Summer has a way of magnifying the significance of a lost day. Canceled trips and plans hurt more when the weather is beautiful and the sunshine stretches late into the evening. It’s for this reason that the COVID-19 pandemic is hitting especially hard as everyone’s favorite season returns.
Though there have been flickers of returning to normal life with some restaurants and bars reopening — albeit at a diminished capacity — the majority of Omaha’s music venues remain idle. This is understandable. Large crowds, compact seating, and pits where fans are packed in elbow-to-elbow pose a high risk not only to everyone who attends the shows but to the people those fans come in contact with afterward. With the summer concert season all but scrapped, employees at a number of the Metro’s major venues and labels are looking for ways to adapt and pondering what concerts might look like once they can reopen.
“We’ve had to cancel or postpone dozens of events, resulting in millions of dollars in losses,” said Kristyna Engdahl, director of communications at the Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority (MECA), the group responsible for booking acts at CHI Health Center. The virus has led to the cancellation of several high-profile concerts by artists including the Lumineers, Dan + Shay, and Billie Eilish, most of which have yet to be rescheduled.
“At this time, we’re relying on reserves to keep our limited, daily operations moving forward,” she said. “This will be sustainable for several months, but not forever.” Currently, Engdahl said the venue is planning on a July 31 reopening with a performance from ventriloquist Jeff Dunham.
Others are not as optimistic. Maha Festival decided to cancel in early April due to concerns over the virus. Unlike most major music festivals, Maha is run by a nonprofit organization that relies on a mix of sponsorships, donors, community grant programs, and ticket sales to keep things running, all of which have been hit incredibly hard over the past three months.
“If we stayed the course and were forced to cancel later on, the financial impact on the organization would likely be something we wouldn’t be able to bounce back from,” said Rachel Grace, the festival’s marketing and communications manager. “Canceling now helps ensure Maha Festival can come back in 2021, and come back strong.”
“We suspect it will be some time before we re-open – but we will,” said Omaha Performing Arts President Joan Squires. “We’re continuing to receive support from the community which is critically important, now more than ever.”
Squires said that while OPA waits to reopen its venues, the organization is looking for ways to deliver fun and engaging content. “We have now shifted our focus during this time of social distancing to live streams and educational opportunities on Facebook and YouTube so we can continue to connect our audiences with artists and the arts,” she said. “We’re pleased to have been able to hire numerous local artists to perform as part of O-pa Live on the Stream series.”
According to Jeff Taffola, Saddle Creek Records’ director of licensing, it’s the smaller labels and venues that need that kind of spotlight and support.
“There’s a lot of people stuck at home and a lot of people on unemployment,” he said regarding the label’s roster of artists. “We’ve had to cancel tours for a number of our artists — including those that were supporting new records,” he continued, citing Frances Quinlan and Land of Talk as examples. Even when things start to return to normal, Taffola fears that the musical landscape could be completely different, especially when it comes to getting the word out on the label’s artists.
“When we start pitching hard on a record, we might find out that some of our contacts are no longer working at the publications that we normally target,” he said. “We’re big into promoting on college radio and that might not even be a thing in the fall. Overall, there are just a lot of unknowns right now.”
What everyone is certain about is how fans can help the artists they love.
“Purchasing albums directly from artists online and donating to assistance funds is essential,” said Grace. “Maha will even be highlighting local artists on our social media for several weeks this spring.”
Taffola echoed that sentiment and said that people can also purchase music and merchandise through the online retail and streaming site Bandcamp. Not only does the site allow artists and labels to control the price of their music but since the pandemic started, it has also held designated days in which it has waived its revenue cut. Over two days in March and May, people spent a combined $11.4 million — all of which went to the artists. The site is planning to continue waiving its revenue share on the first Friday of June and July.
Another way to help out the industry, according to Taffola, is to support the Save Our Stages campaign run by the National Independent Venue Association, or NIVA. The association, which is made up of over 1,300 independent venues in all 50 states, is asking Washington for targeted legislation to help its venues. This includes modifications to small business loans and the Payroll Protection Program, tax relief, continued unemployment insurance, and mortgage and rent forbearance.
Despite the difficulties, everyone remained optimistic that they’ll be able to weather the storm.
“We’ve got a pretty small staff, relatively low overhead, and we had a lighter year on releases so we’re in a pretty good position,” said Taffola. “It’s an adjustment but we’re doing alright for the time being.”
“We’re already looking forward to the day when we can welcome 10,000 plus screaming fans back to our arena,” said Engdahl.
As for what concerts will look like upon their return, nobody seems to have any idea. Everyone associated with the venues said the pandemic will necessitate higher standards of hygiene that will include scrubbing seats, requiring employees to wear gloves and masks, and making sure that ill employees stay at home. Once everything is in place, though, they hope that fans will return.
“When we are all able to safely attend concerts and events again — making an extra effort to support the music and arts community then will make a huge difference,” said Grace. “Buy a ticket, show up, invite your friends. Every little bit will help.”