Return of live performances to Sonoma County likely a ways off
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.
“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.