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Mixed Feelings Abound As Live Music Venues Are Allowed To Reopen

Erik Brown
Courtesy of Lefty's Live Music
Lefty's Live Music has been offering cocktails for delivery since it was forced to close in April due to COVID-19.

Iowa’s live music community has suffered greatly due to government-forced closures that were intended to slow the spread of COVID-19, but as venues are allowed to reopen, there are mixed feelings among musicians, venue owners and concert promoters. With social distancing and capacity-limiting regulation, live music in Iowa will look and feel different for the foreseeable future. 

Even though it’s possible for her to perform for an audience starting Monday, Keokuk singer-songwriter Nalani Proctor has cancelled her shows through July. 

“It's all too soon, not just music venues, but everything that has been opened. I'm so fearful that there will be a larger resurgence of the virus in the future, because people aren't wearing masks or social distancing. There's a lot of selfishness in folks not wearing masks, but also, it appears our government doesn't want to take care of its people, forcing a lot of folks to go back to work when conditions could be unsafe,” Proctor said. 

She’s not alone in her fears. Brian Johannesen is a singer-songwriter who is also involved in booking and promoting shows and events in Iowa City like the Mission Creek Festival. 

“I think it’s ridiculous that live music can be happening right now. I won’t be playing any shows until I feel like people can relax and actually enjoy the show without flinching at every cough. It’s really tough. I want nothing more than to play shows and go to shows, but it’s not worth risking my own life and my neighbors lives to do so,” Johannesen said.

Bars, wineries, breweries, distilleries and social and fraternal clubs were allowed to reopen on Thursday, May 28, under the same safety stipulations as restaurants which were permitted to reopen two weeks prior at 50 percent of fire code capacity. 

On Monday, June 1, additional recreational establishments including casinos and outdoor performance venues are being allowed to reopen as long as performers remain six feet apart from one another, and as long as social distancing is enforced among audience members. 

A University of Iowa study released this week by Gov. Kim Reynolds' office predicted a large increase in daily infections if social distancing restrictions are eased too early. The researchers recommended the widespread use of face shields to stop the spread of the virus.


Even with venues being allowed to reopen, the industry won’t just snap back to the way it was before the shutdown.

“Even if there is a market that's reopening like Iowa, the live music industry isn't able to immediately bounce back,” Tobi Parks, co-owner of xBk in Des Moines, said. “It takes months for agents to route tours and for artists, many of them too being independents, to be able to tour.  Even after re-opening, it could be another 3-6 months before the shows we're booking now actually get to the venue to drive revenue.”

It's a weird time for everybody in the music industry right now, from small, local bands up to the giant tours. It's an industry that's been crushed by this COVID situation. It's an industry where the whole point is getting people together. - Anne Mathey, owner, Lefty's Live Music

Parks has been a vocal proponent of the #SaveOurStages initiative, which is being spearheaded by the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) in hopes of preserving live music venues across the country. 

“The live music business is a game of numbers,” Parks explained. “Most of us have predicated our businesses on understanding and working the capacity of our rooms. We are now in a position that when we're able to reopen, our caps are going to be significantly smaller, which directly impacts our revenues.”

There are a number of venues in Iowa that are part of NIVA alongside xBk, including Wooly's, Vaudeville Mews, Noce, Lefty's Live Music, Hoyt Sherman, and the Englert in Iowa City, along with the promoters of 80/35, Hinterland, and Mission Creek. 

Across the state, there are a total of 18 Iowa member venues involved, some of which are businesses classified as bars and some that are not. 

Even though many venues are allowed to reopen on June 1, Parks will not be able to reopen her venue until at least June 17, as businesses classified as “performance theatres” remain shuttered.

“We have zero revenue, other than small sales of gift cards or venue-based merch. We have nothing coming in, but we still have ongoing financial commitments like rent or mortgages, insurance, utilities, and of course the impact this has had on our staff.  Many people that work in this industry are seeking jobs elsewhere to make ends meet,” she said.

For now, xBk remains in business, but there is at least one venue that has been forced to close permanently. On May 15, Spicoli’s in Waterloo announced that their current location is closing. 

“The expenses to run a small venue with a capacity of 400 people inside and outside require steady business and regular crowds. We were fully booked from March 17 - July 31 when the shutdown was announced. We had to cancel nearly 50 events,” venue owner Chris Hageman said. “Our shut down was 100 percent caused by COVID-19. I consider the closing of this business to be a fatality caused by government incompetence, lack of communication and short-term and long-term direction.”

Hageman echoes Parks’ concern that it’s going to be difficult for venues to stay in business operating at limited capacity.

“The rules are not logical for how music venues or small bars operate,” Hageman explains. “I don't see how it will be possible for most bars or venues to comply, especially with live music. If we were still in the University Ave location, 50 percent of our standing capacity inside and outside is 200 people. There’s no way I can seat 200 people with six feet between seats. It's not possible for us to be profitable at under 100 people in seats, and bands would have to play for free. It took 200 people or more, three times a week to even make it before the pandemic.”

Despite financial difficulties, Hageman and Spicoli’s do have plans to curate a rock and roll museum with art and memorabilia collected over the years, as well as to host music live streams on social media and to eventually reopen. 

The first to reopen

Lefty’s Live Music in Des Moines is one of the first venues in the state to start hosting live music again, starting Friday, May 29. 

Lefty’s listed the measures they are taking to ensure performer and attendee safety in a Facebook post. The plan includes booking less bands on a bill, providing and requiring PPE for employees, using single-use drink containers, and dedicating themselves to nightly deep cleans of the building. 

Anne Mathey, the venue's owner, says Friday's show is a test run. 

“It’s a weird time for everybody in the music industry right now, from small, local bands up to the giant tours,” she said. “It’s an industry that’s been crushed by this COVID situation. It’s an industry where the whole point is getting people together. We are easing people into it. With six-feet social distancing, it brings our cap to 45 or 50. Tonight will be a test run to see how safe and feasible it is.”

Des Moines five-piece rock band As For You is one of two bands slated to play their first night open and is giving all the revenue generated from the show back to the venue. 

“We are following all guidelines, and we want to give back to our small businesses. Lefty’s is a small, local business. We know the significance of the virus and we understand what’s going on. We are not just metalheads. We are trying to give some money back to the community, and this is a benefit show for Lefty’s,” Brian Ickowitz, drummer for As For You, said. “It’s for Anne Mathey and Erik Brown, the owners of Lefty’s. We want to keep them alive and in business, so we are just trying to pump the gas and get things going again for them.”

Mathey says the venue would be closed right now if not for a GoFundMe created by music lovers in Des Moines. 

Ickowitz, who owns two Maid Rite restaurants in the Des Moines area, acknowledged that music venues cannot generate revenue from the curbside business that other establishments can.

“It's a very difficult situation. I know there are a lot of businesses that may not quite feel ready to open, but due to the economic realities of what they're facing, have to do so or possibly face never re-opening,” xBk’s Park said. “Every business’s situation is unique and we're all facing complete uncertainty. This situation is unprecedented and I want to believe every business owner is doing the best they can in the circumstances they're in.”