Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance: the five stages of grief. We’ve all been at one stage or another since March. Sometimes in tandem, dualities of loss and mourning for things large and small due to the COVID-19 pandemic, including live music.
Since spring, I’ve thought frequently of one warm evening in a wilder, freer time, when I walked with a friend visiting from Portland from one concert at Luckey’s to catch a bit of another show at WOW Hall.
“Eugene’s music scene, you can really throw your arms around it,” my friend said, and he’s right. Live music in Eugene is often claustrophobic, sometimes underachieving, but always resilient. In other words, and pardon the colloquialism: It isn’t much, but it’s ours.
Suddenly, in March, it was gone.
Not completely, of course, as artists tried at first to live stream, like the online Virtual Valley Music Festival, and the WOW Hall, which hosted a successful online fundraising virtual concert over the summer.
On Dec. 29, in fact, WOW Hall celebrates its 45th anniversary with a greatest-hits live stream of classic footage from throughout the venue’s history, including Babes with Axes, Hot Buttered Rum and Portland’s Decemberists, 5 pm to 9 pm on Twitch and YouTube.
In addition to those virtual concerts, artists also brought their music to parks and porches during the warm summer months when COVID-restrictions loosened up just a little.
In the fall, Hult Center Presents and Wildcraft Cider Works hosted Seattle indie songwriter Damien Jurado and Portland twin-sister folk-rock duo The Shook Twins in a two-night socially distanced benefit for those affected by the Holiday Farm Fire.
On Halloween, Eugene electro-swing band High Step Society sold out Wildcraft, and local indie rock quartet Ferns played Blairally.
But now, in the cold, dark winter of Lane County’s high-risk COVID designation, which continues to prevent indoor gatherings, those shows are distant memories.
How are venues getting by in the meantime?
It’s a holding pattern, says Danny Kime, owner of Sessions Music Hall. That’s at least until federal relief funding comes through in the Save Our Stages Act, part of the package of pandemic relief that, as of press time, just passed Congress.
Save Our Stages would provide a financial lifeline to struggling music venues in the form of a $15 billion dollar grant program, from which eligible venues could recoup 45 percent of gross revenue from 2019, or $12 million dollars, whichever is less, among other benefits.
Although the stimulus bill passed, Save Our Stages may yet get cut, Kime says. The bill must be signed by President Donald Trump, who made a last minute demand to increase personal stimulus checks to $2,000.
“It would be irresponsible of Congress to let the 2,000 independent venues fail, as they are essential to the economy,” Kime says, mentioning that for every $1 spent by a concert-goer at a venue, $12 is spent at local restaurants, hotels and with Lyft drivers, among other businesses.
“This understanding should give #SOS bipartisan support,” Kime says, and for his part, Rep. Peter DeFazio, representing Oregon’s 4th congressional district, agrees.
“I am a proud co-sponsor of the bipartisan Save Our Stages Act,” DeFazio told Eugene Weekly in an email, shortly before the stimulus bill passed, “which would provide desperately needed assistance to these community cornerstones. As Congress continues to negotiate a COVID-19 relief deal, I will continue to push to ensure these businesses are not left behind.”
“Eugene’s performance spaces are a vital part of our community’s social fabric,” DeFazio added.The congressman later told EW that the money will be available to eligible people who work for these performance venues, including everyone from performance operators to promoters. The stimulus bill will also extend unemployment benefits and once again includes gig workers for those who have been unemployed during the pandemic.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer had this to say in Variety, a leading entertainment industry trade publication: “I am especially pleased that this bill will provide money for bars and restaurants, and $15 billion in SBA grants for theatre operators and small venue owners through the Save Our Stages Act.”
For these reasons and more, Hult Center Director of Marketing Rich Hobby is optimistic.
“I know it is still going to be a while before we are back to the way things were, but I am excited to see events return with a renewed energy on both the artistic and audience side,” he says.
And with the slow roll-out of a vaccine, hope is on the horizon, though live music is unlikely to return in full force for quite some time.
Throughout the pandemic, Sam Bond’s Garage — arguably Eugene’s best bar/venue — has kept a low profile. Nevertheless, Cindy Ingram, who books entertainment at the venue, says owners plan to reopen once it’s safe, and in the meantime, they’ve upgraded the bar and stage.
“I’d like to think we can run shows in the fall of 2021,” says Kime from Sessions, “but it really comes down to the availability of the vaccine and state mandates on gatherings.”
Citing polling data from Variety, Kime says 40 percent of the population would be willing to attend a concert immediately following the vaccine’s release to the general public
But 40 percent won’t sell enough tickets to make club-level tours financially viable, Kime says.
We may even see proof of vaccination required for attendance at shows where social distancing is not possible, speculates Doug Fuchs from Flying Ink Marketing, a marketing agency representing the McDonald Theatre and Cuthbert Amphitheatre, among other venues.
Supporting Fuchs’ hypothesis, Billboard, another leading music industry trade publication, reports that Ticketmaster is already experimenting with a vaccine verification system.
“I suspect that we will have to wait until 2022 for large outdoor and indoor events,” Fuchs continues, “with some club shows possible in the fall of 2021.”
Whether artists will be willing to play those shows remains to be seen.
“It’s the secondary and tertiary markets [such as Eugene] that are going to be hit the hardest,” Kime says. “As tours scale back their dates to only major markets and bigger venues, smaller halls like ours will likely be left with producing a higher number of regional and local acts until the industry rebounds, and who knows when that will be.”
“Could be a few years before Sessions resembles anything close to what it was pre-COVID,” Kime continues. “And this is why federal funding is going to be critical for our survival.”
Nevertheless, the Hult Center’s Hobby expects live performances to return in 2021.
If there’s one thing people can do, he says, “it is to make some noise about Save Our Stages and the HEROES act. Those are literal lifelines for an industry that has been shuttered since March.”