By Dave Fountinelle | firstname.lastname@example.org
California’s economy officially reopened without restrictions on June 15th. This means an end to mandated social distancing, capacity limits, and masking for those who have received the vaccine. It also means bars, nightclubs, and concert venues may open at full capacity again. Live entertainment is finally returning after over a year on hiatus.
To say the last 15 months have been difficult for the music industry would be a gross understatement. This has been a ruthless time for everyone involved in the business. While stimulus aimed at rescuing live venues and assisting struggling self-employed entertainers was eventually approved, months into the pandemic, it came too late for many. It has been estimated that the average artist lost 2/3rds of their income due to the moratorium on live performances. The industry, in general, saw a revenue decline of nearly 20%, with music venues and movie theaters being hit the hardest. Movie theater revenues plummeted by over 75% in 2020 compared to 2019. Over 300 independent music venues were forced to close their doors permanently. Nearly 300,000 venue employees, roughly 95% of all venue workers, lost their jobs. This, despite the $15 billion in direct relief from the Save Our Stages Act (SOS) that passed in December 2020. By the time the relief bill was signed, much of the damage to independent venues had already been done.
Locally, the impact of the COVID pandemic on live entertainment has been devastating. In most any other state, Fresno would be considered a reasonably major market. But, here in California, Fresno sits in the shadow of two of the largest entertainment hubs in the country, Los Angeles and the Bay Area. The Save Mart Center has been a draw for many major touring acts, and venues like Strummer’s and Fulton 55 have been solid draws for smaller, independent national acts. However, Fresno simply did not have the same depth of financial support for its entertainment economy to weather the 15-month shutdown.
For Eddy Burgos, lead promoter for Numbskull Productions, the pandemic all but shut down his business entirely.
“Our situation has been mighty bleak,” he relates, “the operation as a whole has been in shutdown mode with only one staff member on board for damage control.”
Burgos has been running the business remotely from Istanbul while it and the rest of the industry sat in a financial coma waiting anxiously for a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel. But, unfortunately, that light seemed less and less likely to materialize each month that the shutdown dragged on.
“Our industry as a whole has been devastated, not just economically but mentally as well. This has been an incredibly stressful and depressing time for all of us,” Burgos adds.
Musician and songwriter Travis Brooks is one of the many local artists who found himself also having to adapt to the statewide venue closures quickly. As someone who depended on regular bookings at various venues all over the valley for the majority of his income, the shutdown was a huge financial blow.
“It’s hard to put an exact number on what this has cost me because you have to consider things like tips or random pickup gigs that I would get because someone saw me perform and wanted to hire me for an event. Even studio session work was affected due to non-essential business closures,” Brooks explains.
“What the pandemic cost me that was more valuable in my opinion than a paycheck was opportunity,” Brooks continues, “I was set to perform at three county fairs, festivals with big-name country and rock artists, and probably the toughest thing was losing the chance to fly to Washington DC and perform at the National Mall for an event called “Rolling Thunder.”
Rolling Thunder was to be an all-star country music festival for an audience of tens of thousands of military veterans and their friends and families. Performing for a crowd that size and sharing a stage with some of the biggest names in country music could have been life-changing for an up-and-coming artist like Brooks.
“These were once in a lifetime opportunities,” Brooks laments, “you can’t put a price on something like that.”
Brooks adapted to the indoor venue closures and social distancing restrictions by hosting a series of curbside concerts that he promoted on his social media pages. Brooks would set up in front of someone’s house for a modest fee and put on a 30-60-minute show for them. Being outside and maintaining social distancing minimized risk and complied with state mandates.
“The curbside concerts actually ended up being a great experience,” Brooks explains, “I got to meet and perform for a lot of people who might otherwise not have ever heard me play.”
The curbside concerts were so successful that Brooks carried them into the Christmas season, where they morphed into curbside caroling.
Businesses like Harris Ranch Restaurant also provided Brooks and other local musicians an opportunity by setting up outdoor performance spaces to entertain customers during outdoor dining.
For Brooks and other musicians, creative alternatives like curbside and live stream concerts, merchandising, and social media marketing have been more than just a temporary band-aid to supplement some of the income lost by venue closures. They have become permanent new revenue streams that can continue to be profitable even after live concerts return. Brooks plans to extend his curbside shows through the summer and then return with curbside caroling for the holidays.
The first couple of weeks following the reopening have been a gradual easing back into old routines for Brooks. But for Eddy Burgos and Numbskull productions, the return to live concerts have been more like the start of a roller coaster.
“Many of our markets aren’t fully operational yet, but we did some shows in San Luis Obispo, and those sold out immediately, and the crowds were absolutely rabid,” says Burgos.
According to Burgos, Numbskull is being “avalanched by show requests” from artists all over the country. Bands have been clamoring to get ahead of each other on the calendar. With so many closures limiting the number of available venues to book with, there simply aren’t enough resources to keep up with the demand. Unfortunately, the reduction in available venues means smaller independent acts and local artists will have a more challenging time finding gigs until new venues begin to open and take up the slack.
It also means promoters will be less likely to take a chance on unproven acts as they struggle to try and recoup 15 months of financial losses.
As Burgos explains, “Unfortunately since we’ve all been hit so hard financially, we need to be more mindful of what does and doesn’t work economically. I think we are going to be forced to take fewer chances on some artists and to hone in on the bare production essentials for our survival.”
Despite all of that, Burgos is optimistic about what the future holds for live music in California and the Fresno music scene.
“Fresno is by far one of our favorite cities to promote in,” he beams, “the community here is not only diverse demographically, but their musical tastes are as well.”
This means Numbskull is encouraged to book more experimental acts and develop emerging artists who might not otherwise have a chance in the more significant markets.
“The scene in Fresno is hungry, supportive, and down as fuck, and we love that!” Burgos exclaims.
Burgos is excited about all of the upcoming events that are on the calendar for Fresno music lovers. On August 5th, they’re bringing the rescheduled Good Vibes Summer Tour to Woodward Park, featuring reggae legends Steel Pulse along with many other special guests. They will also be keeping the calendar at Strummer’s packed with a diverse assortment of independent artists and DJs all summer long. And they plan to ring in the fall season by returning once again to Woodward Park on October 13th, bringing Flogging Molly along with The Violent Femmes and Me First and the Gimme Gimmes. For more information about upcoming Numbskull Productions events, visit www.numbskullshows.com.
As for Travis Brooks, in addition to his summer curbside concerts, he released a new single, “Me and You,” on June 29th on all streaming platforms. He’s continuing to focus on getting more of his music out that he’s been working on over the last year. And you can look for him at many of the local spots he was a regular fixture at before the pandemic. For show dates, new music updates, and booking information, follow Travis on Facebook, facebook.com/travisbrooksband, and on Instagram @travisbrooksmusic.