask mandates and allow businesses to open up for full-capacity events alongside Mississippi. Maryland recently announced a lifting of COVID-19 restrictions for restaurants and bars, with concert venues being bumped to 50 percent capacity.
Holly Trasti is a Green Bay songwriter in the indie-punk band Holly and the Nice Lions. When Trasti sees bands and venues still hosting concerts in the midst of the pandemic, she said she feels disappointed.
“Personally, I don't feel comfortable playing shows or encouraging crowds of people with drinking,” said Trasti.
The situation is not always black and white. Trasti recognized some venues and bands still playing in the area are doing so out of necessity. She said not everyone is in her situation of having a steady source of income unrelated to music.
“I want these venues that we play to stay alive,” said Trasti. “I get that some people are doing what they feel like they need to.”
One reason that venues have continued to hold shows during the pandemic is sheer financial desperation. Without cohesive, proper direction from government entities of all levels, small businesses and artists have had to scramble to stay afloat. Venues also have fixed costs that add up even when revenue isn't coming in from tickets and drinks.
“I don't put the blame on the small places or the people whose income is their art and music and they're trying to do it whatever way they can,” said Trasti. “I put the blame on our society's inability to have structures in place to prevent people from struggling so much when catastrophe hits.”
In October 2020, Governor Tony Evers designated $15 million from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act to live entertainment and large meeting venue operators whose facilities have been negatively affected by COVID-19. The grant was administered through the Department of Administration and provided awards up to $500,000 or 25% of 2019 ticket or event sales, whichever was less.
The slew of venues in Northeast Wisconsin that received CARES funding skewed towards larger, corporate operations.
In the Green Bay area, Ashwaubenon Performing Arts Center received $35,000, Cedar Center Arts, Inc, which operates The Art Garage, received nearly $12,000, and PMI Entertainment Group received $395,000.
In the Appleton area, The Fox Cities Performing Arts Center received over $362,000. The marketing firm Willems Marketing & Events, Inc, which operates Mile of Music and other downtown events, received $336,000. The Moon Dance Music Festival, an outdoor music festival received almost $14,000 while WIJAM, the music promotion company that operates the festival received an additional $18,000.
The grant did not allow for applicants who generate less than 33 percent of their revenue from ticket sales or event charges related to live music, entertainment, or large conventions and meetings. The grant also excluded venues that offer live music or other entertainment but whose main business is not entertainment. This means bars, coffee houses, and other smaller venues that don’t receive their main revenue from ticket sales were able to apply for funding.
A singer-songwriter at a coffeehouse open mic or a punk band playing the corner of a dive bar brings revenue from food and drinks bought by attendees, and without this added boost, smaller venues continue to lose out on needed and diverse revenue streams to remain open as a place for local performers to grow and experiment.
Now is not the time
Despite the struggles of smaller venues and a national pandemic death toll of over 500,000 people, a new, larger venue is opening in the Green Bay area.
EPIC Event Center in Ashwaubenon is owned by Festival Foods CEO and President Mark Skogen. It will open on April 15 with a concert from Las Vegas hard-rock band Otherwise, who is playing alongside Oshkosh hard-rock band Krestfall and Appleton’s Archaic Bloom. The menagerie of head-nodding rock songs, bandanas, and indecipherable radio rock kicks off a slate of spring shows for the Ashwaubenon venue.
Live entertainment fans looking to spend $100 per four-person pod to watch a magician are in luck, as Murray the Magician, of Pawn Stars and America’s Got Talent fame, is headed to EPIC for an indoor affair in early May. EPIC is hosting another array of rock bands outside at the Capital Credit Union Park on May 8 with radio-pop rock’s Badflower and Nashville-homogenous blues-rock-inspired Goodbye June.
Smith & Myers, an acoustic duo offshoot of alternative, radio-rock band Shinedown, are heading to EPIC on May 21. The group announced a seven-day jaunt, trekking from Nashville up to Madison and Green Bay, then down to Kansas. The event sold out within minutes of the announcement.
Trasti said now is not the time to be opening anything encouraging large crowds, even if they're at a smaller capacity.
“I understand the local places trying to stay alive more than I understand opening a big thing at the tail end of a pandemic where people aren’t vaccinated yet,” said Trasti.
EPIC has a 2,100 person capacity, but will initially operate at approximately 25 percent of capacity. With over 25,000 square feet, EPIC is promoting indoor pods in an effort to keep attendees at low risk of exposure to the virus. Masks are required outside of an attendee’s personal pod, but can be removed for eating, drinking, or if “wearing a mask creates a health risk.” (Masks as a health risk and providing exemptions from their use have been largely debunked as effective or true.)
“We are excited to be able to provide live entertainment in a safe manner at this incredible new facility,” said Melissa Toonen, General Manager of EPIC, in a statement.
Trasti said the culture of Green Bay contributes to the push for in-person events and shows. To her, Green Bay is the Packers, going out to bars, and going out to eat. When those things are taken away from people, it makes sense that they get restless.
“People are just trying to find a way they can still do that one thing that they do,” said Trasti.
“We don’t want to be part of the problem”
A March 4 Rolling Stone report showed most live music industry experts are anticipating a return to full-fledged activity in 2022. Some industry experts noted one-off outdoor festivals or limited capacity shows are being confirmed for summer and fall this year, but the growing presence of new COVID-19 variants is a cause for concern.
Dr. Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist and director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, told Rolling Stone: “If the variants don’t circulate widely, we can do okay. But the second condition is what percentage of the population will ultimately get vaccinated.”
Osterholm said if we see up to a third of the population refusing to get vaccinated, that could still cause enough individuals to get infected and transmit the virus to make the ongoing occurrence of cases something that would happen with some regularity throughout the country.
Another issue to arise from the disjointed state-by-state and city-by-city guidelines and vaccine efforts are super-spreading events. Previously mentioned states rolling back mandates combined with live music festivals and an effective but multi-step vaccine distribution will continue the patchwork of response and prevention plaguing fans, performers, and staff for over a year. Relaxing restrictions and playing loose with re-opening is exactly what the virus wants us to do.
Levi Besaw is a musician and artist who operates The Train Station in Appleton, an autonomously run organization funded by individual donations and volunteers. The space hosted live music, art galleries, exhibitions, and other creative endeavors before the pandemic hit. Since, it has not hosted any events, and Besaw doesn't plan on starting back up anytime soon.
“We don’t want to be part of the problem,” Besaw said.
Being a volunteer-run space, The Train Station experiences an upside in not having personal income tied to show revenue, but Besaw said most venues struggle to begin with.
“We don’t need to (host shows) to exist,” said Besaw.
Besaw also said the fallout from the pandemic has caused some peers and others in the music industry to question their careers and identities and potentially shift due to the problems in the industry right now.
Throughout the pandemic, The Train Station has received requests to host shows from touring and local acts. Besaw said during the initial lockdown and in the fall the venue received requests for shows. More recently, his indie-folk band Cave Paintings has received, and declined, requests to play shows.
“We're a community space and we're here to help the community,” Besaw said. “If by not doing shows is what we can do to help the community that's what we're going to do.”
For The Train Station to start hosting shows again, Besaw said the venue will keep track of the science behind the pandemic. He said following a plan that is being built (and often ignored) day by day is difficult.
“There’s no guidebook for how to do this,” Besaw said. “There sort of is, but there’s no guidebook for when half the people don’t acknowledge the problem.”
Currently, both Outagamie County Public Health and Brown County Public Health (BCPH) follow the guidelines created by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Wisconsin Department of Health Service (DHS) as it relates to gatherings and events.
“CDC continues to recommend that large gatherings be avoided, particularly those in which physical (social) distancing cannot be maintained between people who live in different households,” said BCPH in a statement.
Green Bay Mayor Eric Genrich told Green Bay’s WFRV Channel 5 in a March 9 community update the summer of 2021 will likely be a return to normalcy as an internal committee is working with business improvement districts and community organizations in the city to plan for larger special events, especially with vaccine rollout in tow.
According to the state Department of Health Services, as of Mar. 10 over 19 percent of the state’s population have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Brown and Outagamie County average just below the state average at 17 percent. Access to the vaccine continues to disadvantage communities of color as Black (6.4%) and Hispanic(5.8%) populations in the state have received the lowest amount of vaccines compared to 18 percent of white vaccine receivers. Two-thirds of Wisconsin residents age 65 and older have received at least one shot of the COVID-19 vaccine.
“We know that outdoor events are much safer than indoor events with a good number of people gathered,” Genrich told WFRV.
Door County’s prominent music festival organizations are also beginning to prepare for a summer of indoor and outdoor entertainment, much like surrounding counties and tourism-focused centers across the state. Oshkosh has also begun to prepare for their famed Christian music festival Lifest to take place this summer, with local authorities at county and city level procuring sneeze guards, face masks, and hand sanitizing stations.
While gathering for events post-vaccine is something every music fan longs for, BCPH said event organizers and attendees currently need to avoid large events and gatherings when possible.
“Consider the risk level associated with hosting events, promote and maintain healthy behaviors and environments to reduce risk when large gatherings are held, and be prepared if someone gets sick during or after an event,” said BCPH’s statement.
Other states have begun to repeal and challenge COVID-19 restrictions, something Northeast Wisconsin is all too familiar with. Everything provided by health departments continues to be just a kindly-worded and suggestive recommendation. The limp-noodle enforcements are guidelines for individuals to follow, fret over, or ignore while a push to return to normal shows must go on.
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