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How Soon Is Too Soon? Nashville’s Music Venues Struggle With When And How To Open Again

On June 13 and 14, over 200 friends and patrons of Nashville’s Douglas Corner came to an indoor yard sale. Wearing masks, they picked up pieces of the venue’s storied history — posters, stage equipment, merchandise — and said goodbye to a place they had never imagined losing. After nearly 34 years, owner Mervin Louque had announced the official closure of his singer-songwriter haven where artists such as John Prine, Jon Bon Jovi, Garth Brooks and Neil Diamond had once dropped in to watch shows.

“This COVID thing changed everything,” says Louque. When he announced Douglas Corner’s closure, the Nashville community rallied around him, from individuals offering to set up GoFundMe campaigns to groups of investors — including Nashville Songwriters Association International executive director Bart Herbison, who helps run the famed Bluebird Cafe — offering to help out. But “there was no real way of knowing when things would get back to normal, if they would,” says Louque, so he decided against fundraising, fearing expenses would leave him back at square one. He now plans to reopen Douglas Corner on his farm on the outskirts of Nashville as a livestreaming room available to a limited in-person audience.

Louque is just one of many Nashville venue owners facing difficult questions about whether, and how, to reopen for business. Tennessee’s initial efforts to contain the coronavirus came up short, and in early July, Mayor John Cooper announced that due to a spike in cases, the city would move back a phase in its reopening. A modified phase two allows music venues to operate at 50% capacity or a maximum of 250 people — but for independent venues like the 500-capacity EXIT/IN or 1,800-person Marathon Music Works, those numbers don’t add up to financial feasibility.

“Restarting the engine just isn’t that easy,” says EXIT/IN owner and Marathon co-founder Chris Cobb, who is also a member of the nonprofit Music Venue Alliance Nashville that formed in response to the pandemic. To reopen, owners need to rehire staff, find and book local bands, restock inventory (from alcohol to toilet paper) and introduce new safety protocols, such as sanitation stations, wireless ticket scanners and contactless points of sale. Of the 16 indie venues that MVAN represents, 14 have remained closed since March, and the two that reopened at 50% ceased operations within weeks.

“When you’re dealing with such limited resources, like we all are right now since we’ve got no money and no staff, you really have to protect where you choose to focus those extremely limited resources,” says Cobb. “If you falter and you put them in the wrong place, you run the risk of depleting them 100%.”

Nashville has had a turbulent 2020. Even before the pandemic prompted mass-gathering bans across the United States, a tornado that hit the city on March 2 demolished indie venue The Basement East and stalled the grand opening of Brooklyn Bowl Nashville. (It still has not opened to the public.) On July 27, White House adviser Dr. Deborah Birx recommended that Tennessee shut down all bars and limit indoor seating at restaurants as the state passed 100,000 confirmed cases. Gov. Bill Lee declined to follow the recommendation, even as the state recorded more cases per 100,000 citizens than California — the state with the most positive tests, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and where concerts of any size have been banned since March.

“We’re in a wait-and-see situation,” says Bridgestone Arena senior vp entertainment and marketing David Kells. “Everybody’s being flexible and having contingencies, but also realizing that we’re not all completely in control of this.” The 20,000-capacity venue, which regularly hosts the annual Country Music Association Awards in November, is working with Davidson County’s Metro Public Health Department to develop plans to safely host private events and audience-free shows.

Kells says that in the face of the pandemic, the live community has united for the benefit of venues large and small: “Everybody’s hypercollaborative and totally willing to share their plan — just dumping entire documents on a shared drive.” He is part of a weekly call discussing best practices with over 20 Tennessee facilities, including Bristol Motor Speedway (where 20,000 fans attended the NASCAR All-Star Race in July), and promoters like Live Nation Nashville (which hosted drive-in concerts by Brad Paisley and Darius Rucker in the parking lot of Nashville’s Nissan Stadium). “As people start opening up and doing things in a smart way, it paves the road for all of us to follow,” adds Kells.

On Aug. 14, Ryman Auditorium will kick off Live at the Ryman, a performance series featuring paid livestream access, with a show from For King & Country. In partnership with Vanderbilt University Medical Center and Metro Public Health, the Ryman plans to test a hybrid model of livestreams with a limited number of in-person concertgoers in the near future. “It’s a glimmer of hope for some sense of normalcy,” says Opry Group Entertainment president Scott Bailey. “If this does work, then it’s a repeatable model.”

While Opry Group Entertainment has hosted audience-free shows for 20 weeks with help from local health agencies, independent venues are seeking other ways to wait out indefinite closures. MVAN is petitioning city council members who oversee the COVID-19 Response Fund to create another fund from the federal CARES Act money Nashville has received. It would contain roughly $2 million: under 2% of what the city received in relief funding, but enough to guarantee MVAN’s venues could survive closure through March 2021.

Cobb says it is a struggle to secure relief funds amid the county’s widespread needs related to the tornado and the pandemic. Still, he’s hopeful. “It feels like a lot of people are taking live music for granted right now, and I’m afraid the result is going to be that we’re going to lose a lot of it,” he says. “But I would take independent music operators up against just about anybody else when it comes to ability to hustle and figure it out and in the right way.”

This article originally appeared in the August 15, 2020 issue of Billboard.

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