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Jeff Miers

How WNY music club owners are coping: ‘Fans will be back’

Public support for musicians whose incomes have been decimated by the current crisis has been impressive and incredibly heartening, both locally and across the country.

However, somewhat overlooked in all of this has been the effect the music business shutdown has had on club owners. With public gatherings canceled, and both national and international tours postponed for the foreseeable future, local music venues have been forced to lay off employees, look for alternative means of subsistence wherever they might find them, and weather the storm as best they can.

Representatives from three of the most prominent and consistently booked live music venues in town discussed how they’re coping with the shutdown and what they hope to see on the other side of this crisis.

Q: What has the shutdown done to your business?

Josh Holtzman (Buffalo Iron Works, Cobblestone Live): The outpouring of support, both locally and nationally, for musicians has been really wonderful to see and I hope it continues. On our end, it’s hit us hard. We’ve been shut down since the middle of March and truthfully, I don’t see that changing soon.

Like many other small businesses and venues, our survival depends on a constant cash flow. We just aren’t built to withstand long periods of time without any source of revenue. On top of that, the time of year couldn’t have been worse. Our busy seasons are spring and fall. We rely on the spring season to carry us through the summer, when most events shift to outdoor festivals. To lose this time of year will have a lasting impact, but it will only make the comeback that much sweeter.

Jason Hall (Sportsmens Tavern, the Cave): Sportsmens and the Cave are pretty much shut down completely. There is no revenue coming in at all.

Donny Kutzbach (Fun Time Presents, Town Ballroom): There's not a lot we can do right now, except attempt to reschedule as many shows as we can and wait it out. Our world is really no different than anyone else's right now. Thus far, we've been fortunate enough to reschedule about 80-85% of the schedule.

Donny Kutzbach outside the Town Ballroom. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Q: How are you adapting? What can you do to keep your business solvent while the shutdown drags on?

Hotzman: Adaptation is the name of the game right now. On a monetary end, we haven’t been able to do much, but we’ve been able to offer a home for Band Together Buffalo, a local online streaming platform that’s dedicated to raising money for musicians. It may not be driving revenue our way, but it’s certainly helping those we care about. On our end, we’re taking every measure possible to lower our expenses and keep the venue operating as "lean" as possible. It’s more of a "hunker down" approach.

[Read more: Miers on new virtual concert series | Dave Ruch "bands together" safely in show at Iron Works]

Hall: We’re working on rescheduling shows, as artists and management reach out with possible new tour dates. Keeping ticket holders up to date with cancellations and rescheduling. For the most part, we are staying motivated and busy. We’re getting caught up with projects around the property that have been tough to do with our busy show schedule. Fixing some flooring, cleaning up, general maintenance and soon, hopefully, doing the work to get Sportsmens Park ready for some events we have scheduled for later in the year.

Sportsmens Tavern. (Sharon Cantillon/News file photo)

Right now, there isn’t much we can do to generate any revenue. Unfortunately, social distancing and live music venues don’t fit together all that well. Ultimately, we are in the business of people coming together and having a good time. For the time being, that business has been mandated "out of business."

Kutzbach: It's a good time to refocus. My partner, Artie Kwitchoff, is always thinking about how to make the experience better at Town Ballroom. With downtime, we can think about that and hopefully come back better than ever.

Q: In a lot of cases, local clubs have built up a roster of workers who have been part of the team for a long time. Are the people who’ve been laid off due to the shutdown going to be able to come back when business picks up again?

Holtzman: The staff at Iron Works are the heart and soul of the venue. I had to personally lay off 30 amazing people and that is something I hope to never do again. Once business has returned and we can open our doors, the entire staff will be welcomed back with open arms. I won’t have them reapply, or anything like that.

Hall: Hopefully, our entire staff will want to come back to work with us. We are planning on bringing everyone back once we are able get going again. We have a great, hardworking team that was very excited about the momentum we had established with all our expansion in the past two years. My dad (owner Dwane Hall) said it best, "It took a worldwide pandemic to slow us down."

We understand that desperate times call for desperate measures, but all we want is to be open and back to work, have our staff back to work, artists on our stages performing and people supporting and enjoying live music.

The Tragically Hip performing at the Town Ballroom in 2007. (Robert Kirkham/News file photo)

Kutzbach: We have the best staff. Most of them have been with us for a long, long time. I hope we can get most of them back, but you never know. I fully expect to get everyone back once things return to some semblance of normalcy, but I realize that in some cases, people might go get other jobs and move on.

Q: Are you hearing from agents about when we might reasonably expect the touring industry to be up and running again?

Holtzman: I’ve had a lot of conversations with agents, managers and all others involved in the touring industry. We can only speculate, but a goal of July 1, 2020, is looking to be the best-case scenario. If it can happen before, great, but honestly, if we can get touring back rolling in July, that is a huge victory.

At Iron Works, most of our shows that were set for March, April and May have been postponed to August, September, October and later. We are still actively building up our July so we’re ready to roll, should that pan out.

Josh Holtzman at Buffalo Iron Works. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Hall: It looks like tours are looking at getting back at it by July. But most of our May and June touring acts have yet to cancel the bulk of their dates. I think most will be waiting to see what things look like once we get closer to the end of April.

Kutzbach: I talk to agents every day, but the reality is – no one knows. The situation changes from day to day. I think when we came into this initially, we thought maybe it will only be for a few weeks. Now, we know it's going to be considerably longer than that. I don't want to speculate. I'm crossing my fingers like everyone is.

Q: Is there anything the public and people who regularly patronize music clubs can do to help?

Holtzman: First and foremost, stay at home, be safe and flatten the curve. The more we all work together on stopping the spread, the faster we can get back to normal life. Secondly, I put together a GoFundMe page as a relief fund for the Iron Works staff. They could really use help. Any donation big or small goes a long way. People should know that 100% of all donations will go directly to the staff. Our venue will not take any funds.

Hall: Right now, probably not. We are OK for the time being, but a long-term shutdown would more than likely become devastating. First and foremost, we want everyone to stay healthy and safe. Secondly, be ready to come back out and support us and live music once the time is right. All the clubs and restaurants are going to need the support of everyone once doors are allowed to open again. I assure you, we will all be ready.

From left, Jason and Dwane Hall at the Cave. (Robert Kirkham/News file photo)

Kutzbach: You can never say for sure, but I feel like we will come out OK. I don't want people worrying about us. Right now, I'm concerned about other businesses, especially locally owned bars and restaurants. I'm trying to support as many of them as I can by doing regular takeout and delivery from them. If you have a favorite local spot that is doing takeout dinner, make it priority to order from them. If there's a Western New York brewery you love, stock up on their beer. And so on.

I'm also really happy to see artists doing online shows and chats from home and in isolation. Support the artists. Give to their Patreon or tip them on Venmo. Buy T-shirts and records from their online stores.

Q: When we finally come out on the other side of this, do you expect the live music industry to be changed? Will we be able to proceed with "business as usual" again, or will the way we experience live music be altered?

Holtzman: I think, overall, the industry will remain the same and bounce back strong. I do expect to see specific changes at larger events once this all breaks, such as sanitation stations, temperature scanning zones and more attention to cleanliness across the board. I’d anticipate a drop in attendance, too, as many concertgoers will still have lingering fears of Covid-19. It’s going to take some time before we completely get back to events being the way we remember them.

Buffalo Iron Works. (Sharon Cantillon/News file photo)

We will get through this and come out stronger. I look forward to the day I can reopen Iron Works and see all those happy souls together again.

Hall: As long as people feel that they are safe, we can get back to business as usual. If there is a treatment to this thing, it will certainly help to settle fears about getting sick. Americans are not ones to sit around doing nothing. It’s not in our nature. People love to go out. They love live music, going to restaurants, being around old friends and making new ones.

I think there will be a massive show of support for all local businesses once this is over. Then, over a period of time, we will settle back into the way things were.

Kutzbach: It seems like life as we know it is going to be different in so, so many ways. It's too hard to say exactly what it might mean for the music business, but I know that music fans will be back. I think we are all losing it a bit, because we miss the live experience and we can't wait to get back to it.

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