No ‘take-out’ option: How are metro Detroit’s music venues surviving?

Allan Goetz felt like the boutique music venue he co-owns had just hit its stride when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Goetz is part of a collective of six families behind the Lake Orion “listening room”, 20 Front Street, that opened in 2017 and was enjoying sold-out shows leading up to the closure imposed in March.

The performance space is part of an industry hit hardest by the global health crisis. If venues remain closed for the rest of 2020, the national music industry stands to lose more than $9 billion in ticket sales alone and, with half of the industry’s revenue generated by live music events, metro Detroit’s venues are suffering. 

Goetz says his business is currently operating at 90% less revenue than they would ordinarily expect, and says it’s been difficult to ‘pivot’ as other industries have.

“We were the first to close and will be the last to re-open,” says Goetz. “There’s no ‘take-out’ option for music.”

Despite the challenges, 20 Front Street has joined others in the industry looking for alternative ways to monetize music consumption this year. Outdoor concerts in the summer, live streaming through the fall, and limited re-opening in the future will help. Goetz just hopes it’s enough.



Outdoor concerts

Making the most of summer, 20 Front Street teamed up with Lake Orion’s Downtown Development Authority (DDA) to host two outdoor concerts in the nearby Children’s Park. Musicians performed on a gazebo stage, while the audience sat in designated lawn squares, spaced six feet apart. 

The DDA funded the musicians’ fee, and tip jars were put out to further fundraise. The free shows filled the 100-strong audience capacity each time, which Goetz says demonstrates what live music means to a community. 

“People loved them,” says Goetz. “I really felt like — especially for the artist — they were very emotional. They really miss that connection, that response from a live audience. The clapping emojis are great but there’s only so many times you can sing into your phone.”

20 Front Street also joined forces with Rochester’s Royal Park Hotel to host an outdoor “Night in Nashville” concert in August, featuring Matthew Austin Bell and fellow Nashville singer-songwriters. A stage was constructed behind the hotel, next to Paint Creek, so a crowd of over 200 people could watch from their hotel balconies and patio seating. 

Singer-songwriter Tony Lucca performs a concert at 20 Front Street to a virtual audience via live streaming.

Live Streaming

Globally, streaming has grown from 9% to 47% of the music industry’s total revenue in six years, so it’s no surprise venues have turned to live streaming as another way to generate funds. 20 Front Street started producing Green Rooms Session videos on its YouTube channel three years ago, but the platform quickly became an important part of the venue’s survival strategy this year. 

“We record a show, premiere it on a Thursday, and people can donate,” says Goetz. “We split donations with the artists.”

Their “Songwriters Round”, recorded in March featuring local artists Michelle O'Neil and Steve Taylor, has garnered over 2,000 views on YouTube alone, and more than 1,700 people tuned in to a live streamed show with the Dave Bennett Quartet in July.



View from the stage

Singer-songwriter JD Eicher has performed at 20 Front Street several times, and was significantly affected when he was forced to cancel more than 60 shows this year because of COVID-19. He had a European tour and a CD release tour planned, but remains positive despite the setbacks.

“In those moments, it was really very difficult to accept,” he says. “But with so much devastation related to the virus, I'm very stubbornly trying to remain aware that the impact on me personally has only been business-related and that my family and friends have been able to stay healthy. That's the important thing right now.”

With his income taking an estimated 80% hit, Eicher has turned to alternatives such as the crowd-funding platform Patreon, online merchandise sales, outdoor shows, and donations from live stream concerts like the one he performed in last month at 20 Front Street. 

“It was strange, and maybe a little eerie, to be playing a show to empty seats during the pandemic,” Eicher says. “But I was excited for the chance to help out, and I knew that they would deliver a high-value production for viewers. That team is a special one, and it was an honor to be part of their efforts to keep the music going.”

Eicher admits though, live streaming is not a financial replacement for a live show and is “more of a survival subsidy”. More than the financial piece, says Goetz, is the impact on artists’ psyche.

“I’ve had some deep conversations with some artists and many were very depressed,” says Goetz. “Their gift is sharing their music with people.”



Government relief

20 Front street is part of the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA), which has launched #SaveMIStages campaign to encourage government support for artists and venues. The campaign is pushing for Michigan's state officials to create a $10 million relief fund, while a national package was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives last week, as part of the revised $2.2 trillion Heroes Act.

If the national relief bill makes it through the Senate, it would see $10 billion in emergency grants go to independent venues and producers, which NIVA argues will have ripple effects in local communities. The organization estimates that for every $1 spent on a concert ticket at a small venue, $12 of economic activity is generated for area businesses like restaurants, retail shops, and hotels.

“Our small, independent businesses, which normally contribute billions of dollars to local economies, are on the precipice of mass collapse if this critical funding doesn’t come through,” says NIVA’s communications director Audrey Fix Schaefer. 

Approximately 90% of independent venues report they will close permanently in a few months without federal funding, according to a survey of NIVA’s 2,800 members.

“We’re cautiously optimistic our elected officials understand that if they assist us now, we can be part of the economic renewal of small towns and big cities,” says Schaefer. 


Co-owner Allan Goetz knows that the re-opening process of his music venue will be a slow one.

Re-opening

Currently allowed to reopen with 20% capacity, metro Detroit’s small venues still face minimal profits for the foreseeable future. At 20 Front Street, with pew seating for 100, concerts will be performed to an audience of 20, and Goetz estimates several months before that will increase to capacity. It will, however, make for some very intimate shows.

“It will be very exclusive and really cool,” says Goetz.  

The uncertainty, Goetz says, is the hardest part. As a venue that relies on touring artists, it’s difficult to anticipate when musicians will feel comfortable touring again, and making bookings around unpredictable scenarios. Goetz hopes the November and December bookings at the venue will go ahead. Something that has bolstered his spirits, however, is the support from the local fans of the venue. 

“Our staff have had people who have walked past in Lake Orion and just given money, and said ‘I hope you are doing okay’ and ‘we can’t wait until you’re open again’’,” he says. “The community is waiting.” 

“Our love for music and our love for people hasn't changed,” says Goetz. “Now it’s just waiting to get back to what we love doing.” 

Read more articles by Kate Roff.

Kate Roff is a freelance writer and editor, currently based out of Detroit. Contact her at kate@wanderoff.com.au
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