BY LYDIA RIVERS
PHOTO BY MANUEL VELASCO
The Metro is arguably the most iconic stage in Chicago, and has been hosting some of the most famed bands before they reached big name stardom since 1982 (the first band the venue ever booked was R.E.M.). It’s where Dave Grohl of Nirvana had his drum kit destroyed by the crowd, where James Iha of the Smashing Pumpkins would ride motocross through halls, and where Guns N’ Roses stayed after getting into some trouble in LA. Playing a show at the Metro could mean a springboard into a big break, and a dream milestone for artists and bands in the Chicago music scene.
As the coronavirus pandemic continues, venues like Metro remain closed. According to Gov. JB Pritzker’s plan for reopening Illinois, large gatherings such as concerts won’t be permitted until Phase 5, which won’t occur until a vaccine or widespread treatment for COVID-19 is available.
Experts predict this could take many months, leaving many of Chicago’s independent music venues forced to consider the possible reality of being forced to close their doors forever. According to a survey done by the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) among its members, they found that 90% of independent venues report they will close permanently in a few months without federal funding.
We decided to check in on how Metro is doing, and had the chance to talk with Joe Carsello, the talent buyer at Metro, Gman, and Smartbar. We had the chance to talk about how the pandemic has affected their business, what they think about reopening, and what concerts might look like in the future.
How has the pandemic affected Metro?
A lot of our staff is people working hourly, or you know, are bartenders or security or production people. When we don’t have shows, we don’t have any way to really employ those people. So immediately, we kind of had to go into a bit of a scramble mode and help raise some money for those people because they were pretty much out of a job right away. On top of that, we have salaried people who like myself in talent buying or in the marketing department who are kind of out of work too because we don’t have a show to market or promote. We had to restructure some things and figure out how to do business.
It’s pretty tough to sometimes do the job that we’re doing when we don’t have like, the fruits of our labor, I guess. We are still working a lot — a lot of its rescheduling shows and finding some new timeframes for when maybe things might be a little bit better.
How are you guys handling rebooking?
Things that were in the March and April months had to move right away. There was this thought that like, you know, oh, we’ll just push us to the fall or we’ll find a new day, but it’s not always that easy with bands and touring operations — especially if we’re talking about bands that are from other countries, we’re just not quite sure when people are going to get back into the country. So a lot of stuff we just kind of had to put on pause for a bit, but everyone’s been really making it a team effort of sorts. It’s a really difficult situation for a lot of people, but I think everyone’s handling it as best as anyone can.
Is it possible that there would be a large number of concerts happening at once due to rescheduling?
What we understand now is that there’s going to be some sort of gradual opening scenario. The governor has released a plan that has alluded to establishments opening at a low capacity and moving forward after that. Metro is a 1100 capacity venue, Smartbar is about 400 capacity. For us to really operate at half capacity in either one of those spaces is pretty difficult for us to make happen financially — we’re looking forward to 100 percent capacity being allowed to us and it’s hard to know when that will be right now. I think it’s going to be a little bit slower, where you’ll see smaller venues open up and then eventually get to a Metro size thing. If our state is
different from another state that makes it difficult for a band to travel through the Midwest, let’s say. So it’s not like the touring industry can just come back on a moment’s notice. It’s going to take some time for us to build this back.
Is social distancing at a show even possible?
So the idea of social distancing, even if we want to do half-capacity, isn’t really a realistic concept right now. Maybe down the line when there’s more like rapid testing available or something like that. Right now, if you told us to open tomorrow, we don’t have a way to separate people. Most hundred capacity or thousand capacity clubs around the country are in a similar predicament. A big thing with NIVA and CIVL, which is a local version of that, is a way for independent venues to group together to have a voice within our local government. We’re kind of saying, “Hey, moving forward, we’re going to need some sort of additional relief on the local level and the federal level.” A lot of us are kind of cultural centers for the community, and we would love to be open to help entertain our communities and bring back what our city has to offer. We want to do it the safest way possible, but by doing that, it probably means we’re going to be closed for longer than expected.
What do you think reopening might look like?
It is a little bit difficult to pinpoint what some of the hurdles are going to be as far as safety and health of not only our staff, but also artists and the people coming to the club. What does that look like to us on the short term basis? It means that we probably hire some more staff when we finally open up, because we need to either have more door checks as far as maybe taking someone’s temperature before they enter the building. It might be, we might have some new regulations about how we clean or just general maintenance of things too. Those are short term things that we’ll probably have to address when we finally open. It’s going to take the touring industry a longer time to recover from this compared maybe to local shows, because it’s going to take a while for bands and promotion to ramp back up. It’s kind of hard to promote things right now, and a big part of how artists make money right now is touring. So if you can’t tour and you’re releasing a record, and that’s the main way you promote that record, that record doesn’t just go away. When we open back up we might have to look back a little bit and say like, “Oh, hey, that record we put out in 2020, we’re touring on it now in 2021.”
NIVA has been rallying behind #SaveOurStages, an effort to push Congress to pass “The Restart Act,” which would provide long-term assistance and loan forgiveness for music venues across the country. You can tell your legislators to save independent music venues with a few short clicks through #SaveOurStages here.