It’s October 12, 2019. You hit the hair salon in the morning, picked a new ’fit on State Street. Dined at Los Agaves, tipping big for the tasty mole. Called up the babysitter, who you’ll pay a little extra for overtime. And at last, you arrive at the Santa Barbara Bowl for a Bob Dylan concert. Now multiply that one ticket holder’s spending by 4,500 — the seating capacity at the Bowl — and the ripple effect loss in revenue reverberates through the community.
Clearly, more than just ticket sales took a hit the day COVID-19 killed live music, as concerts are interwoven into the culture and economy in Santa Barbara County, which has the highest relative number of arts and culture nonprofits per capita in California. Nonetheless, when disaster strikes, the music industry is often one of the most affected.
“A lot of [music venues] weathered during the recession in ’08, then again with the Thomas Fire and debris flows during the 2017-2018 holiday season. A lot of small businesses are still getting back on their feet from those closures,” said Sarah York Rubin, executive director of Santa Barbara County Office of Arts & Culture.
But when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, the Santa Barbara Bowl went dark, along with the rest of live music venues across the county. “We were just in the process of embarking on the 2020 concert season. We normally announce a handful of events that coincide with Coachella, but when it was postponed, bands rerouted tours to 2021,” said Rick Boller, the Bowl’s executive director.
The staff at SOhO Restaurant & Music Club, the privately owned venue on State Street, has yet to forget the moment everything changed. “We shut down March 13, with Glove and Special Sauce canceling their tour right after performing here,” said venue manager Alec Beloin.
In the meantime, SOhO has been playing catch-up by talking to agents, refunding tickets, and selling gift cards to fundraise. “We are also auctioning artist regalia, like guitars signed by Jeff Bridges,” said SOhO co-owner Gail Hansen.
SOhO audio engineers are also hard at work, demolishing the old sound booth and doubling it in size. “This will make things a lot safer for mixing in the club, where drinks are flying everywhere,” explained Beloin. “For me, I’m getting this natural itch to return to productivity.”
But that itch doesn’t appear to be abating anytime soon. Recently, SOhO sent a survey in their newsletter asking community members what they would like to see from the restaurant/music venue in the coming months. The majority of respondents said they were not ready to return to the concert hall that fits 400 people for at least two months, and then with only 50 attendees maximum.
“Concerts are very high-risk places [for transmitting the coronavirus]. You could sit down at a restaurant and there’s social distancing, but how do you really manage social distancing in a bar,” said Beloin. “What opening might look like is seating 25 people on the patio for an intimate acoustic show.” He noted a nightclub in South Korea that became another epicenter for coronavirus transmission as a lesson to be learned.
“I’m kind of glad we’re not open right now. When I was last in [downtown] Santa Barbara, I felt like it was mostly tourists, and I’m not ready to be responsible for a bunch of people’s health,” said Hansen. Discussions about how doors will slowly reopen at SOhO are currently taking place.
Waiting is difficult, especially for nonprofit performance centers that are losing money needed for facility upkeep. “In times of crisis, that finite funding from fundraising shifts to immediate needs, so the arts and culture community often takes a substantial hit,” said Rubin.
The Santa Barbara Bowl is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, where revenue is reinvested into youth performances and theater upkeep. “As you can imagine, fundraising has really diminished, so we are looking to streaming options and reduced capacity shows,” said Boller. “We’re preparing so as soon as it’s safe for everyone to get back to attending events at the Bowl, we want to be poised and ready.”
Whether a mid-sized, privately owned club such as SOhO or a large amphitheater like the Santa Barbara Bowl, each venue is ultimately battling the same beast: time.
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