Along with many other sectors of the US economy, live independent music venues have been hit by the COVID-19 pandemic and closed due to crowd restrictions.
But as the number of cases declines and public health restrictions lift, clubs in North Carolina and across the country are planning indoor performances for the first time in more than a year.
“Our last show was on March 6th,” said Heather LaGarde, who with her husband Tom owns and operates the Haw River Ballroom in Saxapahaw, an unincorporated community in Alamance County. LaGarde recalled how the gravity of the situation began to calm down that day in 2020 when singer-songwriter Marc Broussard and his crew were on the ballroom’s bill.
“While they were here they found out that South by Southwest was canceled,” LaGarde said. “And they were just shattered and spent the rest of the day with agents on the phone. And we all saw it melt all over the place.”
Frank Heath, the owner and operator of the famous Carrboro music club Cat’s Cradle, clearly remembers the last time fans gathered in the room before the nationwide lockdown.
“The last show that went on,” said Frank Heath, “was Destroyer on March 11th.”
“People had a strange time that night,” he said. “Just paranoid about what the disease was and whether to buy a beer, where to stand. I think everyone was happy to go home.”
Heath joined me and Heather LaGarde for coffee and conversation on a deck outside the Haw River Ballroom. The venue’s owners looked back on the past 14 months and looked ahead to the cheery return of the audience.
Venue owners conform and advocate
“… a feeling of tightness, wonder and concern arises when you think about being responsible for bringing people into rooms. But at the same time, I can’t wait.”
Heather LaGarde, co-owner of the Haw River Ballroom
The ballroom seats 715 and anchors a mixed-use entertainment and cultural complex that grew out of a renovated cotton mill and dye works. The venue also has a coffee bar that has not served paying customers since it closed, though Heather LaGarde uses the espresso machine for herself and occasional guests, just as she and her husband used the ballroom as an exercise room during the pandemic.
LaGarde is preparing to host outdoor concerts in August and indoor performances from September.
âMy whole throat closes up, or there is a feeling of tightness, wonderful and fearful feeling when you think about bringing people together in rooms. But at the same time, I can’t wait, âLaGarde said.
Club owners like LaGarde and Heath had to innovate to find ways for their companies to survive the pandemic.
For Heath, that meant arranging live streaming concerts.
“The model was just trying to get some of our staff on board and get in touch with the bands,” said Heath. “Whenever someone was interested in doing a gig that would be posted live on the internet, we would actively sign bands every weekend to come into the cradle and play a set.”
Heath said the streams proved popular, if not profitable.
“The Connells had 10,000 people watching their live stream in October,” he said.
Heath added that while the shows streamed did not generate any revenue for his club, they did help keep everyone busy and keep hopes for the future of live music alive.
For Heather LaGarde and the Haw River Ballroom, staying busy meant renting out the performance space as a film and sound stage for bands.
âWe felt it was a safe place, and this is a place where artists sometimes rehearse before shows or touring,â she said. “And Saxapahaw is such a welcoming place for people to come and stay, so we ended up doing a number of concert films.”
LaGarde and Heath serve on the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA), which has sought financial support from state and federal lawmakers.
“One of the most important things NIVA did was spend the money it had on hiring Akin Gump, a very capable group that lobbyed Congress,” said Heath. “They worked with us every day to find out what to do about contacting representatives and senators.”
NIVA’s efforts helped secure approval from the state Small Business Administration in the form of the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program.
âIt has expanded beyond just indie venues,â said Heather LaGarde, âinto small museums and indie cinemas and some other performing arts organizations, and that was approved for $ 16 billion in December and should have been a long time ago delivered, but has just been delayed. “
The federal grants would provide up to 45% of their 2019 gross sales to independent venues closed by the pandemic. But LaGarde and Heath were both unsure of when or if the money would be distributed.
Pushing forward with perspective
As harsh as the pandemic was on their businesses, LaGarde and Heath have been keeping an eye on things.
“Everyone in the art is reluctant to complain about anything when it comes to human mortality, lives and families,” LaGarde said. “And at the same time, I deeply and I don’t believe that any of us would be in this industry if we didn’t really believe that music and art bring people together.”
I asked LaGarde and Heath which shows they are particularly excited about.
“There are a lot of great shows coming up so I hate to choose,” said Heath, “but we have one of my favorites, James McMurtry, who is at the at [Carrboro] Arts Center, that’s a show promoted by Cat’s Cradle in September and then the Psychedelic Furs at the Cat’s Cradle in November. “
“I’ll say Waxahatchee is a very meaningful one,” said LaGarde of the band’s planned performance at the Haw River Ballroom in October. “Because that was one of the shows that we had booked that were already sold out and had to be canceled and then rescheduled and rescheduled and rescheduled.”
The upcoming show sold out within days, LaGarde said.
“So it was the first one that we thought, ‘OK, people feel safe going back.'”
Another thing LaGarde looks forward to is taking guest bands on kayak tours on the Haw River, one of the ballroom perks.
“The connection to the river is a big part of what we have to offer when bands are going on a pretty intense tour and want to go somewhere they can really take a break.”
However, the return to organizing and producing shows for live audiences means a major emotional break for musicians, fans and club owners alike.