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Live Music In Kentucky: The Times Are Changing

A Tom Petty Tribute Concert in Louisville in 2017.
Photo by J. Tyler Franklin
WFPK's NYE concert at Headliners in 2015.

Getting back to putting on live music concerts is tricky. 

“The biggest risk factors here for the pandemic are interstate travel and mass gatherings, and we're guilty of both,” Billy Hardison said. 

Hardison is with Louisville promotion company Production Simple and a former marketing and special events coordinator for Louisville Public Media. He’s also Kentucky’s precinct captain for the recently formed National Independent Venue Association, or NIVA, a collective of nearly 1,500 independent venues and promoters lobbying the federal government for more support for the live music industry during the pandemic.

As states around the country, including Kentucky, start to ease restrictions and reopen sectors of the economy, those working in the live music industry are grappling with when and how to safely reopen the doors to their venues. 

Under Gov. Andy Beshear’s “Healthy at Work” program, groups of 50 won’t be allowed till July. But Hardison said he doesn’t know of anyone rushing to reopen and there’s “a lot of angst wrapped up in what this potentially looks like.” 

There are so many logistical hurdles to work through, like social distancing, not just among fans, but between fans and entertainers as well. 

“The front people in these bands are singing their hearts out, aerosoling the crowd while they're doing it,” he said. “We want to do the right thing and don't want people to get sick.”

The New Normal For Live Events?

Some venues and promoters are taking cues from a new reopening guidance out this week from the national nonprofit Event Safety Alliance

Attorney Steven Adelman is ESA’s vice president. He said getting people even into the venue is a major obstacle, and venues will have to rethink how they get concertgoers through the lines where they check your ticket, ID and bag.

“The line potentially could be longer and will definitely be slower,” he said.

They’ll be slower because each person would be screened by someone with medical training to see if they have a fever or are showing COVID-19 symptoms. People would be able to sign up for this virtual queuing ahead of time, scheduling “the time and specific points of ingress that they’ll approach the venue from.” 

“I think that will be here to stay,” Adelman said of the virtual queuing. “That's just a good idea.” 

Venues with seating will have to rethink protocol, he added.  

“You have to load the seating area from the front and, just like we get off of airplanes, unloaded from the back, so that people aren't all standing around next to each other,” Adelman said. 

Venues will also have to “kill seats, so a 1000-person venue may be able to seat only 250 people or whatever the number is to allow social distancing,” which might not be a financially viable option for venues with large overhead.

Other recommendations include requiring people to order food and drinks on their phones to avoid lines at the bar, all monetary transactions to be touchless, shorter shows with no intermissions and fewer performers, and all workers and attendees wearing some kind of mask.

Adelman said venues need to find ways to educate people about the new policies, and if someone refuses to comply, venues can kick them out.   

“I'm a lawyer, I can say that with real confidence,” he said. “We condition entry on compliance with standards and policies all the time. You know, no shoes, no shirt, no service.”

Adelman stresses that just because a government order says you can reopen, doesn’t mean you should, especially in the absence of widespread testing, contact tracing — which NIVA is also advocating for — or a vaccine.

"As much as I love the arts, I don't want to die for them,” Adelman said. “And I don't think people should.” 

While live music workers left jobless because of the pandemic are itching to get back to work, Billy Hardison said, the realist in him, speculates that might not be until there’s a vaccine or fall 2021 – a projection echoed by others in the industry

Meanwhile, Kentucky Performing Arts, which is a NIVA member, is holding out hope to keep some of its 2020 show dates on its calendar

The arts organization is working on a reopening plan. KPA vice president of marketing and communications Christian Adelberg​ said they’re using guidelines from the ESA document, as well as guidance from other industry experts, the Kentucky Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet and the Governor’s office. 

Heather Weston Bell, senior vice president of community engagement at KPA and a member of the Great Louisville Arts & Culture Alliance’s Reopening Task Force, said a big challenge with reopening is that there are no proven best practices because “we haven’t been through this before.”

“Organizations are having to plan for multiple scenarios,” she said, as venues and presenters plan out future performance seasons. “And it's difficult at this point because we don't have a sense of how this timeline is going to roll out.”

There is some buzz around drive-in concerts.

Danish singer Mads Langer performed in front of rows of parked cars last month near the Denmark city of Aarhus. And Rolling Stone reported that concert presenter juggernaut Live Nation has talked about doing drive-in shows and crowdless concerts.

Staying In For Live Music

In the meantime, the go-to alternative to in-person concerts has been virtual concerts. 

Online shows don’t offer much, if any, work for those normally working backstage. But musicians, like Louisville singer-songwriter Brigid Kaelin, are turning to the internet to stay connected with fans. 

Kaelin said the music industry has always changed a lot.  

“I've had to reinvent my business plan every few years anyway,” she said. “Sometimes because the industry changes from streaming and sometimes it's because hey, I had a baby and so I can't be on the road all the time.”

Her latest business plan is in flux as she figures out how to make these virtual concerts work for her: like how to mitigate the many technical challenges, how to make money off of them and how to get people to tune in with so much content available online. 

“It's just you can't compete when Elton John decides to do a Facebook Live the same night that you did,” Kaelin said. “I mean, I decided not to do mine because I want to watch him.”

Louisville actor and singer Abigail Bailey Maupin puts on musical virtual shows with her husband, Gregory Maupin, performing as Rannygazoo. She said they’ve also had a tough time competing for online audiences and that they get some tips, “but nothing substantial.” 

Yet she does think the online shows are important. 

“The mercenary reasons are to keep ourselves in the public eye, make a little cash and maybe build a few working relationships for when this is over,” she said. “But personally, it feels important for Greg and I to keep working creatively, to do what we can to reach out to friends and family to feel connected to them.”

Kaelin misses seeing and hearing her audiences. Those interactions have always helped her manage the stress of the ever-changing music business. 

But she’s nervous about re-openings. 

“There's no way I'm going to play a bar show in July,” she said, because “the idea of playing in a confined space with 49 other people breathing the same air” doesn't seem like a good idea.

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