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Return of live performances to Sonoma County likely a ways off

Insight: Life After The Pandemic

This story is part of a new quarterly special section at The Press Democrat focusing on stories and issues of community-wide importance. This debut edition, publishing in print on March 28, is focused on stories examining how our lives will be different after the pandemic abates. Look for the next Insight section in late June.

Read all the stories here.

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Exactly when live music in front of large crowds will return to Sonoma County depends on a number of metrics, from colored tiers and capacity limits to concession sales and distanced seating. But at HopMonk Tavern, artists will truly know the pandemic is nearing an end when they’re allowed to sing into an uncovered microphone again.

“We call them ‘microphone condoms,’” said Bill De Carli, HopMonk director of music, describing the prophylactic “mask-like” material they use between performers at the weekly open mic series. “You slip it over the top of the microphone. People do their thing, and at the end they take it off and wipe off the mic and the stand with a sterilizer. Then you put on a fresh condom and go again.”

More than a year into the COVID-19 outbreak, live music venues are still struggling to survive, whether trying to reinvent themselves or simply waiting out the latest surge. On April 1, state health officials will begin allowing fans to attend outdoor live performances, regulating capacity and concession sales by colored tiers. In the most restrictive purple tier that indicates widespread transmission of the virus, only 100 people are allowed, with no concession sales. In the red tier, where Sonoma County is now, capacity will be limited to 20%. In the orange tier, capacity is allowed up to 33%. And in the yellow tier, capacity will max out at 67%. The red, orange and yellow tier venues will be allowed to sell “primarily in-seat” concessions.

But Sonoma County venue operators and promoters are cautious, many wary of coming back too quickly. They predict a slow road to recovery and to the return of “normal” concerts.

Cautious return

“We’re not super hopeful that there will be a lot going on this summer in terms of national touring, inside the venue,” said Anita Wiglesworth, director of programming at the Luther Burbank Center, the 1,600-seat performance venue in north Santa Rosa.

For national acts, the numbers — including staffing, venue overhead and artist fees — simply don’t add up for limited-capacity shows. Right now, neighboring Sutter Health hospital is using Luther Burbank Center, both the lobby and the theater, as a vaccine clinic.

Over the past year, the venue has lost about $4 million in earned revenue, a hefty bite out of its average operating budget of about $11 million. Currently, virtual programming continues, including the “Luther Locals” series focusing on local musicians. The performing arts center hopes to continue hosting “Carpool Cinemas” drive-in movies on April 8.

Last summer, the center tried to produce drive-in concerts, but county health officials wouldn’t allow it. Wiglesworth and staff are considering outdoor concerts later this year, to be held on the east lawn under a tent pavilion, possibly when the county enters the yellow tier of restrictions. She is holding out hope that the first full-capacity indoor show since the 2020 outbreak might be a rescheduling of Southern rock band Whiskey Myers in November.

At the Green Music Center at Sonoma State University, Executive Director Jacob Yarrow said, “I think we’ll err on the side of pretty extreme caution” when it comes to bringing audiences back to see shows, most likely in an outdoor setting first.

“I think that in 2021, it’s quite possible that we’ll have events at Green Music Center,” he said. “I don’t think they’ll look like events we’ve had in the past. We’ll still be wearing masks and trying to stay away from each other, but I think some events are possible in 2021.”

Over the past year, the earned revenue has been around 5% of the typical $2 million the center brings in. Yarrow has been hosting “The Green Room” virtual series of performances to try to keep audiences connected with artists who have had little to no income over the past year. A saxophone player, Yarrow hosted a talk about jazz legend Charlie Parker, with several musicians chiming in. Another show spotlighted the Alphabet Rockers and issues of equity and respect. With artist Michael Mwenso, the center created the “Black Music Series,” now in its fifth episode.

Avoiding false starts

Bryce Dow-Williamson, who has promoted local bands over the years, was furloughed from his job working with the Mystic Theatre in Petaluma and lost several other business opportunities over the past year. As an independent promoter, he’s helping revive the outdoor SOMO Concerts series in Rohnert Park and said management is in talks with a larger national promoter to bring in national touring acts when they get the green light and “the numbers add up.

Insight: Life After The Pandemic

This story is part of a new quarterly special section at The Press Democrat focusing on stories and issues of community-wide importance. This debut edition, publishing in print on March 28, is focused on stories examining how our lives will be different after the pandemic abates. Look for the next Insight section in late June.

Read all the stories here.

“For us, we don’t want any false starts,” he said. “Everybody lost so much money with cancellations and then postponing and re-postponing. Everybody wants to play it pretty safe right now, but our goal is to do something at SOMO by the fall.”

With a 3,000-person capacity at SOMO, “there’s enough space there to do something that would still feel pretty good at 1,000 to 1,500 people.”

He’s picturing that, to make it work, initial acts would be those with low production costs like comedians or DJs and EDM artists, performers who don’t have large crews. Dow-Williamson also promotes the Railroad Square Music Festival, which takes place every June and is funded by the city of Santa Rosa. It will likely go virtual this year, as it did last year, he said.

So far, independent promoter Jake Ward hasn’t been enticed to go the virtual route and is still waiting to resurrect his popular North Bay Cabaret — a variety show mix of stand-up comedy, slam poetry, burlesque, drag and circus acts — and resume monthly performances at Whiskey Tip in Santa Rosa, along with private events. He also occasionally books indie bands at the Arlene Francis Center and produces weekly trivia nights at local bars and restaurants.

At this point, it wouldn’t be profitable to return at a limited capacity and sell tickets for only a portion of the house, Ward said.

“Prior to COVID, the math was already tricky. So for what I do, until we can do 100% capacity, I’m not personally trying to get back into it.”

Distancing, masks could continue

For now, HopMonk Tavern in Sebastopol is continuing outdoor music with local singer-songwriters in the beer garden. “Technically, it’s ambient music,” DeCarli said, with no tickets being sold.

He’s looking at a first ticketed return show with Mother Hips in July at HopMonk in Novato. And he’s hoping to bring in “a well-known Bay Area musician” for a monthlong residency in August at Twin Oaks Tavern in Pengrove, which HopMonk owns. He said he couldn’t reveal the artist’s name yet.

At this point, opening the indoor Abbey room at HopMonk in Sebastopol wouldn’t work at limited capacity. DeCarli predicted that when shows do return, there still will be mask and distancing requirements, with possible cabaret-style seating, and that tickets might cost more.

As the weekly open mics continue, DeCarli still has a healthy supply of the few hundred “microphone condoms” he bought for around $25. If the pandemic goes on much longer, he joked, they might have to market a HopMonk line of the mic guards. More than anything, he hopes he doesn’t have to invest in more of them.

If nothing else, “It’s going to be a funny sign of the times when we look back on this one day,” said promoter Ward, talking about the expansion of microphone covers to local karaoke nights and other open mics. “All the weird stuff people are doing to try to make it safe, but still have some activity come back.”

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