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Are America’s live music venues at risk of collapsing in the face of the pandemic?

Professionals in the industry share how they're adapting to challenging times

The Metropolitan Opera House at the Lincoln Centre for the Performing Arts in New York cancelled its entire 2020-2021 season, owing to the pandemic. Alamy
The Metropolitan Opera House at the Lincoln Centre for the Performing Arts in New York cancelled its entire 2020-2021 season, owing to the pandemic. Alamy

“Jazz is social music,” says Jerome Sabbagh. “Playing music with people, interacting, having a musical conversation, so to speak, and doing that in front of an audience – that’s what gives this music its meaning.”

It has been a difficult year for Sabbagh. Like millions of other musicians, theatre actors, comedians, dancers and live performers of all kinds, the jazz saxophonist and composer has had gigs cancelled as live venues all over the world have closed.

An autumn reopening?

“Usually I perform regularly in New York. I was supposed to tour Japan for 10 days. That got cancelled,” Sabbagh says. “I probably would have worked in Europe over the summer – obviously I didn’t even travel there. It’s a lot less work all round, so that means lost income. That also means a loss of opportunities.”

This month, Dr Anthony Fauci, America’s top infectious disease expert, said at a virtual conference for performing arts professionals that he believes live venues might be able to reopen “some time in the fall of 2021”. He said his estimate depended on 70 per cent to 85 per cent of the population being vaccinated by that time, and stressed that safety measures such as masks and enhanced ventilation in theatres might be necessary.

But for struggling performers and the owners whose closed venues are still racking up rent, utilities and insurance costs, autumn seems a long way off. Hundreds of live performance venues across the US have closed their doors, such as the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, which announced the cancellation of its entire 2020-2021 season because of the pandemic. Other venues are on the brink of collapse, with a dependence on donations for survival. The jazz scene alone has been hard hit.

Those left standing

“The Jazz Standard, which was a beloved club in New York, which I played at sometimes and that I attended many times as a patron, closed. It may or may not reopen,” says Sabbagh. “The Blue Whale in Los Angeles closed. There are other places that are in danger. Birdland in New York is trying to raise money to stay alive. Those are big losses for the scene and the scene is going to change. We’re going to have to see post-pandemic what clubs are left standing and what we can do.”

Jerome Sabbagh
Jazz saxophonist and composer Jerome Sabbagh has had gigs cancelled amid the pandemic

A US government bill signed into law last month includes $15 billion for art venues struggling to survive the ongoing crisis, as part of a $900bn coronavirus relief package. But venues such as Bar Bayeux, a cosy Brooklyn venue that hosted live jazz concerts three nights a week before the pandemic, have slipped through the cracks. As a bar that offers live music, rather than a live music venue with a bar, it is ineligible for the federal aid package.

“A lot of clubs are in the same situation. It’s a struggle to try to find a way to stay alive,” says Sabbagh, who volunteers as the bar’s booker.

Many live venues in the US have experienced a reduction in revenue of more than 90 per cent since the pandemic hit, according to the National Independent Venue Association, founded in April last year. Financial losses in the performing arts field are estimated to be $14.8 million, according to a survey released this month by national advocacy group Americans for the Arts. Ten per cent of organisations surveyed were not confident they would survive the pandemic.

The rise in online concerts

For independent venues, adaptation has become key to survival. In November, Sabbagh launched a series of online jazz concerts, live-streamed via Facebook to thousands around the world, in collaboration with Bar Bayeux. Having seen underwhelming examples of online performances in the early days of the pandemic, he was initially sceptical about quality.

Almost everything we’ve done has been live using Zoom and some broadcast technology

Raymond Bobgan, Cleveland Public Theatre

“To do it right takes a lot of time and effort,” he says. He added that it took three months of preparation and eight test streams before he was ready to launch. The aim is to raise donations that are split between the musicians and the bar.

“It’s hard because now on the internet everything is free, so a lot of people are not necessarily aware that there is a tremendous cost for us in terms of effort, buying gear, paying the musicians, all that,” Sabbagh says. “If people want us and venues like us to survive, the way to help us is to contribute … It really does make a difference and it’s pretty much the only thing we’ve got.”

He is also unsure about an autumn reopening. “All this is a moving target,” he says. “It depends how the roll-out of the vaccine goes. It depends on how many people take it. There are a lot of unknowns. So we’re just trying to look at it one day at a time, one stream at a time.”

'We have to continue fulfilling our calling'

In Ohio, Raymond Bobgan, executive artistic director of Cleveland Public Theatre, has also been forced to go digital. Founded in 1981, the theatre works with diverse communities across the city and is home to Arabic-language theatre company Masrah Cleveland Al-Arabi and the Latino Teatro Publico.

“We’ve reduced our size significantly – probably by about a third,” says Bobgan, who had to let all his part-time front-of-house and teaching staff go and has taken a 10 per cent pay cut. Revenue is down by about 45 per cent and the theatre has been relying on government support, donations and its meagre emergency fund to survive. He believes they will be eligible to claim funding from the new stimulus package.

Raymond Bobgan
Raymond Bobgan, executive artistic director of Cleveland Public Theatre

“There has been quite a bit of support here from the government, but on the artistic side it’s been a real challenge,” Bobgan says.

“We’re deeply rooted and connected with many different communities here in Cleveland, and we can’t fail them just because we don’t have the tools we normally have. We have to find a way to continue fulfilling our calling.”

Digital performances are here to stay

Unable to host live audiences, the theatre has moved performances online. “Almost everything we’ve done has been live using Zoom and some broadcast technology,” he says. “Some of it’s been more workshopping, but now we’re moving into full productions.”

He organised one show where all the actors performed at the theatre, isolated in different rooms. “Everyone was actually on-site, but none of us ever saw each other really except via camera, so that was weird,” he says.

Performing via Zoom is challenging, he says, but a production that might not have made much of an impression a year ago has a lot of impact now. “People are hungry to see something that is live, that has that theatrical feeling. And for the artists themselves it’s huge.”

Post-pandemic, the live act landscape may look very different. The Americans for the Art’s survey found that 73 per cent of organisations had increased their online presence as a result of the pandemic and that 67 per cent of those expected to maintain a virtual presence after reopening.

Cleveland Public Theatre and Bar Bayeux are among them. “We want to try to find a way to do a hybrid performance. That’s what a lot of people are talking about,” says Bobgan. “So we would be doing a show for maybe only 50 audience members on site, but we would also be selling 50 tickets on Zoom.”

For Sabbagh, whose live-streamed gigs often attract thousands of views, a hybrid approach that combines on-site and online performances also appeals.

“I think it makes sense because it expands your reach, and once you’ve made the initial investment of buying the gear and spending time figuring out how to use it, how to make it look good, how to make it sound good, that’s work that you’ve done. You might as well try to capitalise on that.”

Published: January 27, 2021 08:03 AM


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