A pedestrian on Saturday walks past the entrance to Blue, a live music venue on Congress Street in Portland. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Live music venues were allowed to reopen in Maine this month, but Portland music presenters say they don’t expect to start hosting indoor concerts until a vaccine can allow for large enough crowds to make it worthwhile. And if they don’t get financial assistance in the meantime, there will be fewer stages when bands and concertgoers can safely return.

Ken Bell of Portland House of Music says he has zero revenue coming in and doesn’t know how he’ll make it to the end of the year. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

“Even if I put 50 people on my patio right now, I am not sure I like the optics of that,” said Ken Bell, owner of Portland House of Music, whose concert club sits at the corner of Temple and Federal streets in Portland. “We know what comes with shows. People have a beer or two and that six feet becomes a little shorter, that mask stays on a little less. I don’t want to have that optic of being the guy promoting the spread of this. It’s a tough decision, though. I am up against the wall financially. It’s a moral decision, and right now my morals are winning.”

When they do begin presenting concerts again, even with a vaccine, music promoters will operate under new business models that will require touring bands to take smaller guarantees and share more financial risk, while promoters will have to spend more money to meet rigorous backstage protocols that will keep bands safe, and implement new rules governing fan behavior on the floor – and more security to enforce those rules, though they don’t know yet what exactly those would be. On top of that, there’s the conversion to touchless ticketing, bathrooms and vending, one-way in and one-way out and, significantly, pandemic insurance, which will be required to protect promoters and music hall operators from being sued in case someone gets sick.

“We get weather cancellation insurance for outdoor shows, now we will get pandemic insurance too,” said Lauren Wayne, who books 6,000-capacity outdoor shows at Thompson’s Point, concerts at the 1,900-seat State Theatre and club shows at the 530-capacity Port City Music Hall. “The no-maskers are going to be the first people to sue by getting coronavirus in your venue.”

Lauren Wayne of the State Theater and Port City Music Hall says that she’s hoping the state will be able to provide some financial assistance to live music venues because holding concerts inside venues is not likely to start back up until next year. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Wayne and her music-presenting peers have lobbied local, state and federal legislators for financial assistance. They want a share of the $1.2 billion in federal money targeted for pandemic relief in Maine, and are making the case for the value of their industry in economic impact and quality of life, citing recent studies that suggest art and entertainment add $1.6 billion to Maine’s economy and that for every $1 spent on ticket sales, another $12 is spent on hotels, restaurants and related activities. “That’s what we’re all asking – how do we get some of that, because we are all going to need it in order to open our doors again,” Wayne said of the federal assistance.

She is part of a nationwide coalition, the National Independent Venue Association, that is pitching Congress for more help. The association, which represents 2,000 venue operators and music promoters, said 90 percent of its members will close permanently by fall without federal funding, according to an early June survey of membership. It’s already happening. The closest iconic venue to Maine that announced it won’t reopen is Great Scott in Boston. And although it operated under a much different business model, Big Babe’s Tavern in South Portland – a restaurant and music venue that was only open for two months before being shut down by the coronavirus – put its building up for sale last week.

For now, the operators of Portland’s major music venues say they plan to reopen when they can safely. But the longer the pandemic lasts, the more likely it is that some will not reopen at all. “All options are on the table,” said Bell, who has engaged a Portland real estate agent about the possibility of selling his business. “Whether I speak with a broker, whether I get a third, fourth or fifth job, whether I get help from the city or the state, I don’t know yet. I don’t have that answer. But I will put some real evaluation in come September or October.”

Added Wayne, “It will be very hard for some of us to make it through.”

Jeff Beam of One Longfellow Square, Terez Fraser of Blue, Lauren Wayne of the State Theater and Port City Music Hall and Ken Bell of Portland House of Music discuss the issues facing the future of live music in Wayne’s backyard in Portland. All said that they don’t see a scenario where they would open before the end of the year. With only a limited capacity allowed inside their venues, they would lose money by holding a concert because the ticket revenue wouldn’t be enough to pay for the operating costs of a show. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

WHAT IT WILL TAKE

Four music presenters recently gathered in Wayne’s backyard to talk about their frustrations, their plans and hopes. In addition to Wayne and Bell, also attending were Jeff Beam from One Longfellow Square, which recently raised more than $100,000 in a continuing crowd-source fundraising campaign to keep the music hall solvent until it can present shows again, and Terez Fraser of Blue, a small music club on Congress Street. Mark Curdo of Aura, Peter McLaughlin of Space, and Jonathan Morse of Geno’s Rock Club spoke separately by phone.

Jeff Beam of One Longfellow Square is grateful for the donors who contributed over $100,000 to the venue’s GoFundMe campaign so it could stay financially afloat until it can reopen next year. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

None have had income from music since March, while still being responsible for rent, loans, licenses, fees, taxes and other obligations, even if they’re deferred. They’ve all lost enormous sums of money – none would say how much – and many have laid off or furloughed most of their staffs. Their losses are part of the $8.9 billion that Pollstar predicts music presenters will lose nationally if venues remain dark through 2020, as expected. They’ve begun an effort to educate and inform policymakers at all levels of government, as well as their fans, how their business works and why it makes little sense for most of them to begin operating with limited capacity and without health guarantees in place for fans, employees and performers.

With a hopeful eye on 2021, Wayne has begun extending offers to bands. She said most won’t consider a contract without all details in writing about how they will be treated when they arrive in town. In the past, those details usually were left to days before the show actually happened – the infamous show rider. Now instead of specifications about food, beverages and other back-stage necessities, bands want to know how the building is being disinfected and cleaned, how many shows are happening each week and where their show falls in the schedule.

Wayne wondered if she would have to prove that all her employees are virus-free or have been vaccinated, and if bands and their touring personnel would have to do the same – and who will enforce all that?

She predicted her expenses will triple what they were before the pandemic. “And our revenue is going down,” she said. “This is an educational mission. This is a plea to get financial assistance. That is the key that will keep all of our doors open. We cannot sustain ourselves without some kind of help.”

Fraser, the owner of Blue on Congress Street, operates at the other end of the spectrum, with about 80 seats and a capacity of about 100 people. She could open now with a dozen or so folks seated socially distanced, but would have to change her approach to business. Right now, Blue passes a hat for donations or charges a small amount of admission. “I would have to consider higher ticket prices to make up the difference, and then I am changing the format of my business. Do I want to do that? I love my business model,” she said. “But I will seriously have to rethink it with the lack of cash. It’s going to be difficult. I am taking it day by day and looking at the numbers every day.”

If she moves forward with intimate shows, she wonders: Will anyone show up? Will bands agree to play? What will she have to pay them if they do?

Terez Fraser of the nightclub Blue says she feels she will have to make upgrades to her venue before reopening like adding touchless paper towel dispensers and touchless toilets in order for club goers to feel safe. With no revenue coming in, she doesn’t know how she would pay for the upgrades. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Fraser signed a five-year lease just before the pandemic hit. Bell on the other hand paid off the loan he took out to start his business in February. To reopen, he would have to consider going back into debt, which is one reason he might sell the business. Fraser also said she will have to invest further in her building before she can reopen. “I don’t have touchless paper towel dispensers, touchless toilets and sinks. I am starting to think I need to make those upgrades. That is a lot of money,” she said.

Beam said the $100,000-and-counting raised by One Longfellow Square would be used to cover rent and expenses until the 185-seat music hall can begin presenting shows again. As of last week, all the staff had been furloughed, but Beam expressed gratitude that so many people donated money.

“We didn’t want to do it. Money is tight right now for individuals, so it didn’t feel good asking people to open their wallets when they’re hurting on their own. And there are so many other social-justice causes worthy of people’s time and money,” he said. “We were well aware of that. The fact that we had to do a campaign and act on that, I hope speaks to the desperation of why we had to do it. One hundred thousand sounds like a really big number, but that was just to pay rent indefinitely. It’s a moving target about when we can reopen, so it’s a tricky equation.”

He doubts One Longfellow will reopen until there’s a vaccine. Rent and expenses cost about $7,000 a month, he said.

The message is much the same at Space, said McLaughin, who books music at the downtown venue. “We have no plans to reopen for public events anytime soon. It’s quite a ways away,” he said. “The restrictions on capacity are such, it would not be feasible to reopen even if folks were inclined to come out, and they’re not. There are places that are doing music – bars and places like that. But I am not hearing a lot of voices in the Maine music community that are inclined to open up anytime soon.”

Among those hosting shows are Jonathan’s in Ogunquit and Cadenza in Freeport – local performers, who are not subject to out-of-state quarantine regulations – because they feel they can do so safely. But Wayne said even if she could make the math work at the State or Port City with 50 or fewer attending, bands aren’t touring. “If national acts aren’t on the road, we are not going to be open. Our business model is not based on local musicians, though we love to support them. Our business model is based on national tours that are going out,” she said. “I cannot open until the next state is open and California is open.”

McLaughlin expects some outdoor concerts will be announced for this summer – events that account for social-distancing and respect many people’s concerns about gathering together. “There are a lot of good ideas circulating and a lot of folks, myself included, are working hand-in-hand with the city on some things, moving slowly and thinking about what we can do in a safe manner,” he said. “There are some exciting prospects and things that likely will be announced fairly soon, but they have to move at the pace they can move.”

Around the corner at Aura, general manager Mark Curdo said he and his team “are ready to get going. We have a venue that is barely three years old. We were just catching a good groove” before the coronavirus shut everything down in March. But they will be patient, he said. As a music club, Aura won’t reopen until it’s safe, until bands begin touring and playing again and until audiences express a willingness to come out. All music shows are off until winter, Curdo said. “We’ve buried a few at the end of the year. We’ll see when the time is right. But for us, I don’t think we’ll see anything of decent size until the end of the year,” he said.

Until then, the Aura Sports Grill is open for takeout, and it has space available for private events.

Morse at Geno’s predicted Portland’s music scene will be very different when the music returns. “Music is more than a business for a lot of people. It’s a passion project, and your heart is in it. Everybody wants to hold on to that dream and keep it alive, but I think there will be a lot of rude awakenings in town, in this state and all over the country,” he said. “There aren’t going to be as many places to play anymore.”

Meanwhile, everybody waits – and hurts.

“We are in the mass-gathering business,” Wayne said. “That is why we got into it, that feeling of community and that feeling you get when you are at a show and you look over and you see a stranger enjoying your favorite artist with you, because it’s their favorite artist too. I miss that feeling so much.”


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