How Local Music Venues Are Adapting to Coronavirus Restrictions

Photo Courtesy of 118 North.

From drive-in concerts to virtual events, local mainstays are using creative strategies to rise to the COVID-19 challenge.

By 4 p.m. on a warm Thursday night in May, 118 North’s Ken Kearns has the audio ready to test. Sound checks are nothing new for the longtime musician and concert promoter. From fronting his band, Rugby Road, to organizing the Wayne Music Festival and co-owning the restaurant and live music venue, Kearns has been a fixture of the local music scene since his days at Villanova University.

The night’s performance would be different, though. The debut of 118 North’s Tailgate Takeout Series, it was also the first time the venue hosted live music since March, when COVID-19 requirements forced the abrupt cancellation of concerts. Aware of such restrictions, Kearns sees the new series as a way to bring the music business back to North Wayne Avenue “and encourage people to order takeout from 118 North and all of the restaurants who are our neighbors.”

By nightfall, a socially distanced crowd had gathered, and some folks were enjoying the music from their cars, drive-in style. “Of course we’re complying,” Kearns says. “But live music is part of our DNA.”

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Lately, the collective craving for music has been aided by major labels pushing new releases by big-name acts—and social media is filling a huge void. “While not ideal, there is interaction between artists and fans,” says Maggie Poulos, a Berwyn-based independent music publicist with Mix Tape Media. “It’s a different connection, but still a connection.”

Poulos credits Americana Highways and Band Camp with supporting the work of lesser-known musicians. Quarantine concerts on Zoom, Instagram and Facebook have also allowed artists to go live. While in-person concerts have been held elsewhere in the country, local venue owners say it’s still a no-go here. “The safety guidelines keep changing,” says Chris Perella, a partner in Ardmore Music Hall.

With a roster of well-known acts and up-and-coming artists, Ardmore Music Hall’s spring and early summer shows were postponed or cancelled, leading to refunds on top of lost revenues from closure. “I’ve likened the situation to musical chairs,” says Jesse Lundy.

Lundy is the talent booker and publicist for Point Entertainment, which produces concerts for venues of all sizes, from Ardmore Music Hall to the Mann Center for Performing Arts to Manayunk’s the Locks at Sona. He and business partner Richard Kardon had a full slate of performances booked for spring and summer. “At the beginning, I wanted to postpone but not cancel anything because, in the concert world, the venue cancelling has different financial ramifications than if the artist cancels,” Lundy says.

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Postponing is no easy feat. Some of Lundy’s acts were rescheduled four times in six weeks, with each new date becoming part of an uncertain future. “If attendance is limited to 25 people—including staff—and tickets are $20, is it financially worthwhile to have the event? And if so, how many of those performances can a venue afford to do?” Lundy poses. “Bands are asking for offers to perform, but with the option for contracts to be renegotiated when we know where we stand.”

Typically, Ardmore Music Hall’s spring and summer shows fill the 600-person venue to near capacity—and Perella knows that won’t be possible anytime soon. “We’re focused on ideas for audience-free and limited-capacity events,” he says. “We’re lucky to have all-star musicians in town, because we’ll have to get creative on short notice.”

The financial woes of venues pale in comparison to those of local musicians and their support staff, many who live paycheck to paycheck. To provide financial assistance, virtual benefit concerts and other COVID-19 relief efforts have been organized by Love From Philly, Philadelphia Music Fest, WXPN and the Music Is Love Foundation (founded by Kearns and Charlie Houder).

Moving forward, Lundy sees local musicians adapting to new technologies, whether it’s upgrading home studio equipment, learning new social media platforms or writing fresh arrangements. “Historically, social upheaval has resulted in the creation of great new music,” Lundy says. “I can’t wait to see what comes out of the quarantine.”

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