A Music Venue’s Experience in the Time of Covid

Illinois has ventured headfirst into stage four of Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s reopening plan this past Friday, which included the reopening of almost all businesses, as long as they adhere to gatherings of just 50 people. However, certain businesses stay stuck between a rock and a hard place. Music venues continue to find themselves in a particularly difficult and uncertain position. Melissa Mercado, executive director of The Venue in Aurora, Illinois, knows as well as anyone how difficult these times have been for her line of business and how murky the future looks.

The Venue opened their doors June 1st of last year in Aurora (fun fact: Aurora is actually the second largest city in Illinois at a population of 200,660). Instantly what stands out with this venue is it’s on the nose name, which came into fruition when the owners were referring to their space during its construction as, “The Venue” and just became comfortable calling it that.

The Venue categorizes itself as more mid-sized, as it allows for up to 200 people inside under normal conditions. They are equal opportunity as far as music goes, hosting a solid number of blues bands, but also bringing in bluegrass, indie-rock, southern rock, jazz and big-band musicians. It has two unique qualities to it: one being that it is just a music room. It isn’t tied to a restaurant as many venues, particularly those in the suburbs, are. The second differentiator is that it is a non-profit and completely volunteer run. They are a subsidiary of the Fox Valley Music Foundation, whose goal is to, “Preserve, Promote, Protect and Present the wonderful music of the Fox Valley area of Illinois.”

Mercado stressed how difficult it has been running a music venue during this time. “We were just really starting to come into our own after the first of the year, where we were having some consistent sellouts or large crowds. We just kind of grew our audience and then disaster hit…Everything came to a screeching halt.”

While The Venue was told they could reopen on the 26th of June, like most other businesses, Mercado underscored that, “a lot of factors need to fall into place for that to happen.”

Among these factors are musicians having to simply agree to playing before a live audience, having them compromise on performing before a crowd of 50 instead of 200, as previously thought, getting enough volunteers to serve the audience (one of the challenges of being a nonprofit) and agreeing on health protocols everyone can follow. These are just a few of the obstacles that Mercado has to figure out that, “keep her up at night.”

One of the main obstacles, however, that Mercado is responsible for is finding possible sources of revenue.

“We’ve been greatly affected financially by this whole thing and being a fairly new business, it’s been a little tough,” said Mercado.

She stated how the venue has had to adapt over the last few months and that one way they’re doing this is through live streaming performances, something they’ve been doing since the 6th of April. With the utilization of professional quality cameras and sound engineering, Mercado explains that, “we have been able to sustain a little bit of revenue by putting these live streams on with donations and splitting them equally with the artists.”

What’s unique about these live streams is that The Venue intends on, because of the limited capacity, still live streaming when they’re able to bring in an audience. They plan on doing this until they’re allowed to bring in at least 100 people.

“I don’t know if we could keep a crowd any larger than that under control and still maintain the quality of the livestream.”

The Venue intends on putting together a trial run of them combining a live audience and a live stream on the 13th of July and go from there. However, Mercado acknowledges that they, most likely, won’t be allowing audiences in until August.

Though there have been donation opportunities tied to each live stream, that isn’t nearly their only source of revenue during these times.

“We’ve had to write grants, fundraise and ask for sponsorships. We’ve also had to take out the SBA PPP loans and hope that we’ll get some of that forgiven.” This was all mostly done to make up for the sheer number of tickets they’ve had to refund.

Mercado says that the most difficult aspect of all of this has been rescheduling the shows and renegotiating the contracts. She lays it out plainly: “Let’s say you’re paying somebody $2,000 when you’re anticipating 200 people. You can sell $10 dollar tickets and make your money back. But when you only have 50 people and you’re already tied into a contract for that $2,000, that’s kind of rough. You can’t go back and tell them something different. So, that’s been extremely difficult.”

Mercado adds that while it’s been taxing, she understands that smaller venues have it even harder. “They’re limited to 50% and if they only have 50 seats in there selling tickets to 25 people. When they still have to pay a band, there’s going to have to be some compromising,” she explains.

It’s also important to listen and digest information, especially when businesses may be forced to adapt a second time when there’s the chance Covid-19 goes through a resurgence in the fall.

“I’m cautiously optimistic, but I’m not a fool. I have to listen and digest that information and try and make a plan B, plan C and so forth.”

“I just take in the mindset that this is going to be a rebuilding just like it was last year at this time. I also tell people to just spread the word about us. There’s nothing else like us in the city of Aurora… We’ve kind of positioned ourselves as a kind of a community clubhouse. It’s like coming in and being in your living room with the best stereo system in the world. But it’s just getting the word out that we’re actually here, that is what is tremendously helpful.”

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