California Reopens in June. When Can We See Live Music Again?

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Nicotine makes her California debut with captivating spoken word at The UC Theater in Berkeley on night five of the the 2019 Noise Pop Music and Arts Festival.
Nicotine makes her California debut at The UC Theatre in Berkeley on night five of the the 2019 Noise Pop Music and Arts Festival. (Estefany Gonzalez )

Governor Gavin Newsom announced yesterday that California would fully open its economy on June 15, provided there’s enough vaccine supply and COVID-19 hospitalizations remain low. Counties will abandon the color-coded tier system that allows certain businesses to operate at limited capacity, and instead will adopt a statewide reopening model.

Theoretically, that means clubs, concert halls and ballrooms can invite audiences back in two months—and put musicians, stage crews and venue staff back to work. (The new state guidelines stipulate that masks will still be mandatory, and conventions with over 5,000 attendees will require proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test.)

If all goes according to plan, Stern Grove Festival, the free, outdoor live music series that takes place on weekends in San Francisco every summer, is planning to do just that. Executive director Bob Fiedler tells KQED he’s hopeful the festival can relaunch on June 20 with some COVID safety modifications.

Instead of allowing guests to come and go freely, there will be a fenced perimeter around the Stern Grove meadow and designated entry points. Reservations will be required, social distancing will be enforced and capacity will be down to about 3,000 from 10,000 in previous years. Pending approval from the San Francisco Department of Public Health, Stern Grove plans to announce its lineup and dates in about a month.

“As far as a bigger music festival, there’s a chance we’re going to be one of first ones back and we’re excited for that,” says Fiedler. “Music heals and it’s medicine, and the Bay Area and people in general can use that right now.”

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The San Francisco Symphony may also see an earlier return to live performances than anticipated. CEO Mark Hanson tells KQED that the orchestra will likely give several outdoor concerts in June, July and August, and that program details will be released in the coming month or two. Indoor performances may resume in the fall. “Our planning continues now with an increased sense of confidence and belief that this will actually happen,” he says, adding that digital programming will continue on the orchestra’s streaming service, SFSymphony+

For many indoor music venue owners, getting back to business may be a slower process. “The idea of reopening that soon is as scary as closing was a year ago,” says Lynn Schwarz, co-owner and talent buyer at Bottom of the Hill, an intimate, dive-y San Francisco rock club with a capacity of 250 people.

Super Unison's Meghan O'Neil belts out powerful post-punk vocals on night two of the 2019 Noise Pop Music and Arts Festival at Bottom of the Hill.
Super Unison's Meghan O'Neil belts out powerful post-punk vocals on night two of the 2019 Noise Pop Music and Arts Festival at Bottom of the Hill. (Estefany Gonzalez )

Schwarz and her partners need capital to reopen. They’re applying to the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant from the federal government, which would help take care of some of the bills and debt. They also need another Payroll Protection Program loan to rehire their staff and give them enough hours. That’s in addition to a litany of logistical tasks, like making sure appliances and sound equipment still work after a year of disuse, installing plastic barriers and better ventilation and switching from a cash-only to a touchless payment system.

“We will be [financially] vulnerable for the whole of next year,” says Schwarz, adding that many of her venue owner peers have expressed similar concerns.

Schwarz has booked a handful of concerts for August with bands like Surfer Blood and King Buffalo, and is in the process of finalizing a few other dates before announcing an official grand reopening. “It’s going to be a mad dash to get the best local bands on the bill,” she says, adding that out-of-town acts may be slow to organize national tours.

Venues that book primarily touring acts may take even longer to get off the ground. “When we—our community, meaning music venues, promoters, artists, agents and managers—all feel that it makes sense to start up the tours and to tour the country, then it starts to become real and viable,” says David Mayeri, CEO of The UC Theatre, adding that concerts will likely resume in his 1,400-capacity Berkeley ballroom in September, possibly August. “A lot can happen between now and June 15 that will be positive; some things can happen that will be setbacks. We don’t know what to predict.”

Mayeri is an organizer with NIVA California, the regional branch of the National Independent Venue Association that came together to advocate for the concert industry during the pandemic. NIVA California sees the governor’s announcement as a step in the right direction, and is also advocating for more financial support at the state level.

Toro y Moi performs at Outside Lands music festival in San Francisco, Aug. 11, 2019.
Toro y Moi performs at Outside Lands music festival in San Francisco, Aug. 11, 2019. (Estefany Gonzalez)

A big argument for state funding is that the arts are an economic engine; NIVA California estimates that independent venues generated $13 billion for the state economy in 2019. “We are still hoping for financial support from the state of California so venues can once again be economic drivers and contribute to the cultural fabric of our communities,” Sarah Fink Dempsey, spokesperson for Another Planet Entertainment, another NIVA member, tells KQED in an email.

Another Planet has already announced the return of its big festival, Outside Lands, in October. Fink Dempsey says that the company is hopeful that its venues—which include Oakland’s Fox Theater and San Francisco’s Bill Graham Civic Auditorium and The Independent—will be back in business in August. “Obviously this is all still unfolding and is a dynamic situation, and [we] will only do so when it is deemed safe,” she adds.

SFJAZZ, which is a nonprofit like The UC Theatre, may not host live shows until January 2022, says founder and executive artistic director Randall Kline. “It’s all fluid right now. If this were a linear, straight, directed path, it’d be easy to do,” he says. “But this virus in particular is unpredictable and we’re not sure where it’s all going to go. The variables are still huge in this—what is safe and how people are going to be able to gather.”

SFJAZZ books its programming a year out, and Kline predicts a challenge may be securing the big-name, touring artists who are already reeling from having numerous tours canceled over the last year. Those performers may wait until things stabilize. “We’re looking at artists in our backyard,“ says Kline, adding that numerous venues will be competing to book high-caliber Bay Area and California acts. “We’re going to be a little more regional for a little bit.”

A jazz quartet performs onstage in a modern theater with purple lighting.
Taj Mahal Quartet performs on the SFJAZZ Center's Robert N. Miner Auditorium stage in San Francisco, CA on March 1, 2020. (Bill Evans)

Difficult as it may be to wrangle touring acts, Rob Ready of San Francisco cabaret PianoFight points out that many local artists may also need time to rehearse and perfect performances. “For most bands and most theater acts—or burlesque or drag performers or magicians—none of these folks have been able to be in same room as each other for over a year,” he says. While, before the pandemic, PianoFight typically hosted a wide variety of music and theater shows in its three rooms on a single night, it will likely scale down its offerings when it reopens in late summer or early fall because there may be fewer performers available.

So, when will fans be able to enjoy live music? And when will an industry that was the first to close and last to reopen be fully functional again? Each venue has a different answer, but it’s safe to expect that in a few months’ time—and with enough vaccines—we may be able to safely gather again.

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This story was updated to include details about the San Francisco Symphony and a quote from Mark Hanson.