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Triad live music venues more optimistic about reopening

Triad live music venues more optimistic about reopening

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GREENSBORO — For the first time in nearly three weeks, live music returned to The Blind Tiger on Saturday night.

About 80 people turned out to listen to country and Southern rock from The Piedmont Boys, the Billy Creason Band and Isaiah Breedlove.

Patrons entered the Spring Garden Street venue wearing masks. Owner Brad McCauley checked their temperatures. 

Couples and groups sat socially-distanced from others at high-top tables 6 feet apart, eating sub sandwiches and hot dogs and drinking beer.

"How about a hand for The Blind Tiger for putting this on tonight?" said Breedlove, who came from Culhowee to perform as the first act.

Like other live music venues, The Blind Tiger was closed last March by COVID-19 pandemic regulations against large crowds.

It then reopened in August by cutting capacity by half, adding social distancing and serving limited food during shows to qualify as a restaurant.

Then it closed after public uproar over a Jan. 17 Facebook photo showing a mostly-maskless crowd at a memorial show for a musician who died of COVID-19.

"There were people threatening to do all kinds of crazy stuff here," McCauley said.

Under Gov. Roy Cooper's executive order, face coverings are required in restaurants at all times an individual is not eating or drinking.

If customers leave their tables, McCauley said, they have to wear masks. That applied at the Jan. 17 event, he said.

Saturday night "was amazing," McCauley said later. "Great music and great customers that maintained our COVID-19 policies."

The incident and backlash illustrate some of the stresses on live music venues, bands and patrons during the pandemic. Bands stopped touring. Venues closed and furloughed staff, while still struggling to pay ongoing rent, insurance and utilities.

The Ramkat in Winston-Salem and Cone Denim Entertainment Center in Greensboro have stayed shuttered.

Carolina Theatre in Greensboro and High Point Theatre — with capacities at 1,075 and 929, respectively — have to limit concert attendance to 25 under state rules.

That limit, combined with acts and fans who aren't ready to venture out, has postponed or canceled shows.

"Twenty-five won't cut it," said David Briggs, High Point Theatre's executive director.  

Some operators resent different rules for similar types of businesses. They object when similar businesses reopen, while they stay closed. 

"We knew that if we went to 12 months and there wasn’t any sort of light at the end of the tunnel," Ramkat co-owner Richard Emmett said, "we were going to have to make some pretty serious decisions and give it some serious thought about how we were going to move forward and if we were going to move forward."

Now, venue operators see a light.

They hear health experts say that the live music industry should be able to resume by the fall. 

Before that, the federal Save Our Stages Act is expected to bring $15 billion in relief.

Triad venue operators hope that it will help save their stages. 

The Ramkat

Just a year ago, owners of the live music venue saw themselves on a roll.

They operate a 1,004-capacity music hall and small attached lounge, called Gas Hill Drinking Room, at 170 W. Ninth St. in Winston-Salem.

The venue had brought in more than $1 million in revenue in 2019, only its second year of operation. 

Owners expected income to exceed that in 2020.

"We felt like we were just finally hitting our stride and getting our momentum from being a new venue," said Emmett, who owns The Ramkat with Andy Tennille and Bryan Ledbetter. "We were really hopeful and looking forward to 2020."

Then the pandemic closed The Ramkat. From March through December, its revenue dropped 95% from 2019.

"This pandemic has decimated our business," Tennille said. "We’ve been closed for more than 45 weeks with very little revenue and expenses that continue to deplete the cash reserves we worked so hard to save."

Money has come from donors and state and local organizations. Creditors and landlords have been flexible.

The Ramkat received a forgivable $49,910 federal Paycheck Protection Program loan in April to help pay employees. 

During the summer, it started the Home Sweet Home series. A small and socially-distanced crew films bands' short sets on The Ramkat stage, broadcasting them each week to audiences at home.

Donations — which owners share equally with the band — don't cover the cost.

But the series provides opportunities for bands, entertainment for the community — and keeps owners sane, Tennille said.

Owners contemplate holding outdoor concerts this summer, and hopefully reopening in the fall or winter.

They get irritated when they hear about some businesses that have opened. They say they find state regulations confusing.

"It's fairly well documented on social media and in the press that there have been a number of businesses that maybe haven’t followed the rules either as tightly or correctly as they could," Tennille said. "I don’t think that’s just happening in Winston-Salem ... It's happening pretty much everywhere.

"Our frustration stems from the fact that we accept The Ramkat will be the last business to re-open given what we do, but that re-opening date gets pushed further and further out in the future if the community — including other businesses — doesn’t take the guidance and restrictions by our health experts seriously."

Like most independent live music venues, The Ramkat is classified as a private bar/club by the N.C. ABC Commission — similar to regular bars.

It could host indoor audiences up to 25. But that's not financially feasible, Emmett said.

Yet breweries, wineries, distilleries and restaurants can host up to 50% of capacity inside.

Tennille finds it frustrating that the state has a different set of rules and regulations for breweries, wineries and distilleries versus bars. "The interactions with customers — and thus the potential for spreading the virus — are the same," he said.

"The only real difference as far as I can tell is that breweries, wineries and distilleries make the products they sell, and bars like Gas Hill don’t," Tennille said.

Emmett said he doesn't object to businesses opening.

"But if they’re doing that when COVID infections and hospitalizations and deaths are so high, and the spread is so strong, that makes our business and others like us have to be closed longer, and that’s really unfair," he said.

Tennille suggests that patrons vote with their wallets, supporting businesses that follow the protocols.

Instead of focusing on other businesses, they focus on how to safely reopen their own.

They hope that the Save Our Stages Act and its Shuttered Venue Operators Grants will help. In December, Congress created the $15 billion Shuttered Venue Operators Grant fund for clubs and performance spaces. The Small Business Administration is creating rules, and is expected to start taking applications in a few weeks.

Most recipients can apply for 45% of their 2019 revenue, up to $10 million. For the first 14 days, grants will be available to those that lost 90% or more of their revenue between April and December.

"We really are counting on this shuttered venue grant," Emmett said. "And it's looking like we’re going to have to raise some money even with that to get reopened and ramp back up. Nobody knows what it’s going to be like when we are able to open and how long it will take for national touring artists to get back in the swing of things."

"So while we’re cautiously optimistic that things are going to go our way, we’re still on edge," Emmett said.

Carolina Theatre

Greensboro Coliseum Complex and Carolina Theatre in Greensboro plan to apply as well.

The coliseum complex lost $7.5 million compared with the same period in 2019.

Until it shut down last March, the historic Carolina Theatre at 310 S. Greene St. offered a full slate of public concerts, movies, community plays and private events. 

In October, it reopened with its Ghostlight series of concerts for a maximum of 25 people in the 1,075-seat auditorium. 

It added movies, with audiences limited to 100.

The grant subsidizing the Ghostlight series ran out earlier this year, Executive Director Brian Gray said.

And with virus numbers still rising, he said, it didn't seem like the right time to put out a slate of new movies.

"The other reason I took a pause on the movies right now is that I don’t know if there’s enough people out there that feel like getting back out," Gray said. "It’s cold, it’s dreary, the country is in disarray. So let’s just give it a few weeks and see how things are going."

He's also trying to figure out a way to host dance competitions, with parents and grandparents outside.

If there's a bright spot, it's that ticket-buyers and donors have been generous, Gray said. 

"We are on a record-breaking year for donations," Gray said. "People who bought tickets to canceled shows have turned them into donations. Other people in the past who would give us $50 are adding a zero."

He expects to resume some programming later in February, "just to get the lights on, so people don’t forget about us."

"As far as full operation, that is totally out of our hands," Gray said. "The governor can say, you can be at 100% capacity. But that doesn’t mean people will show up. It's all in the confidence people have in what they want to do and where they feel comfortable. People feel comfortable with 100 people in a 1,100-seat movie theater. But are they going to feel comfortable with a thousand people?"

Cone Denim Entertainment Center

A few blocks away from the Carolina, Cone Denim Entertainment Center at 117 S. Elm St. in Greensboro, offered national entertainment booked by Live Nation. 

But national artists aren't currently booking indoor dates, said Rocky Scarfone, who owns the venue with Jeffrey Furr.

"We are definitely opening back up as soon as artists start touring again and restrictions are lifted, which we anticipate being in May or June," Scarfone said.

"That depends," Scarfone added, "upon how the vaccination plan goes, what restrictions the governor has in place and what restrictions our city and the county have in place."

He, too, plans to apply for the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant.

The venue opened in November 2014 with comedian Dave Chappelle.

It has drawn a long list of popular acts, including Gregg Allman, Luke Combs, Lewis Black, Big & Rich, Chris Lane, Hannibal Burress, Leon Russell, Kansas, Scotty McCreery and Bret Michaels. 

Scarfone also owns Ham's American Bar and Grille at the Palladium in High Point, a restaurant that features a band on Saturday nights.

"We were at least allowed at some point to reopen, even though at limited capacities and restricted hours that then became more restrictive," Scarfone said of Ham's.

Cone Denim has a small kitchen. But owners opted not to become classified as a restaurant to reopen, as The Blind Tiger did.

"The artists that we play at Cone Denim Entertainment Center, it would be hard to pay them with such a limited capacity," Scarfone said.  

"Even if a national artist would play," he added, "the ticket price would be so high to the consumer, that we did not feel good about doing that. So it wasn’t really feasible for us."

The Blind Tiger

Cone Demin Entertainment Center presents national touring acts, but The Blind Tiger tends to present tribute bands, regional bands and electronic dance music.

McCauley said he decided to switch from a private club to a restaurant when, "I had spent $60,000 of my own money keeping this place going with no money coming in."

He bought high-top tables and chairs and cut capacity in half to 240, although numbers haven't approached that.

He arranged for sub sandwiches to be made and hot dogs steamed on site.

McCauley has said that the Jan. 17 memorial concert was considered a religious event and exempt from COVID-19 restrictions. Guilford County officials disagree.

McCauley pointed out that patrons sat at the high-top tables, and that the controversial photo taken there can give the wrong impression.

"When you take a picture from there, it looks like everybody is standing," McCauley said. "The only people standing in that picture are people in that left corner right there, and that was all the family."

Those standing at the stage weren't wearing masks, he said.

The Billy Creason Band was among groups performing that day. Creason said he wasn't there when the photo was taken.

Shows have been few and far between during the pandemic, Creason said. The band played a few shows last year in Winston-Salem, where he's based.

"I feel very safe in this environment," Creason said before his band took the stage.

McCauley speaks of the importance of keeping The Blind Tiger open for bands such as Creason's.

"Where are your local bands going to play?" he said. "Where are your regional bands going to play? Where’s the guy who just picked up a guitar and learned how to play last summer going to be able to have an opportunity to play on a stage?"

Contact Dawn DeCwikiel-Kane at 336-373-5204 and follow @dawndkaneNR on Twitter.

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