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In Pandemic, Music Clubs Among The First To Close And Last To Reopen — If They Can

The Mtali Banda Oneness Project was the opening band at the Makaya McCraven concert at Gateway City Arts in Holyoke on June 4, 2019.
Ed Cohen
MassLive / masslive.com
The Mtali Banda Oneness Project was the opening band at the Makaya McCraven concert at Gateway City Arts in Holyoke on June 4, 2019.

It’s been five months since live music venues and DJ clubs shut their doors to dancing crowds, and in Massachusetts they won’t be able to open in full until a COVID-19 vaccine or a proven treatment is available. If they make it that long.

The last concert at Gateway City Arts in Holyoke, Massachusetts, was March 7, with rock and blues guitarist Eric Gales on stage. 

“We had 700 people here for a sold-out concert in the larger music hall,” said Vitek Kruta, co-owner of the multi-functional club with his partner, Lori Divine Hudson.

In the following days, Governor Charlie Baker began issuing pandemic guidelines and shutting down the state's schools and businesses. For Divine Hudson and Kruta, a bigger burden, as Gateway City Arts had just expanded. In February they opened a restaurant on the premises.  

“We poured ourselves into this [business] for nine years,” Divine Hudson said. “It’s so devastating."

To bring in revenue early in the pandemic, Divine Hudson said they opened up for takeout, but sales barely covered the cost of the food. To stay open, Gateway City Arts depends on ticket sales — as well as bar sales during concerts. 

“Moving forward, we now try to figure out what we do if we have to stay closed for another year,” Kruta said. “That’s every month times $11,000. [It’s] a lot of money.”

Loans, utilities, the mortgage for two buildings and maintenance tally up fast, plus everything else, Kruta said. They've canceled what permits and insurance they can. Somewhat optimistically Kruta described the club as hibernating. But for how long?

Ninety percent of clubs won't make it through the next six months without federal help, according to the National Independent Venue Association.

“That doesn't mean that the other 10% are going to be fine,” said NIVA's executive director, Reverend Moose. “There’s months seven and eight and nine and 10…This is potentially a closure of a year to a year-and-a-half.”

In Massachusetts and other states, entertainment clubs won’t be allowed to reopen in full until there’s a COVID vaccine or a proven treatment. 

NIVA is lobbying congress to fund the Save Our Stages Act, a $10 billion grant program to help operators, promoters and producers through this period. A million people have sent emails of support, the group said.

Music producer and promoter Jim Olsen owns The Parlor Room in Northampton, Mass., a small BYOB venue, at a location he rents. 

“We're kind of diversified,” Olsen said. “Signature Sounds, our parent company, is also a record label. It has income not solely reliant on presenting live music.”

Olsen also has the contacts and the technology to facilely produce live, online concerts from musicians' homes and has already produced about 50 shows since the beginning of the pandemic. 

“It's been pretty remarkable. We’ve paid out over $95,000 to artists since the beginning of March,” Olsen said, with Signature Sounds bringing in about $40,000.

While nobody around the region is making millions owning a club, in 2015 when Steve Goldsher first bought two Greenfield, Massachusetts, buildings in a foreclosure auction, he said he wasn't doing it to just make money. With his two sons, he opened Hawks and Reed Performing Arts Center.

"Obviously, there's an investment in the real estate, but the business itself has been a mission to bring arts of all types to Greenfield and make something positive happen for the community,” Goldsher said.

In a post-pandemic environment, Goldsher said they will need to reinvent how they run the business, maybe by getting sponsorships or hosting more private events, which they’ve done in the past. 

Goldsher also follows a creative economy formula that has proven successful — to a degree — in some cities: If you can bring artists to an area, people will come and spend money at nearby restaurants and stores.

“There's no doubt that the mayor of the town would like to see Hawks and Reed reopen in some fashion, to bring people downtown,” Goldsher said, which he added has been desolate since the pandemic began.

The mayor's chief of staff contacted Hawks and Reed a couple of weeks ago, wondering if Goldsher was interested in using Court Square, a city-owned property adjacent to the club, for live music shows.

While Hawks and Reed still has to work out the licensing and figure out how adhere to pandemic guidelines, like social distancing, Goldsher said they're going forward and he could even rehire some staff.

In the past month, a few other music venues in the area began producing shows outside, and in some cases, even just for local bands, tickets sold out within a few hours.

But as Massachusetts saw a recent uptick in COVID-19 cases, Baker announced last week he was decreasing the number of people allowed at an outdoor event — from 100 to 50.

Jill Kaufman has been a reporter and host at NEPM since 2005. Before that she spent 10 years at WBUR in Boston, producing "The Connection" with Christopher Lydon and on "Morning Edition" reporting and hosting. She's also hosted NHPR's daily talk show "The Exhange" and was an editor at PRX's "The World."
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