Venues can re-open, but will they?
By GWEN OREL
Although Gov. Phil Murphy is allowing music venues to reopen on Friday, with restrictions — social distancing and no more than 150 people or 25 percent of capacity — the Montclair music scene is going to take it slow.
“While this is welcome news to us at the Outpost and to all lovers of live music experiences, we will continue to proceed cautiously. We understand that this is a fluid situation, and our priority in reopening for in-person shows will be the safety of our patrons, artists and volunteers,” said Gail Prusslin, head of promotions for Outpost in the Burbs, which closed in March along with all performance venues due to the pandemic.
Anthony Morrison, general manager of the Wellmont Theater, said that the venue would remain closed. He would not comment on the governor’s announcement, saying his team needed to study it.
Singer-songwriter Richard Barone, who is booked to perform at Outpost in the spring, called the governor’s reopening plan an “experiment,” adding: “I pray it goes well.”
“To me personally, it’s still concerning. I wonder how they will be able to maintain the capacity restrictions, ensure safety and still make ends meet,” Barone said.
Meanwhile, the Seymour Street Development project next door to the Wellmont, which Morrison describes as “our sister project,” gives a glimmer of hope for the future, as construction continues on the mixed-use arts and entertainment venture.
The Wellmont was converted to a 2,500-person concert hall in 2008. The venue went through another renovation in 2013, reopening in 2015. Jim Gaffigan, Lauryn Hill and Meat Loaf have all performed there. Two years ago, the Wellmont opened a restaurant, Pharmacie Bar & Restaurant, on Bloomfield Avenue, now closed.
In the meantime, Morrison and his staff have been taking online classes, pursuing certification from the National Association of Training and Environmental Consulting, and learning how to reopen safely.
Last week, Morrison said, he participated in an eight-hour online class about how to clean, how often, what products to use.
So far, the Wellmont has not had to furlough any full-time employees, except those at the restaurant.
A DIFFERENT FEELING
Whenever the venue does open in a post-COVID world, it will probably not hold general admission or standing shows, Morrison said. “We toyed with taping things out on the floor.
But there is not enough square footage to do it. It doesn’t make sense. You might only have two people in a box, and the box is now taking up 35 square feet,” he explained.
The Wellmont is investigating different practices to reopen safely, including timed tickets (people entering at different times), blocking off some seats, designating aisles as up or down only, having turnstiles for people to scan their own tickets, asking patrons to come bagless so that staff do not have to search customers’ bags, and offering prepoured drinks at the bar.
Patrons should also expect to wear masks and have their temperature taken at the door.
The Wellmont sent a survey to its mailing list to ask customers about their concert-viewing habits and what measures they would accept. Overwhelmingly people felt comfortable with wearing a mask and staying 6 feet apart, Morrison said.
Outpost in the Burbs, Montclair’s music-presenting organization that produces shows primarily in First Congregational Church on South Fullerton Avenue, is planning its first in-person show since COVID-19 closed everything down. But that won’t happen until, at the earliest, March 2021.
Outpost held a 10-show virtual series this past spring in which artists performed from their homes to viewers, and held a virtual fundraiser in June.
The nonprofit Outpost does worry about sister venues, some of which have had to furlough or lay off staff. “We are part of the NIVA, the National Independent Venue Association, which has been active in trying to get some legislation passed, and getting support for independent venues all over the country,” said Prusslin, Outpost’s head of promotion. Many artists who perform at Outpost also play independent venues, so when these venues are affected, there is a domino effect, she explained.
And like the Wellmont, Prusslin has to consider what capacity will be like at the church when they are able to reopen. Right now the church holds 750.
She’s worried about lines to get in and intermissions when crowds would form.
And artists make a lot of their money through selling CDs at shows. All of this, including, as at the Wellmont, how to handle bathrooms will have to be figured out.
Barone, a Greenwich Village-based singer-songwriter, is booked to perform with his ’80s band, The Bongos, next spring at Outpost. Barone, who teaches a class called “Music and Revolution” at the New School (virtually, this autumn), also serves on the District Advocacy Committee of the Grammy Awards. He has spoken with representatives and senators about extending help to music venues.
“Because we really do feel that some of them will never come back, and some of them are historic, and all of them are necessary,” Barone said. Venues have had a “downward spiral,” he added.
Artists have been adapting. For Barone, being locked down has made him write more songs. He’s also participating in a tribute album, with many other artists, for John Lennon, JEM Records Celebrates John Lennon.
But in general, it has been difficult for independent artists to earn a living at home. Streaming shows, even with a virtual hat to pass, cannot earn the income of a live show. Some artists have been having regular happy hour events once a week and releasing new songs on Bandcamp on the first Friday of the month, when all of the proceeds go to artists. Some musicians, like Jeffrey Gaines, who has performed at Outpost, have done well with streaming concerts.
“It’s always a struggle being a musician,” Barone said. “Everyone is rising to the occasion.” But it’s not the same. And it’s not just the money, he added.
“It’s the actual connection with audiences,” he said. When he performs on Zoom he cannot connect with the audience beyond a chatbox.
He has had requests to perform in duos, or with The Bongos, outdoors. But it just does not feel safe yet.
His gut feeling is that nothing will happen this year. Venues will find some way to make things work in 2021, with a limited capacity.
Musicians and venues may have to take a cut, but he said, artists and the concert-goers alike “will miss music, and want to get together.”