New Year....New Variant. For those in the music industry, who rely on packed rooms of screaming dancing fans, it's the same old tune.
At the beginning of 2020, the Tower Theatre was rocking.
“Previous to the pandemic, Tower Theatre was booked for something almost every night of the week,” said co-operator Chad Whitehead.
Mid-March, that all came to a sudden halt.
“We had a show at Pony Boy the same night as that Jazz/Thunder game and I remember very specifically the doom as it started to roll over and by the next morning every agent was pulling shows out of Oklahoma City.”
For the rest of that year, the Tower Theatre essentially sat empty.
“We lost almost $2 million in revenue just by cancelling everything,” said Whitehead.
A city grant program using CARES act funds called the Performance Venue Program helped. Owners chipped in their own money, banks and landlords stretched to their limits.
“We paid a game called cash flow frogger almost every week,” said Whitehead.
Across town at DCF concerts, who operates the Diamond ballroom and Zoo Ampatheatre they were singing the same song.
“We shut down everything, the entire touring industry stopped, It was pretty devastating,” said Jamie Fitzgerald. “Navigating new waters of figuring out how to pay mortgages and bills and insurance. Things that never stopped but there was no revenue coming in for 15 months or more to pay for it.”
Across the nation, Independent Venue operators banded together and through a grassroots effort called Save our Stages they were able to successfully lobby congress to include $16 billion dollars of help in the December COVID relief package.
“It really kicked off a pretty significant grass roots campaign because we were able to leverage the fans of live music who love venues all across this country,” recall Whitehead.
Venues started 2021 believing relief was finally on the way. But it took months for the Small Business Administration, who was administering the program to open it's website to applications.
“When they did the site crashed,” said Fitzgerald.
When the website was finally up and running at the end of April, Tower and DCF were two of the first to apply. Overall17,000 applications were submitted within 24 hours.
“There’s nothing that can make up for 15 months of zero revenue when you still had to pay bills, pay people. There’s nothing that can do that except for this grant,” said Fitzgerald. “That’s the one thing.”
As the heat of the summer baked down on still closed venues, most had not received any of the grant money.
“We just didn’t expect it would take 6 more months,” said Whitehead. “That was extra painful in an already difficult season.”
In the beginning of July only $2.17 billion dollars had been dispersed. That month Tower was one of the few that received grant money.
“We ran out of money over a year before that grant actually funded, so there’s not a business model in the world that is built to survive an outage that long,” said Whitehead.
DCF continued to wait.
“Yea, it’s very frustrating, it’s very frustrating,” said Fitzgerald.
By this fall, music began to fill the venues again and eco-system of bars, restaurants, uber and taxies that relied on them came back to life.
DCF finally got their payment in September. It wasn't until Mid-December that the SBA says they reviewed all the grant applications.
Still another covid surge continues to threaten a full comeback. Whitehead and Fitzgerald are back to rescheduling, even cancelling, shows.
It seems like a broken record.
Venue owners, however, are still optimistic 2022 will finally hit the right notes. And bands and fans will feel safe to return to the stage.
“The entire industry just needs everyone to show up for the shows, not skip their favorite artists this time,” said Fitzgerald. “People do it all the time. They say I’ll you again next time you come around. Just after experiencing the pandemic is there going to be a next time this show comes around? Is your artist going to play again? Don’t take the chance go see the show. That’s what we’re asking for.”