Concerts in a COVID-19 Era

Ron Pen performing at the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Photo by Warren Cobb.

At the beginning of 2020, many of us were looking forward to attending some concert tours and music festivals.  Then starting in March and throughout the year, the announcements of postponements and cancellations were trickling through.  Pretty much everything has been moved to 2021 with tours.  However, there are several events still occurring.

When it comes to recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic, many communities are looking into safely hosting musical events.  Bell County Tourism Director, Jon Grace, is working with a committee and the local health department to ensure a safe environment for upcoming shows.  In fact, they hosted a concert a few weeks ago at the Laurel Cove Amphitheater.  Another music event planner, Renee Collins Cobb, has been active in keeping the music community alive with special events both online and in person.  They have provided some valuable information for anyone that is looking to host events.

To ensure that concert attendees have a safe environment with COVID-19 restrictions, Jon Grace noted, “Being able to meet the criteria to be able to host a concert is pretty tough right now. Especially considering the capacity restrictions (1/3 in our case). But for the Laurel Cove single concerts, we had already cancelled two festivals and will most likely have to cancel our Fall and Winter Concert Series at the Bell.  So, we knew our window of opportunity for shows was really limited. I work hand in hand with Rita Jackson-Edmonson who is the director of Pine Mountain State Resort Park, and Jacob Roan who is director of Main Street Pineville. We, along with an awesome group of friends who help us put these on, designed a safety plan specific to the venue and the events we were putting on. It ended up being over ten pages long, because we broke down a long list of safety measures and how we would implement them. That plan was then approved by the State Parks Department which gave us the go-ahead to have the show.”

Jon also mentioned that everyone became familiar with Kentucky’s event and venue mandate on the KY COVID-19 Healthy At Work website.  “They did an excellent job in providing a detailed list of protocol for us to follow,” said Grace. “And obviously, requiring masks for attendees in when not in their seat, and maintaining six feet of distance between groups. There’s a lot more to it than that, but that’s the core of everything.”

Now with all the restrictions, you would think that there would be some opposition.  However, based on comments on social media, many fans have expressed positive thoughts on how everything was run.

With restrictions, there comes some guidance to make sure that attendees are following the rules.  Jon Grace was quick to mention that there is a great group of folks to help.  “Rita has a great crew at Pine Mountain, Jacob has a great support system, and then I’ve got the help from a circle of friends that always help with our shows (shoutout to Daniel, Bill, Blake, Dave, Jason, Josh, Christina, Chris, Derek, Emily, and Alexis). We made sure we had five times the volunteers we normally need; people to man the aisles and choke points to ensure people are wearing their mask when not in their seat and social distancing – that’s vital to the show going smoothly. We have some great folks with our local Park Rangers who are there to help us if we need it as well,” according to Jon.

There are several more shows to be happening at the Laurel Cove at Pine Mountain State Park this fall.  On September 18, Lost Dog Street Band with Matt Heckler and Charles Wesley Godwin will be performing a sold-out concert.  Then on October 10th, Eric Bolander, DeeOhGee, and Nicholas Jamerson and the Morning Jays will be performing as part of the Black Mountain Management Signing Party.  The conclusion will be on October 17th with Steel Woods, 49 Winchester, and Dalton Mills.  For more information on these shows, be sure to visit www.facebook.com/LaurelCoveMusicFestival.

Jon Grace provides some advice coming from the standpoint of a music event planner, as well as concert attendee when it comes to live music.  For those that are fellow music event planners, Jon advises to, “double-check everything right now. Study your state’s safety mandates until you’re blue in the face, If you have any questions about the safety aspects and if they can be met, don’t do the show. Understand that the best safety plans are tailor-made for your specific venue and event. You can obviously borrow some things from other folks, but you must put the time in to understand your venue and event’s logistics and how to best keep people safe while there. Get ready to work five times harder than usual to get a show done. However, the reward of seeing how grateful people are to have live music is well worth it and then some.”

For concert attendees, Jon advised to, “come back when you feel ready. I have talked to some people I deeply respect, who go to a TON of shows in normal times, that have messaged me and said, ‘I’m sorry, I’m just not ready’. And I’m like ‘Why would you apologize for that?’ Do not attend a show until you’re ready. If you are immune-compromised or interact with someone who is, then maybe not attending right now is the best move. Everyone is on a different timetable to return. Come back when you’re ready, not a moment before.”

Renee Collins Cobb and her husband, Warren, teamed up with different musicians through their Listen Locally and Overtones community. They did two things immediately to assist artists. First was that they took their Listen Locally Open Mics in Kentucky and Ohio and moved it to the Zoom format once a week.  According to Renee, “It was a true sense of community as our regular singers, in many cases, got to hear their fellow performers work with people from across the state, and even the country, perform their work and keep each other’s spirits high.   Since some the restrictions have lifted, Listen Locally realizes that there are different levels of comfort and also different life circumstances one finds themselves in at this time – so we have a “hybrid” approach, putting the “open” in open mics both in person and also online for those who do not feel safe or comfortable going out.”

Another aspect is that they created a Facebook group called “Listen Locally: Taking Care of Business.” Renee indicated that this was done to “create a business directory of sorts to seek alternative ways for our musicians who have other skills, businesses and crafts to build a community in which if any of us needed lawn care, haircuts, HVAC, plumbing, Airbnb rentals, graphic design, any type of service – we could ‘go to a musician first’ for what was needed.  We also asked the extended community to consider ‘think of a musician first when seeking services.’ This was very helpful to many of our musicians.”

Listen Locally was also a part of an outdoor festival around July, prior to the mask mandate.  They utilized a bracelet system of red, yellow, and green as attendees would have different levels of comfort of being approached.  Those that didn’t want to be approached wore red, those that wanted to talk but no hugging/touching wore yellow, and those comfortable being around would get green.

When it came to performances inside a venue, Renee said that they have asked people to keep their distance from the musicians.  One thing she pointed out was that “many of them do not have insurance and this is their only source of income.  Patrons have been wonderful in honoring whatever system we have put into place.”

Renee Collins Cobb’s advice to performers is that “you have a responsibility to work with your fan base and sending a strong message that you will do what it takes to keep people safe.  As hard as it may be to turn down work, I would not advise working with anyone or a place that is not honoring restrictions and guidelines.”  She also offered some advice for concert attendees. “Find out in advance what the “rules” are at the place you are attending,” said Rene.  “Purchase products, merchandise, drinks, food while you are at an event.  Do not be the person that makes a reservation for a table, and just orders water to drink.  Be kind and generous to your servers.  They are restricted from making income right now because of having to close early – and before a time in which they typically earn the most income after 10:00 PM.”

Listen Locally has expanded its event planning services with concerts at Twisted Cork in Lexington, as well as weekend events at the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Renfro Valley.  Each Wednesday, they have been showcasing music and interviews at Austin City Saloon in Lexington.  For more information on Listen Locally, be sure to visit www.listenlocally.com.

At the end of the day, we all miss being on the stage or out in front of the stage moving to the sound of music.  For the musicians – please continue to create your work of art.  Perhaps this period has been a time to reflect, learn, and rebuild a strategy for 2021 when you release new music and shows.  For the music venue – never stop believing and keep the music alive.  Host events, whether it is live-stream of a band or outdoor shows with limited seating.

Finally, for the music fan in all of us, enjoy the music when you feel comfortable.  Go to the artist website and purchase their music or other merchandise.  The biggest impact is sharing the music of your favorite band.

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