For some West Michigan music and entertainment venues, the approaching two-year anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic is a crossroads. For others, it represents a finish line after having endured the worst.
While federal pandemic relief programs — specifically the Paycheck Protection Program and Shuttered Venue Operators Grants — served as a critical lifeline that kept both large and small businesses afloat, the present scenario is in some ways more difficult than those early months of COVID-19.
Venue operators, promoters and artists are effectively fending for themselves, with some venues in more precarious situations than others.
“At least before we had hopes of having some guidance (earlier in the pandemic),” said Michelle Hanks, who co-owns Seven Steps Up with her husband, Gary. “Free for all seems like a very good way to describe it right now. We have no guidance. It’s actually worse than no guidance.”
Hanks was referring to the present situation of venues having a hodgepodge of mask and vaccination requirements, which is complicated by demands from artists and performers as well as unruly patrons. Hanks said Seven Steps Up, an intimate listening room in downtown Spring Lake, was among the first venues in the state to require proof of vaccination and mask-wearing among patrons.
“We got a message the other day from someone who literally took the time and said, ‘I hope you suffer as a result of your vaccine mandate,’” Hanks said. “That is very difficult.”
The omicron variant ushered in a wave of show cancellations for venues like Seven Steps Up. The venue canceled seven shows in December, held three in January and plans two in February. A typical year for Seven Steps Up would include more than 120 shows; it held a fraction of those — some at half capacity — in 2020 and 2021.
A nearly $263,000 federal Shuttered Venue Operators Grant is “the only reason we’re even still standing,” Hanks said. “We have people come to us and say: ‘We’re so happy to see you guys are back.’ And we’re like, ‘Back? We have three goddamn shows. How can that be back?’ Ticket sales are down, drink sales are down. It’s not a good situation.”
Hanks and Tami VandenBerg, the owner of the Pyramid Scheme bar and music venue in downtown Grand Rapids, are hoping that the spring brings new fortunes as the omicron variant declines and artists begin touring again. VandenBerg said about one-third of the Pyramid Scheme’s shows in January were canceled, postponed or rescheduled.
Asked how the Pyramid Scheme entered 2022 financially, VandenBerg laughed: “That’s complicated.”
“Overall, with all of the federal, state, city and county assistance we’ve received, we’re in very solid shape. But our hope of having a year in 2022 that looks a lot like before 2020 looks like a dream that’s not going to become a reality,” she said.
In addition to using federal PPP loans to keep workers on staff, the Pyramid Scheme received a more than $930,000 Shuttered Venue Operators Grant last year, according to a federal database.
VandenBerg also reported a mix of recent sell-out shows as well as events where only a fraction of ticketed customers showed up, which cuts significantly into the venue’s alcohol and merchandise sales.
“It looks like — from everything I’m reading — January and February will be particularly dicey” before touring activity picks up again in the spring, VandenBerg said, giving her an overall sense of optimism.
As well, VandenBerg shared Hanks’ sentiment about the present lack of guidelines and uniform policies.
“It’s been such a mess. It’s gone from a situation where we couldn’t make any decisions and couldn’t control anything because the state was dictating every single step of our lives to, ‘Now you’re on your own, good luck,’” VandenBerg said. “It’s been difficult and frustrating.”
Scott Hammontree, partner and talent buyer at The Intersection in Grand Rapids, echoed VandenBerg’s outlook for the next few months.
“The first quarter is going to be very sub-par, then I think as we get closer to the summer months — knock on wood — and being optimistic with what I’m reading on the variant, we could get back to some sense of normalcy by the end of the year,” said Hammontree, who also serves as president of the Michigan Independent Venue and Promoter Association. The Intersection, which also includes smaller venues Elevation and The Stache, received nearly $3.4 million in federal grant funding.
‘There’s reason for optimism’
Operators of venues that regularly host theater companies, larger touring acts and convention and private events took a more optimistic tone.
Rich MacKeigan, regional general manager for ASM Global, which manages events at Van Andel Arena and the DeVos Place Convention Center, expressed optimism as touring activity resumes. The venues are administered by the Grand Rapids-Kent County Convention and Arena Authority (CAA), which received $10 million in Shuttered Venue Operators Grants spanning the past two fiscal years.
“I think the overall vibe is: There’s reason for optimism. Things are coming back from an event perspective, people are attending them and are spending money when they’re there,” MacKeigan said. “All of that is very optimistic.”
He added that the CAA is “not quite back to whole” from pre-pandemic budget projections, but that federal venue grant “definitely goes a long way to shoring up some of the losses incurred because of COVID.” As of Nov. 31, the CAA had a net fund balance of just under $9.7 million, according to recent budget documents.
“I think we’re still a year away from things to be all the way back. … (The pandemic) still has a number of touring opportunities sidelined for the time being,” MacKeigan said. “The other piece is — and I’m not saying they’re wrong by any stretch — there are still a number of people who are not comfortable being in large groups, so that is going to take some time as well.”
The Frauenthal Center in downtown Muskegon has kept active over the past two years, installing various facility upgrades and raising more than $5 million as part of a capital campaign, said Executive Director Eric Messing. The Frauenthal also received a $350,000 federal venue grant.
With the number of performances scaled back, Messing said private events like weddings have played a larger role lately in driving revenue for the Frauenthal.
“We are navigating our way through this pandemic on a day-to-day basis and we’ll continue to pivot as necessary for the safety of patrons, staff, volunteers and artists,” Messing said. “Every day is a new day to look at how prepared we are.”
That sense of renewal while taking on new pandemic challenges day by day is a shared sentiment among venue operators, even if their paths and decision making vary.
“I think we all, many people in the live music industry, have to hunker down,” Seven Steps Up’s Hanks said. “Everybody needs to kind of figure out for themselves what that means in terms of survival.”