OMAHA, Jan. 20, 2021 — In February last year we were all still living the dream.
Oh sure, we knew about COVID-19, but that was a China problem with a smattering of cases in Seattle. The virus wouldn’t slam into the East Coast for another month, and it wouldn’t be until after St. Patrick’s Day — the first holiday to really get cancelled — that cases would arrive in Omaha.
The last maskless rock show I attended was PUP at The Waiting Room March 4. Within a couple weeks, every rock show was cancelled. But even then, some of us thought the pandemic would be a short-lived respite from a rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, a mere inconvenience.
Now, almost a year later, a vaccine is slowly making its way across the country, and with it comes hope for the return of live music enjoyed standing side-by-side, without social distancing, without masks. But it’s still months away.
“It’s not like the floodgates are open, but things you would typically expect to see here are booking for fall 2021 and the following winter, with the latter looking more like something you would consider ‘normal,'” said The Slowdown’s owner/operator Jason Kulbel. The rock club’s next announced live music show features cover band Pet Rock April 16.
“Our calendar will be pretty light to start, just a handful of shows in April as we ease back into things,” Kulbel said.
Benson’s marquee music venue, The Waiting Room, is being a bit more aggressive. Its next live rock show is Tom Petty tribute act Ventura Blvd Feb. 13. That’s followed by touring country act Logan Mize slated to perform March 13 and hip-hop artist Devin the Dude March 27.
Despite the city’s relaxing of COVID-19 restrictions at events, those shows will be seated, though they don’t have to be.
“The city restrictions allow us to host shows at 75 percent capacity, but we’re not doing that right away,” said Marc Leibowitz, who runs The Waiting Room and Reverb Lounge with business partner Jim Johnson. “Our plan for February and March is to stay at our 160-capacity number, which means everyone will be seated at tables.”
Leibowitz is aware that some bars downtown and in West Omaha have been skirting the restrictions and have been packed with business as a result. “People don’t want to go to a place to wear their masks; they want to do what they want,” he said. “And those places aren’t enforcing shit.”
Not so in Benson, where he said bars like Krug Park are enforcing mask wearing and following city guidance even if it costs them business. “The Sydney is down 40 percent and so is Krug,” Leibowitz said. “But we’re trying to be responsible.”
Leibowitz, who also runs music promotion company One Percent Productions, said a few out-of-town acts have confirmed for later this year: Built to Spill Aug. 14, Airborne Toxic Avenger Oct. 9 and Marty Stuart Oct. 20. “But that’s about it,” he said. “The rest are confirmed for next year. We’re still confirming shows for September through late 2021.”
He hopes local acts will begin to fill his event calendar beginning in April as we await the return of touring acts. “People will want to get back on the road, but it takes time,” he said. “It’s not going to be April or May.”
Leibowitz said getting vaccine in people’s arms will help move things along. Eric Dimenstein of Ground Control Touring agreed. Dimenstein, who co-founded the national booking agency in 2000, books tours for some of the most popular indie acts in the country, including Bright Eyes, Yo La Tengo, Snail Mail and Lush.
“A lot depends on how this vaccine rolls out,” Dimenstein said. “If things all go well, we could see something happening in the fall.
“The difference between what Marc (Leibowitz) does and what I do is that Marc can book acts locally,” Dimenstein said. “Whereas I have to have all the Marcs in all 50 states be able to book shows. You can’t have an artist play one state and then skip three states (because of restrictions). It has to make financial sense.”
Dimenstein said he spent down time during the pandemic as a founding member of the National Independent Talent Organization (NITO), who, along with the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA), helped lobby music fans to get Congress to pass legislation that will financially help music venues and the people who work behind the scenes.
The lobbying paid off as funds were allocated in the last round of COVID-19 relief legislation signed into law in January. Both Leibowitz and Kulbel said their businesses should be eligible to receive grants designated for “Shuttered Venue Operators,” but as of Jan. 20, the Small Business Administration, which is responsible for distributing the $15 billion pot, still hadn’t opened the application process.
“It’s a true lifeline for the industry and places just like (Slowdown),” Kulbel said.
Leibowitz said the grant amount could equal 45 percent of an entity’s gross earned revenue in 2019. “The grant money will allow us to climb out of debt to pay rent or staff,” he said. “Every venue has dug itself a hole.”
With grant money and a vaccine on the way, there’s a ray of hope for a turnaround, though one question still looms large: If you book it, will they come?
“Booking a show is one thing, but not knowing how comfortable people will be with ‘getting back out there’ poses an additional set of problems,” Kulbel said. “The old rules/data/gut feelings of ‘this band will bring in X, so I will pay them Y’ are out the window.”
Leibowitz is more optimistic.
“People are going to come back and in full force, but what day that happens is anyone’s guess,” he said. “People are ready to see live music again. They don’t want to see live streams; they don’t want to sit down for rock shows. They’re waiting for General Admission shows. Let’s get through this, get a new president and get an actual plan in place.”
Over The Edge is a monthly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, music, the media and the arts. Email Tim at firstname.lastname@example.org.