Rocked by COVID-19 Phoenix’s music scene advocates for relief, concert safety

The Nash opened its doors in April of 2012 and is the home of Jazz in Arizona, a nonprofit organization founded in 1977 encouraging and supporting the performance and appreciation of jazz.
(Gianluca D’Elia/DD)

By Gianluca D’Elia and Catie Cheshire

There’s no way to have a socially-distanced mosh pits or take live music to go.

That’s one of many reasons why Stephen Chilton, owner of Phoenix’s Rebel Lounge on Indian School Road, insists that music venues probably won’t come back until late 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“We were the first to close and we’re going to be the last to open,” said Chilton, who is also the vice president of the National Independent Venues Association (NIVA). “No one is talking about bringing live events back anytime soon. It’s a much longer time horizon.”

When the pandemic started, Rebel Lounge worked to reschedule its bookings from March to June. However, as the pandemic progressed, the focus shifted to survival and to 2021.

According to Jeff Taylor, who handles bookings for Rebel Lounge, some national tours are still rescheduling but most bands and artists decided to reconnect later when there’s a clearer end in sight.

“It’s hard to beat that drum and say ‘Hey, let’s do this and this’,” said Robbie Pfeffer, lead singer of Phoenix-based punk band Playboy Manbaby. “What’s the motivation to make a new album if you can’t tour and it’s risky to even be in the same room?”

Not every venue has fully thought out what their reopening plans will look like and how they’ll go about implementing COVID-19 safety measures. Some venue owners said they don’t see themselves reopening anytime soon, and some musicians don’t see themselves playing live shows for a while, either.

I don’t want to risk the well-being of the people, and the families of people, who’d enjoy the show,” Pfeffer said. “We want to create a specific experience, and that’s not a seated, socially distanced ordeal. We have roots in punk music and punk shows.”

He said he doesn’t want to make any compromises when it comes to giving concertgoers a true punk experience, but he also doesn’t want to make any compromises on following the right safety measures.

“It’s communal, and there’s contact,” Pfeffer said. “Maybe six more months and I’ll think about doing a seated show.”

As time has gone on, some musicians have had to do what Pfeffer suggests and go back to work in less-than-ideal situations. Ryan Anthony, a community college professor and jazz drummer, said he’s fortunate to have a way to make money that doesn’t rely on live performances, but not all musicians are so lucky. Some working musicians he knows have started doing private events to get back to work.

Some venues, however, are working on realistic opening plans. Joel Goldenthal runs The Nash, a well-known downtown jazz club. He said he and his staff will be “the poster boys for mitigation strategies.”

Goldenthal laid out a robust plan that includes rearranging exits and entrances to the venue so people don’t crowd the lobby, contactless ticket scanning and concession stand orders, social distancing, a more heavily limited capacity, a mask requirement, and plexiglass shields in front of jazz performers — especially singers or brass and wind instrumentalists, who could potentially spread more respiratory droplets in the air.

In early September, Goldenthal said The Nash is developing a partnership with a local historical society that could provide an outdoor space for performances, just a half mile from the original venue.

Other venues that aren’t considering reopening anytime soon might turn to places like The Nash for guidance when the time is right. At the Rebel Lounge, which is still temporarily closed, Taylor said the staff hasn’t “gotten married to any ideas of safety protocols” yet.

“We’ll have plenty of examples by the time we’re actually allowed to reopen,” Taylor said. “We have a lot to learn from other people and other industries.”

In the meantime, venues and musicians are advocating for legislation that will help venues stay afloat until it’s safe to reopen.

Jerry Donato is the president of Local 586, the Arizona chapter of the Professional Musicians Union. At the beginning of the pandemic, the union worked to ensure musicians were included in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

Now, they’re supporting initiatives like the Reviving the Economy Sustainably Towards a Recovery in 2020 (RESTART) Act, as well as the Save Our Stages Act, which more specifically targets music venues.

Working with NIVA, Chilton launched the Save Our Stages campaign because he saw a need for aid just for music venues, instead of including music venues with all businesses under the more broad coronavirus relief bill.

“We’re going to see a lot of venues start dropping if aid doesn’t come,” Chilton said. “Our belief is that we’re closed to protect the public good and public health, so we deserve to be protected by the public through federal aid.”

Chilton and Donato encouraged people to go to their website and write to their representatives. There are also ways to donate to an emergency relief fund for venues on the website.

However, Taylor cautioned that individual people donating money isn’t a permanent solution.

“We ultimately need government to come in and save us and other venues,” Taylor said.

The musicians union agrees. According to Donato, it’s important for artists to support the venues they love because, “there’s strength in unity.”

Pfeffer, whose band has spread the message of Save Our Stages to its 19,000 Facebook fans, said he wants to do his part to give back to local venues that gave Playboy Manbaby a good platform.

“If we lose the places we have now, there’s no guarantee they’ll come back, that they’ll be good and there will be people involved who care,” Pfeffer said. “If you lose this, you really lose it. Musicians know, or should know, this is just as important to them [as it is to the venues].”

Donato said the union shares Pfeffer’s concerns. Their biggest fear is that venues will try to take advantage of musicians after the pandemic by paying them less than they made before. Like Pfeffer, Donato said there are great club owners now and he doesn’t see people trying to be shady, but he worries being out of work for so long will cause musicians to lower their standards for pay when they shouldn’t.

Advocates said maintaining the community the Phoenix music scene has is an important aspect of keeping local venues open.

“Especially when you’re doing original music, you need a community, I think, in order to be successful,” Anthony said. “You need to be able to share it with people.”

Though they can’t gather in person right now, members of the local music community hope to ensure they’ll be able to come back together in the future by advocating for venues to stay open.

“It’s the community I’m a part of, how I met most of my friends, and so much of my personal identity,” Pfeffer said of the local music scene. “To never know if, or when, it’s going to be a thing again is pretty rough.”

Contact the reporters at [email protected] and [email protected].

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