The Unique Challenges Faced by Denver Music Venues Amid COVID-19

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 There’s long existed a notion that the arts are a waste of time. It’s heard around family dinners, lectures and even in movies. “Medicine, law, business, engineering… are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life,” states Robin Williams’ character, John Keating in “Dead Poet’s Society”,” But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.” Although fictitious in manner, the point remains relevant.  The arts should not be cast aside, even in times of chaos and disorder – if anything, that’s more of a reason to fight for them.
It was a colossal blow for the music and art scene in March when Public Health Order 20-22 was passed. The order condemned all public and private gatherings of any number where it concerned people living outside of a single residence.  It also called for the closure of all theaters and other “non-essential,” businesses until April 11 initially, going on to be amended and extended several times. Currently, it remains in place on level 3 of The Safer At Home Order  – due to a staggering rise in coronavirus case numbers. The order, introduced with Coloradan’s safety in mind, has taken a toll on the local music and culture scene. As Colorado has reopened and as a result of the Public Health Order and the virus – Colorado’s cherished music and arts venues have not come back in the same capacity we remember them. 
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Bluebird Theater leaves a message for its fans.

Denver’s Levitt Pavilion is one of Denver’s largest music venues struggling in the pandemic right now. The Levitt Pavilion is a non-profit organization that relies on the community for support – but with the sheltering of the community, it’s difficult to remain afloat. 303 Magazine recently spoke with Chris Zacher, Founder and Executive Director at The Levitt Pavilion about its financial independence.
“We’re unable to operate,” stated Zacher, “which means that our income streams haven’t been running since March of this year. It’s been devastating and while there is hope, hope doesn’t pay bills or employee salaries or artists.”

Levitt Pavilion is just one venue of many that are going through the same situation. Most venues are doing what they can with their limited options, like The Aggie Theater, in Fort Collins, for example – although not a Denver venue, its recent reopening gives insight into the struggles venues face across the nation.

“The reduced capacity based on social distancing has been really challenging, but it’s what we need to do to keep our staff and patrons safe. We need everyone to feel confident that their safety is our number one priority so they continue to turn out and support us and the artists,” stated Cheryl Liguori, CEO of Z2 Entertainment, which also operates The Fox and Boulder Theater in Boulder, Colorado.

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Photo by Kacie Loura

In a similar breath, other local venues like Black Box and Larimer Lounge, like so many other small and mid-size venues have had to get creative in how they let the show go on as safely as possible. Larimer Lounge, with its max capacity of 250 in pre-Covid times, has spilled its business onto an expanded patio on the now barricaded pedestrian stretch of Larimer Street. Seated socially distanced shows take place inside — tables sold instead of individual tickets — with artists typically playing back-to-back shows in a night for different audiences with deep sanitation wedged in-between. Black Box, a primarily electronic venue operates with a relatively similar setup though without the benefit of a patio, the venue carries on with seated shows with a rotation of food trucks and caterers, as well as free and pay-per-view live streams for those who can’t make it inside. Electronic music continues to be the name of the game, even with the given circumstances — something the venues adoring patrons continue to relish in. Despite the creative pivots however, the challenge of adapting remains a fluid situation.

“I think the hardest part is just not knowing what’s going to come week after week,” said Corey Pfaff, an owner of the Black Box. “You know, we’re in an industry where we typically have things planned six to eight weeks out, if not further. So right now, the hardest part is remaining in this kind of moment. We’ve got to kind of plan on a week by week basis because we don’t know what new regulations are going to come in.”

On August 10, The City of Denver released two reports on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. One on the creative economy and the other on creative industries within Denver and its metropolitan region. The initial impact reports summarize, “losses in the Denver metropolitan region are estimated at 4,525 jobs and $213.7 million in the sales revenue which translates to 53% of employment in the region’s music industry and 25% of its annual sales revenue. The majority of these losses at both the state and regional level are in the ‘musicians, managers and agents’ and ‘live events’ sectors of the industry,” and that “90% of music venues across the country will go out of business within six months.”

Chart from Initial Impacts of the COVID-19 Crisis on the Music Industry in Colorado and the Denver Metropolitan Region Report.

The reports show in lamens terms that the music and arts industry – specifically venues, are in deep trouble right now. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) provided some level of assistance in the form of a $2.2 trillion economic stimulus bill approved by President Trump. Denver received $126.8M of that – $20M was released as part of their “phase 1,”  but unfortunately, music venues did not qualify for that first dispersion of financial relief. 
In September, venues across the country united under a single hue to signal a call for help. The demonstration included over 20 Denver sites that shone red as a means to illuminate the problem at hand. Dubbed on social media with the hashtag, #TheRestartRedAlert, the movement aimed to bring awareness and support to the Restart Act Bill introduced by Colorado’s own, Senator Michael Bennet in MayThe bill is only in its beginning stages, meaning any immediate aid is unlikely. However, without that aid, many of the existing venues and organizations have had to cope with furloughing and laying-off employees, and even closing venues temporarily.
“The support we have received from the foundations in this community has been amazing.” Zacher says, “However, all of this support only scratches the surface of the real need.”
The CARES Act was a step in the right direction, but too slow for those that needed help. The Restart Act Bill gives hope, but not immediate assistance – this has resulted in various actions from individuals and organizations to take action however they can. Organizations like NIVA (National Independent Venue Association) whose goal is to preserve the ecosystems that music venues rely on throughout the country, recently spearheaded the Save Our Stages movement. The organization recently produced a 3-day virtual music festival in October.  Save Our Stages streamed on Youtube and spread awareness of the impending doom venues are facing while expressing their continued advocacy of support for them. 
“I remember seeing that in California The Satellite was switching to a restaurant only, and that’s really sad to me, like some of these really historic venues across the country that have been the starting place for really awesome bands just completely disappearing,” said Kyle Hartman, a talent buyer at Larimer Lounge.  “That is kind of terrifying to me. I think it opens up room for new venues to pop up too, but I don’t think that’s ideal, you know, and I think it’s going to take a while for the music ecosystem to recover if there are not moves to support it.”
Preceding the Save Our Stages live-streaming concert, on October 2nd, The City of Denver announced their phase 2 plan, releasing $25.6M from the $126.8M. This time, $700,00  was allocated toward independent arts and music venues and $300,000 to individual artists residing in Denver. The news brought some relief to struggling artists and venues, in place of the Colorado Artist Relief Fund which closed April 8th, due to an overwhelming number of applicants.
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Photo courtesy of Nick Guzzo

Moreover, as non-profit and private venues struggle to make ends meet, our beloved Denver Arts and Venues are dealing with unique problems of their own. These venues include Red Rocks Amphitheatre, The Colorado Convention Center, The Denver Performing Arts Complex and The Denver Coliseum.  As a government agency, the branch’s eligibility to receive funds – at least in the way privately-owned venues are allowed to – is limited.
In an open letter to the Denver Community in September, Ginger White, Executive Director of Denver Arts and Venues announced the decision, “to reduce operations at the agency’s venues, unless they are being used for Covid-related relief programs.”  This included the furlough of full-time and part-time Arts and Venues employees until January of 2021. The department, financed through the  Special Revenue Fund, does not receive any transfers from the City’s General Fund. This means the agency is solely responsible for its revenue and its own expenses, including labor and maintenance.
That said, the agency was granted funds from the CARES stimulus aid for, “touchless fixtures and air sanitation in the theaters and Bonfils. It also covered the COVID-related upgrades at the CCC (Colorado Convention Center) and paying for some of the labor at the Denver Coliseum/Auxiliary shelter.” claims White.
The agency began efforts to redeploy many of their full-time, furloughed employees, “to support some of the needs at the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment, in doing so by contract tracing and supporting the testing centers that have been set up,” stated the Executive Director during a phone call.
“The community has been great.” Liguori proclaimed in an email,”  It’s been great to see people enjoying these limited-capacity shows.” “We are very happy to be open, but at this greatly reduced capacity, we don’t generate nearly enough income to cover normal overhead expenses,” she stated.
Actions, as delayed as they are, are unfolding. A bill is slowly trudging through the legislative process and venue representatives are doing everything they can to ensure their survival – but what can you do as a music fan or frequent venue attendee?
One way to help is by visiting saveourstages.com and donating to NIVA’s emergency relief fund or using the site’s tools to automatically send a pre-written letter directly to your congressional leaders, suggests Zacher. White replied, “I would encourage people who have the means during this period of time, to not forget the things they have enjoyed in previous years and provide that subscription, provide that membership – make maybe an annual gift in lieu of the tickets that you may have gone to see. These organizations still need your help.”
Hartman adds, “there’s a ton of great ways you can contribute — putting pressure on your senators and the politicians to support initiatives. For artists, I think buying merchandise a huge way that all that income goes towards artists [directly], streaming their music, sharing their music, making videos with their music on different social media, like TikTok — I think there are all kinds of ways fans can support artists during this time.”
Music venues – much like genres are diverse, but at the end of the day, it’s all one community. Across the board, there’s reassurance in the fact that venues and fans are in this together. The struggle will continue but it is a shared struggle.
 As far as the survival of music and arts entities, this is a battle that will continue – at least until the mid-year of 2021 and it will be tough, but with a well-informed and supportive community, we can help pull our favorite arts and music venues out of the hole they currently find themselves in. So many times, we say that music saved our lives, but now it’s our turn to save theirs.