With the concert industry still largely shuttered, local independent spaces weigh in on their future prospects

Bobby Miller, who handles booking for Ace of Cups under the Archie Fox Live banner, noted the additional strain heaped on independent music venues, which were among the first places shuttered by COVID-19 restrictions and will likely be among the last places allowed to resume operation.

“My biggest fear is that the government is never going to step up and help us in any real way,” he said, “and at some point most independent venues are going to be forced to give up because there’s no revenue coming in and they’re just going to run out of money.”

For that reason, among others, numerous articles have surfaced in recent months forecasting a dire post-coronavirus future for independent venues. The New Yorker published a nostalgic feature headlined “Remember Small, Sweaty Music Venues?” while the New York Times spoke with representatives from 11 of the city’s independent venues, each of whom said that they couldn’t survive beyond six months or a year without government aid. In an effort to try and stave off this bleak future, more than 1,200 independent venues nationwide recently joined together as the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) to lobby Congress for federal aid.

While the long-term effects of Columbus’ coronavirus shutdown are likely to play out in unpredictable ways, Alive spoke with 14 people representing 13 independent music venues to gauge how the spaces were positioned to navigate these lean months, and how each envisioned live music returning to the city. (Owing to PromoWest’s partnership with industry goliath AEG, the Newport, Express Live, A&R Music Bar and the Basement are not included here.)

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Natalie’s Coal-Fired Pizza and Natalie’s Music Hall & Kitchen
Charlie Jackson, owner

As previously reported by Alive, on Wednesday, May 27, Natalie’s Music Hall & Kitchen in Grandview became one of the first — if not the first — venues to host a concert in Central Ohio since March, hosting cover band Popgun and about 50 guests spread among socially distant tables.

Charlie Jackson and his co-owner/daughter Natalie Jackson had been gearing up for live music for a while, putting together a plan that involves half-capacity shows at its Grandview location. “We're going to ask patrons to wear masks when they're not in their seats, so when they're coming and going to the restroom. No congregating. No intermission,” Charlie Jackson said. “Sometimes we’ll do two shows in one night, an early and a late show. The early show patrons would go out a different door so they're not crossing paths with people waiting to come in. We’ll probably incorporate a little bit of people waiting in their cars until we're ready to have them come in.”

“We're going to try to keep as much distance as possible between vocalists and the audience,” he continued. “Instead of the 6 feet distancing, when there's vocals involved, we’ll be trying to get it to more like 10 to 12 feet.”

Jackson said he’ll adjust ticket prices as needed. “We may have to raise it a little bit depending on the act, just to help compensate for that difference [in capacity]. That's hopefully where livestream aid will come in, with some additional revenue to help compensate the band and the production crew,” said Jackson, who employed Jon Ebright to produce the livestream for the Popgun show.

For now, Jackson is concentrating on the Grandview space, but he anticipates trying some smaller shows at the original Worthington location. Before the pandemic hit, Natalie’s hosted shows at both of its locations nearly every night of the week. A few weeks ago, Jackson looked through his records and estimated he had canceled about 160 shows since March 15.

Early on, Charlie and Natalie focused their energy on carryout service in Worthington, but after applying for and receiving a PPP loan, they were able to reopen the Grandview location. “We're determined to figure out ways to survive this. We designed our whole business plan on bringing people together for great food and drink and music,” he said. “We're going to do everything we can to continue to provide great experiences for people.”

Ace of Cups
Bobby Miller, booking agent

Bobby Miller has experienced a series of emotional ups and downs in the months since the concert industry shut down, threatening not just his livelihood but the existence of the beloved Old North venue, which is owned by Columbus music legend Marcy Mays. (Mays replied via email to an interview request but was unable to speak prior to publication.)

“I’ve been feeling pretty pessimistic. I don’t know. I hope the government proves me wrong and comes through at some point to help us, but it’s a bleak outlook for the live music industry,” Miller said. “The corporate monoliths like AEG and Live Nation are big enough to weather the storm, but the independent venues are the ones getting crushed right now, unless you happen to own your building or have a landlord who is extremely flexible.”

Miller said that so far Ace of Cups’ landlord has shown a willingness to work with the venue, but he’s also been proactive, writing letters to government officials and working with groups that are lobbying the federal government in an effort to drive federal aid to independent music venues, particularly the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA). “Without that support,” Miller said, “this could turn into that moment where music gets further privatized and corporatized, with AEG and Live Nation and Liberty Media and all of these big companies coming in and scooping up all of these independent venues for pennies on the dollar, and then everything will have that same, crappy corporate vibe instead of having that local soul.”

Miller said that a number of ideas have been circulated at Ace of Cups to try and get the music up and running by late summer, including taking advantage of the venue’s large parking lot by fencing it off to host outdoor shows, though the costs associated with the move could make it prohibitive.

Planning is particularly difficult with the unknowns surrounding the virus and its spread, making it impossible to predict what the coming months might look like. Ace of Cups has currently canceled all of its shows through July, and the handful still on the books for August remain an open question. “When this first hit, everything that was booked for March, April, June started rebooking for September, October, November,” Miller said. “And now I’m starting to see a trend where a lot of those booking agents are starting to push those dates back to April, May, June of 2021, so the trend seems to be pushing things to next year.”

In the short term, Ace of Cups is continuing to find a way forward, offering to-go cocktails alongside parking lot food truck Ray Ray’s Hog Pit to generate some income. But Miller said he’s also started to brainstorm other means for the space to survive this prolonged drought, including the potential to adopt a larger, more focused crowdfunding campaign.

“I’ve definitely thought about it, but I don’t know if Marcy has the appetite for that. As the owner, her perspective is different from mine. There’s some pride there, and it’s hard to ask for handouts,” he said, adding that the venue had not yet reached that point. “There are certain cultural institutions in town where I think it’s important that we do all that we can to save them, and it’s hard to say that without feeling like you’re being egotistical, but I think Ace is important, and hopefully we will survive. We’re obviously doing everything we can to make sure that happens.”

Woodlands Tavern and Woodland’s Backyard
Nic Kabealo, talent buyer/production manager

Owing to a robust bar business, Nic Kabealo said that Woodlands Tavern is better positioned to survive the live music shutdown than some. Recently, the venue applied for and received a permit to expand alcohol service into its back parking lot, increasing the amount of available patio space, and thus the number of patrons it can accommodate. Woodlands plans to put the space to further use in the coming weeks, hosting happy hour concerts in the seated, outdoor area.

“We’re going to focus on local solo and duo [music], which isn’t terribly amplified, because we have neighbors and we want to be mindful of that, as well,” Kabealo said.

At the moment, though, there is still no timeline for resuming regular indoor shows. Kabealo said the earliest most national tours are currently booking is late fall, and even those come with a cancellation risk. And even when shows do resume, the venue is considering a number of policy changes, including taking the temperature of attendees at the door and turning away anyone with a fever of 100 degrees or more, as well as the possibility of asking concertgoers to sign a waiver, assuming the risk of entering a confined space, even with restricted attendance. “A group of larger venues has even proposed the idea of a bio-scanner, but we’ll see where that goes,” Kabealo said.

In addition, Woodlands has associated itself with NIVA, though Kabealo said the venue is operating more as an industry advocate and not directly seeking funds. (The venue did apply for and receive a federal PPP loan.)

Like many interviewed, Kabealo expressed optimism amid difficult circumstances. “I’ve talked to a number of [local venue] owners who do seem to be in a good position to move forward once we are given that green light,” he said.

Cafe Bourbon St.
David Fricke, owner

Despite Ohio’s push to open for business, David Fricke has no immediate plans to resume action at Cafe Bourbon St.

“Trying to design [a layout] where people could maintain six feet, with the choke-point at the bathroom and the bar being so narrow… It’s just not a lot of space,” Fricke said by phone in May. “Also, it really does seem like it’s too soon. There are new [coronavirus] cases every day in Columbus, which means it’s still out there.”

Fricke said he understands the economic desperation that might drive some owners to open for business, but he’s also cautious, concerned that he could spend money to install plexiglass dividers between tables and train staff on new protocols, only to be left in worse financial standing if customers aren’t yet ready to return. “I’m definitely starting to adopt the mindset that this is a marathon, and I’m starting to ask questions like, ‘OK, what can I do now to make sure that Bourbon St. could be open in a year while not being able to count on much, if any, income in that time?’” Fricke said. “I’m in a very fortunate position. I’ve got the building, and that’s a major thing. I think a lot of places are going to start hitting that rent crunch.”

This has allowed Fricke to take a longer view with the punk venue. He has no timeline for restarting concerts, and said it will depend on medical data, as well as the development of COVID-19 treatments, including a vaccine.

“If they announce a vaccine next week, OK, yeah, let’s start putting a calendar together,” Fricke said.

Even when the music is allowed to resume, Fricke envisions that the industry will be markedly different, at least for a while. “We’ve traditionally relied heavily on smaller touring bands … so there are also the logistics of the band knowing that if they went out on the road they could play a full tour without having half of it canceled,” he said. “We’re going to see changes, and maybe places like Bourbon St. are going to have to rely more on local talent to put on shows for a while.”

Fricke also applauded the independent music venues that have banded together under NIVA to lobby Congress for financial relief. “I know money is tight and the arts is probably way down on the list for most politicians, but keeping that culture alive is crucial,” he said. “Investing in arts and music infrastructure might sound crazy now, with states going bankrupt, but it could have such a long-term beneficial effect that it would be worth it, even in terms of people’s mental health and giving them hope and escape and a connection to something bigger.”

Spacebar
Ben DeRolph, owner

When Gov. Mike DeWine announced that bars and restaurants could resume operations in May, Spacebar owner Ben DeRolph simply shook his head. “I was like, ‘Why in the hell do you think it’s safe to do that?’” he said. This was a noted shift from the initial frustration DeRolph felt when his Old North bar and music venue was forced to close in March, just days before a series of shows he had scheduled to celebrate his 40th birthday.

Now, having made peace with this new reality, DeRolph is content to sit back and wait, even if it means keeping the venue closed for a prolonged stretch of a year or more. DeRolph said it’s unlikely Spacebar would resume operation while social distancing measures are still in place, and that he’d allow the science to dictate an eventual return to business. “We need to figure this thing out medically before everyone gets back out here and tries to have a normal life,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how long we have to stay closed. … I’m spoiled to know that we’ll survive and reopen.”

Dick’s Den
Tim Ackerman, co-owner

Dick’s Den is not a place that has generally handled change well. Just listen to regulars recall when the Old North dive added a credit card machine. Or the time when the price of the pool table briefly increased a quarter to 75 cents. “We all got called in from home and there was practically a mutiny over the whole thing. OK, OK, we’ll put it back to 50 cents,” co-owner Tim Ackerman told Alive in 2016.

So one wonders how that crowd will handle the changes to come once Ackerman and crew decide to reopen, including socially distanced seating and a temporary pause on music, along with possible once-unthinkable additions like the installation of an industrial-grade dishwasher, which is one option currently under consideration. “We’re trying to look at what the future looks like, and it looks different every day,” Ackerman said. “We’re talking about the dishwasher, where glasses would come out at 180 degrees, and that changes the way we work. And we’re also talking about [switching exclusively to] plastic, and that also changes the way we work. And we understand we have to evolve a little bit, but we’re trying to find sensible ways to do it.”

Ackerman, who also owns the building, said that no matter how long the business is on pause things will, in time, return to normal. Ownership remains in constant contact with staff, all of whom currently have plans to return once operations resume. “I’ve told everybody, whether it’s next week or next month or next year, there’s a 100 percent chance that we’re opening,” Ackerman said.

At least initially, Ackerman said the bar would open without music, and ownership is weighing the idea of accepting reservations in order to better control crowds. The bar might also temporarily operate under reduced hours. And when the music does return, it might look somewhat different for a stretch, perhaps featuring as many as three distinct sets a night, giving more patrons the opportunity to experience the venue’s eclectic jazz mix during the months that capacity is restricted.

“No matter what it looks like, we’ll be fine,” Ackerman said. “But we also [host] jazz music, so it’s not like we’re trying to become billionaires running the bar. We just do it because we like it.”

Big Room Bar
Randy Malloy, owner

Randy Mallow, owner of CD102.5 and Big Room Bar, which live together under the same (currently empty) roof in the Brewery District, looks at the current pandemic as a planetary reset that will in some way impact every business, be it car dealerships, nail salons or music venues. “It’s a metamorphosis,” he said. “Everybody closed. Everybody stopped. And now we’re all going to have to start anew.”

When Big Room Bar shut down just prior to St. Patrick’s Day, Malloy said it was done with an awareness that the space would likely be closed for months. “Rock ’n’ roll venues are not socially distanced. When’s the last time you went to a show and the band was like, ‘You’re too close. Everyone, move away from the stage,’” he said. “Unfortunately, just by their nature, music venues encourage the opposite [behaviors] we’re being told to do right now.”

Since Malloy owns the building, he’s in a better position to navigate the shutdown. “I don’t have a landlord who’s going to kick me out because I’m three months behind on rent,” he said.

At the same time, fixed expenses remain (utilities, insurance, etc.). And then there’s the reality that the industry will likely be slow to restart once venues are given the all-clear by the powers that be. “It’s not something where you, bloop, press a button and things start right back up again,” Malloy said. “Live Nation and AEG are talking about [concerts resuming in] January. But will people be comfortable going out? Will bands be comfortable being on the road? … I think it’s going to be a trial and error thing for a very long time.”

As for when Big Room might again host concerts? That remains an open question.

“First and foremost, we’re going to follow the rules put forth by the city and state, since they’re the ones that are going to mandate what we as business owners can and can’t do,” Malloy said. “It kind of feels like the Wild West out there right now … and I don’t think anybody has a handle on exactly what to do, from medical professionals and politicians to the average music venue owner. We’re all just trying to make our way.”

Dirty Dungarees
Drew Sherrick, owner

Over the last couple of years, Old North laundromat/bar Dirty Dungarees went from a place that occasionally hosted shows to a venue that held concerts three or four times a week.

“I have a core of five or six people who bring me shows, and all of them are touring musicians themselves who have a lot of contacts. The bands seem to like it, and they want to come back, and they tell their friends,” said Dirty Dungarees owner Drew Sherrick. “Some weeks we’re completely booked.”

After closing in March, Dirty’s had to cancel dozens of shows. The bar has also missed out on some annual bumps in business, like Ohio State’s Senior Crawl. “We are on that stretch of High Street where we can pay all our bills for a month off of Senior Crawl,” Sherrick said. “Not that I love dealing with hundreds of university students in the span of a few hours. But it is good money.”

Sherrick described the financial losses due to the COVID crisis as “catastrophic.” “We're losing a ton off this. The money that we had built up is slowly depleting,” said Sherrick, who opted not to apply for any loans.

Still, Sherrick is grateful for the laundromat side of the business, which reopened earlier this week and is helping Dirty Dungarees get by. Some months, bar sales outpace the laundromat revenue, but the two different revenue streams have always complemented each other.

“We always tend towards weirder, experimental music and stuff that is less likely to draw. But because we have the laundromat side, it kind of subsidizes that. I don't have to worry about just booking shows that will make money,” he said. “The two sides of the business feed off of each other very well. And thankfully we live in a neighborhood where most people are open-minded enough that weird musical performances don't drive them to another laundromat if they just happen to be there [during a show].”

“I'm very, very thankful that we have that other aspect of our business to fall back on,” Sherrick continued, “because otherwise I would be thinking a lot more existentially about, ‘Can we keep going?’”

Rambling House
Geoff Wilcox, owner
Lindsay Jordan, booker
Adam Himmel, marketing/social media

“I never really understood the Ides of March until now,” said Rambling House owner Geoff Wilcox on a recent group call with booker Lindsay Jordan, along with marketing/social media guru Adam Himmel.

Rambling House closed its doors on March 15 and immediately began pivoting, hosting a series of livestream concerts branded as the “Couch Tour” and launching a GoFundMe to help pay staffers. After that, Wilcox began pursuing a PPP loan, which eventually came through and is helping to pay staff through mid-June.

“If you had asked me back then, I was pretty optimistic that we would be back to business as usual in July,” Wilcox said. “But it's become clear to all of us that we're not going to be open for business as usual as a venue anytime soon. … In a venue the size of the Rambling House, we don't feel that it's safe yet to open back up for live music. … Over the course of the next couple of months, as things start to open up, one of the things that we're thinking about as a venue is, is it even feasible from an economic perspective to open up for live music with social distancing in place?”

For a time, Jordan focused on booking local livestream Couch Tour shows as a way to bridge the gap until Rambling House could hold in-person concerts. “Then it went beyond bridging the gap to it being like, ‘Oh, this is what we're going to be doing now,’” Jordan said.

In that way, Rambling House’s identity as a virtual venue has been the lifeblood of the business — its bartenders, but also local musicians who often performed there. Soon, though, the staff realized livestream shows would also have to change.

“Over the course of the first month, that strategy worked incredibly well. People were starving for social interaction. They couldn't go out, and so they were turning to the Couch Tour as a way to virtually hang out,” Wilcox said. “Over the course of the second month, we saw that wane, because it just gets played out. People get fatigued. It's why NPR doesn't run a telethon year round. And so now we're really having to think about what the economics of being a virtual venue look like. What will people pay for when they don't get to combine live music with the experience of being in a venue that they love to hang out at?”

Last weekend Rambling House hosted The Sectional, a multi-day online music festival that also served as a transition to the next phase: hosting livestreams by full bands at the venue (without an audience), and broadcasting a high-quality audio/video stream of the show — all in a way that genuinely helps local musicians and Rambling House staff.

“One of the perennial problems of the local music industry is this idea of, ‘Come do us a solid and play for free and you'll get some exposure,’ and leaning on the musicians and the service industry folks, asking them to give to make this happen,” Wilcox said. “That's a broken model. We're not going to do that. Whatever we do, we're going to make sure that we're putting the musicians and the staff front and center.”

Plus, Himmel said, after a livestream is over, Rambling House can provide bands with multi-track recordings of the live show that they can use however they’d like.

Still, none of these ideas removes the ever-present uncertainty of the times. “I do have a lot of concern about how long it's going to take [to reopen] and how we're going to survive,” Wilcox said. “The economics of a virtual venue are totally unproven.”

Wilcox believes livestreaming will be a component of Rambling House for the foreseeable future, even after the pandemic passes, when the venue hopes to return in an even better position. “It will be a different Rambling House, but I think it will be a stronger Rambling House now because of the presence that we've been able to keep,” Jordan said. “We have a lot of new followers from our online shows — people who have never even been in the building.”

Summit Music Hall
Chris Salvato, co-owner

When we caught up by phone with Chris Salvato, co-owner of the Summit Music Hall, he was in Texas, working night shifts to sterilize PPE for Battelle. So it’s safe to say Salvato is intimately familiar with the battle against the novel coronavirus, and that’s where he’s putting his energy and emphasis right now.

“We're really happy to sit it out and just open whenever it'll be safe and fun for everybody again,” he said. “In the meantime, it’s OK for people to do what they need to do to get through this.”

The Summit actually closed preemptively in March, before the governor mandated it. “We realized that people were in danger and that it was going to be better for us to take some time and get ahead of this thing and close our business to keep everybody safe,” Salvato said.

Even though the space next door to Cafe Bourbon St. had operated as a music venue for years, Salvato and his two partners just recently took over the space, getting its liquor license in February and then hosting a mix of local and national acts about five days a week. In some ways, the fact that the Summit Music Hall is so new helped soften the blow of closing a bit.

“We had a couple of bartenders that were part-time, but other than that, it was myself and my two partners doing a majority of the work. We weren't in that deep with any staff, so we didn't really have to put anybody out. That was kind of a blessing,” he said.

Receiving an Economic Injury Disaster grant also helped, as did the good relationship with the venue’s landlord. “We recently purchased the business from the previous owner, who is also the owner of the building, and he’s also the owner of Cafe Bourbon Street. … So our landlord is, in a sense, a business partner, and he's worked really well with us. He's being super cool and flexible with us,” Salvato said.

Salvato, who also operates Weird Music LLC, already had experience livestreaming shows from the venue, and in that sense, the music hasn’t stopped. Through the Summit Music Hall and Weird Music Facebook pages, and through partnerships with festivals and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the venue has continued to put out music. “We're not able to do it live [in person], but we're definitely staying in the game,” he said.

Salvato is confident he and his partners will one day reopen Summit Music Hall. “It's a labor of love, and it's a passion field. There's really no stopping it. For a lot of people, it was never about being extremely profitable in the first place,” he said. “The less we panic and the more we focus on the issue and stay safe, the sooner we can get back to it.”

Rumba Cafe, The Athenaeum Theatre, Skully’s Music-Diner
Timothy Eddings, booking agent for Celebrity Etc.

Within 24 hours of Gov. DeWine’s announcement of stay-at-home orders in March, Celebrity Etc. booking agent Timothy Eddings had more than 300 emails from bands and managers about rescheduling shows. Immediately, Eddings and his team, which books locally for Rumba Cafe, Skully’s Music-Diner and the Athenaeum Theatre, began working 60-hour weeks to postpone well over 100 shows.

And when we spoke by phone in late May, the process was still ongoing. “Yesterday I had consecutive emails where someone was rescheduling a June show for September, and then the next email was someone rescheduling a September show for April of next year,” Eddings said. “We were the first to close, and we'll be the last to reopen. And unlike sports, we don't have TV rights.”

Eddings acknowledged Celebrity Etc. is in a better situation than most, because he doesn’t own Rumba Cafe. He’s not responsible for rent and utilities while the clubs sit empty. While Eddings does worry about the venues reopening, he’s not in panic mode. Yet. “We do have to reopen at some point. Fall is better than winter. Next winter is better than next spring. Once you get into next winter, next spring, of course we're concerned,” he said. “A lot of it has to do with knowing what's safe. Nobody I work with wants to be a part of something that's part of the problem. … There are two questions, really: When is it safe? And when will people feel safe?”

For Rumba, Eddings is hopeful that the venue can begin hosting small, reduced-capacity, socially distanced shows sometime this summer. “The idea of doing some mom-and-pop local shows for a much smaller number of people is something that everybody is into — if it's safe and it doesn't become a headache,” he said. (Rumba Cafe manager Todd Dugan declined to be interviewed for this story.)

The next show on the books at the Athenaeum Theatre, which holds about 1,400 people (pre-pandemic), is scheduled for September. “One of the great things about the Athenaeum is the high ceilings and the good ventilation,” Eddings said. “It's a good place in these times where you need a little bit of extra room.”

Eddings only books national acts at Skully’s, which is experimenting with seated shows this weekend, and he’s keeping an open mind about other shows that could happen there. “If it’s safe and it makes sense, we’re ready to go,” he said.

When reopening does happen, Eddings said, there’s a responsibility on the part of music fans to be safe and smart. “If we're doing a 30- or 40-person show at Rumba Cafe, we can't also have security, so we need people to be respectful of other concert-goers,” he said. “When we do open, go. And when you go, don't be a jerk.”