Northeast Ohio venues stage socially-distanced concerts to feed music-hungry souls

For Northeast Ohio establishments that offer live music, figuring out when to begin staging in-person performances and how to do it safely have been challenges during the coronavirus pandemic.

Bop Stop socially distanced concert wo people.jpg

For Northeast Ohio establishments that offer live music, figuring out when to begin staging in-person performances and how to do it safely have been challenges during the coronavirus pandemic.

For many venues, having the proper space to allow patrons and musicians to socially distance, while still being able to attract enough business to make live entertainment profitable, has been a deciding factor.

The spacious Music Box Supper Club in the Flats welcomed patrons back in June, while BLUJazz+ in Akron has not yet opened its doors. After remodeling, the Beachland Ballroom and Tavern in Collinwood has begun offering live entertainment with reduced capacity on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. This weekend, the Beachland is hosting its first live music on its new outdoor stage with a concert by Community Shoe on Saturday, Sept. 26th.

Nighttown owner Brendan Ring said a recent trip to New York City reminded him of the pleasure of hearing performers in person, leading him to decide now was the right time to re-start having live music in his popular Cleveland Heights restaurant.

“I was down in the West Village one night, sitting outside of a café having dinner. At one end of the block, a girl was playing violin for a good 45 minutes. When she stopped, two troubadours came down the street playing guitars and singing. I thought ‘Oh my God, I didn’t realize how much I missed live music.’ When I got home I said to myself, ’We have to figure out a way to bring the music back to Nighttown,” Ring said.

Beginning October 2, Nighttown will offer live performances on its year-round patio, with seating limited to fifty people. Ring is also working on plans to safely offer music inside Nighttown, by mid-to-late October.

“I’ve reconfigured the music room from 150 seats to 50. I’ve told the musicians they need to charge patrons $20.00 per ticket, which means the door is $1,000 max and they keep all the money. The one caveat is that it has to be a table of four or more. I can accommodate tables of four to ten. I can’t break up a four-top table. Strangers aren’t going to sit with other people, so if we have to break tables into smaller units, the band is playing for less money,” Ring said.

Ring is working on creating a barrier between singers and the audience, as well as other safety measures. Ring said Nighttown also has the advantage of being heated by steam pipes within the walls, so there is no furnace moving air around the establishment.

Gabe Pollack, director of the Bop Stop at The Music Settlement has faced a number of challenges, as he tries to keep the small but popular music venue on Cleveland’s Near West Side afloat.

The Bop Stop was forced to cancel some 70 concerts from mid-March to mid-July, but a stroke of good fortune allowed the club to transition to another revenue stream.

“A portion of a technology grant that the Settlement had was actually designated for the Bop Stop. Prior to COVID-19, I was going to spend it on a projector and screen, since we do a lot of presentations, and at a later point, use the remaining money to acquire the equipment needed for live streaming. When COVID hit, I approached the funder to ask if we flip the purchases, because the club was going to need some sort of revenue stream and it was going to have to be virtual,” Pollack said.

Once the funder agreed to the change, the Bop Stop ordered the equipment in April, but because of the slowdowns due to COVID, it didn’t arrive until mid-July. Once in place, the Bop Stop did begin streaming performances. Pollack has been pleased with the amount of people who have tuned in for the events and the donations they’ve made. They have also been able to use the equipment to generate revenue in other areas, including recording auditions for graduate students and bands making promotional videos, as well as sharing their streams with other presenters including Jazz at Lincoln Center. Other organizations who want to hold virtual fundraisers have reached out to the club to use the space and the equipment.

When the weather improved, the Bop Stop wanted to hold outdoor performances, but those took a while to get off the ground because of problems with permits from the city of Cleveland. Approval arrived at the end of August, with the city allowing the club to offer recorded music outside, but not live performances. Pollack worked around the issue by taking advantage of the Bop Stop’s patio, which was licensed to allow performers to play. Patrons sat on an extended area outside of the performance space. The club presented several concerts in September with more planned for October. Pollack has capped attendance at 38 people with tables spread out nine to ten feet with an outdoor bar to serve concert-goers.

While these other sources of revenue have been helpful, Pollack doesn’t want people to get the notion that this enough to keep the Bop Stop operating.

“People say to me ‘ Oh great! The Bop Stop is back,’ but it’s not at that point, yet. We’re doing stuff, but please don’t think we’re ‘making it,’ or that this is sustainable. We’re not covering costs, we’re just losing less money,” Pollack said.

Beginning Saturday, September 26, the Bop Stop will begin allowing ten guests for the streaming performances, but only with the band’s approval.

All the Bop Stop’s kitchen and bar workers are furloughed, so patrons are permitted to bring their own food. Pollack will serve drinks before the concert begins, but will be unable to continue bar service during the show, because he has to run the sound and cameras during the performance. There will be one set of 75-90 minutes with no break, in order to get patrons in and out as safely as possible.

One of the first musicians to perform with the limited amount of patrons for a streaming concert is saxophonist Matthew Alec. Sunday, September 27, from 6:00 p.m.-8:00 p.m., Alec leads his quartet in a concert which is a fundraiser for his new record label Cleveland Time Records. Proceeds from the performance will also benefit the label’s partner, the Akron-based non-profit educational organization iN Education.

Alec, who earned his Bachelor’s Degree in Music from Kent State University in 2007, describes this time as a musician as being “very odd.” Alec hasn’t performed a show of any kind since March. He’s taken advantage of the time not playing out to finish his band’s latest album, as well as start Cleveland Time, a label he hopes can document the rich jazz scene in Cleveland.

He admits people might think he’s crazy to start a jazz record label during the pandemic, but his plan is to come up with the funds for one recording at a time and see what happens. Alec is working on building a diverse group of funders for the label, so that its success isn’t just tied to actual sales of the recordings.

Alec said that the notion of having multiple income sources has become more prominent among jazz musicians, who in the past often relied on playing in clubs and other venues and making recordings.

“I think the days of relying on playing 300 nights a year to make a living isn’t sustainable. We have to find funding elsewhere. It exists, we just have to find the places,” Alec said.

Dan Polletta is veteran Northeast Ohio broadcaster and writer. Dan’s written extensively about arts and culture, with a special interest in jazz.

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