There is perhaps no sight more heartbreaking to music fans than an empty stage. Over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic made it practically impossible for Omaha’s concert venues to host events.

But more than a year into the pandemic, the end is in sight, and venues are reopening their doors for concertgoers. Thanks to many positive signs, including lower cases of COVID-19 in the community and increasing rates of vaccination, venue owners believe they can safely host shows again, which is generating a lot of excitement for musicians and fans.  

“We’re active beings, you know. We want to get back in those things that make us feel good,” said Marcey Yates, executive director and founder of Culxr House, an event center and community hub in North Omaha.

The relief of live music returning is much needed for venue owners and managers after struggling through the last year. Not only did the lack of concerts take an emotional toll, but they created severe financial hardship.

Marcey Yates sits in the garage of Culxr House, a venue and community meeting space that he founded on N. 24th St. Photo by Chris Bowling.

Many venues, including Slowdown and The Waiting Room Lounge, had to rely on federal assistance, such as PPP loans, to stay afloat. Additionally, venues are still expecting help from Shuttered Venue Operator Grants, or SVOGs, which are offering more than $16 billion for shuttered venues and are administered by the U.S. Small Business Administration. However, Marc Leibowitz, co-owner of The Waiting Room, said those funds have yet to be distributed.

“We’re broke, and I mean broke, broke, broke,” said Jason Kulbel, owner of Slowdown. “We’re just kind of going into debt, thinking, hoping, that the SVOG money actually does come through.”

Kulbel says SVOG is a great program and he believes the funds will provide much-needed relief, as it is perfectly designed for live music venues like Slowdown.

For musicians, the lack of opportunities to perform has been disappointing, but many have tried to find other means of expressing their creativity. Similarly to other professions, artists have found ways to work from home, including recording new music, performing on live streams and exploring other artistic mediums.

Such was the case for 2021 OEAA Artist of the Year winner Dereck Higgins. Over the past year, the 65-year-old musician known for his bass-playing skills has used his time working from home to explore his other artistic interests.

“I’m a multi-disciplinarian when it comes to art. I do visual art, besides playing in bands,” Higgins said. “So for me, when COVID hit, I think really, the primary thing that changed for me was not doing gigs.”

But while having concerts return is a relief for people throughout the music industry, the process of bringing back concerts has not been easy. Kulbel said Slowdown started easing back into hosting shows in April, putting on a handful of concerts. He said the most difficult part has been getting patrons to cooperate with venue rules regarding social distancing and wearing face masks.

Musician Dereck Higgins, pictured inside Grapefruit Vinyl, suspects people are “jumping the gun” by having concerts already, but he’s looking forward to playing shows again in the fall. Photo by Chris Bowling.

Leibowitz said The Waiting Room has had similar problems with concertgoers during recent shows, and he believes these troubles can be attributed to the lack of oversight from government health officials at every level.

“The biggest problem in this whole process has been a lack of federal guidance or state guidance or county guidance or anything. None of them agree. Every state has a different policy than the other, and that’s hurt the music industry for sure,” he said.

Kulbel said he’d much rather have clear-cut rules and regulations for reopening venues, rather than uncertain suggestions from different government agencies. He described the current guidelines for reopening as “impossible” and “unworkable” due to many people’s lack of interest in following establishment rules.

In addition to following health officials’ regulations for reopening, venues have their own standards to meet to make sure they’re ready to host live events again after being inactive for several months.

To Gather or Not to Gather? That is the Question.

By Chris Bowling

The CDC now says vaccinated people don’t have to wear masks indoors. New COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths in Nebraska are at their lowest points since the pandemic began. We’re practically bathed in the light at the end of this long, dark, twisting, (did I mention long?) tunnel.

But wait, weren’t we supposed to get to 60-70% community vaccinations before we returned to “normal?” As of this writing, less than half of Douglas County residents (of all ages) are vaccinated. So what are we supposed to do?

Going to a live music show is a risk, but it is possible to safely attend shows, just as there have been ways to safely do other activities through the pandemic. Mask wearing, staying in if you feel sick and social distancing have been good tools up until now, and until we reach herd immunity they’ll undoubtedly continue to be a part of our lives.

The best solution, though, is to get your friends and family vaccinated. If we hit herd immunity, you don’t have to read disclaimers like this in your local alt newspaper. And your local alt newspaper writer doesn’t have to play scientist. We can get back to covering Omaha’s music and culture scenes.

But that day hasn’t come yet. We’re still dealing with this whether we like it or not. So, as you consider attending live shows, do your research, listen to the scientists and consider the safety of your friends, family and neighbors.

“We have to make sure we have the personnel, our equipment is up to date, our software and internet are good. It’s all those little things. That’s what it’s gonna take for us to make sure our events are efficient and effective,” Yates said.

Even under the trying circumstances of preparing to return, the industry is pushing ahead, and some venue staff are returning to their jobs. Kulbel and Leibowitz both said they had to make significant cuts to their staffing, but those who have returned are happy to be working again.

Dan Brennan, production manager at Slowdown, recently returned to his job, and he said it’s been an adjustment getting used to new working conditions and enforcing establishment rules for performers and patrons. Brennan’s role at Slowdown is very involved, handling sound and lights during concerts, as well as hospitality for visiting bands.

Dan Brennan, production manager at Slowdown, said returning to work has been an adjustment, but getting vaccinated has made him more comfortable. Photo by Chris Bowling.

“It was really uncomfortable at first, being around lots of people, but I think, in time, those things kind of just iron themselves out,” Brennan said. “When I got vaccinated, I felt way more comfortable being around other people.”

Brennan said the most difficult part of his job since returning has been getting some performers to adhere to Slowdown’s COVID-19 safety protocols. He recounted one instance in which a performer said he wanted to punch the face of whoever wrote their policy.

Despite the venues’ hardships and the challenges they’ve faced while re-opening, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about live music making its comeback. After a year of quarantining, distancing and isolation, everyone — from fans and musicians to the venues and their staff — are ready to get back to doing what they love.

Even with the possibility of COVID-19 cases going up again, Leibowitz sees little chance of regression.

“Shows definitely are coming back. By fall things are going to look pretty normal. The shows will be full; the capacities will be full,” he said. “I don’t see things going backward. I see things moving forward.”

No one in the music industry is more eager for live shows to return than the musicians themselves. Being able to share their songs and entertain audiences with their performances is why they love what they do.

Jason Kulbel, who owns Slowdown, said music venues urgently need relief. Photo by Chris Bowling.

Higgins said he’s still hesitant to play any shows this summer, and he has some concern that people are jumping the gun. While he’s declined opportunities to perform in the next few months, he said he has a show booked for September opening for California punk band Agent Orange.

“I love audience contact, but it’s too soon for that, as far as I’m concerned. I’m glad it looks like things are moving in the right direction,” he said. “I hope that what they’ve been doing turns out that they were right, that it was OK to go ahead and start playing. People are extremely ready to play.”

contact the writer at news@thereader.com


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