KSAT Explains: The push to save live music venues, theaters during COVID-19 pandemic

Episode 18 takes a look at the pandemic’s impact on the arts and why these venues are so important

SAN ANTONIO – The lights have gone down in performance venues across the nation and here in San Antonio.

Nine months after the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic, countless stages and seats are still empty. Artists miss performing. Fans miss live music and those who operate these venues and other businesses that rely on them have had to make tough choices.

In this episode of KSAT Explains, we take a look at the pandemic’s devastation on the arts, and the importance of these venues to a city’s cultural and economic appeal. (Watch the full episode in the video player above.)

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‘One of my dreams was to open a place like this’

The St. Mary’s strip, known for nightlife and music, is much quieter than it used to be.

Up and down N. St. Mary’s St. are bars that used to offer live music shows on any given weekend night.

But those same businesses that were bustling just a year ago are now struggling.

Staying safe has been everyone’s goal this year. But that safety comes at a cost during a pandemic. The Lonesome Rose, Paper Tiger and The Mix are just three of the countless venues that were forced to shut down because of the pandemic.

“If there’s somebody who’s really been hit harder than venues, I’d love to know who it is,” said Chad Carey, owner of Paper Tiger.

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Paper Tiger opened its doors in March of 2015, in the same building that once housed another music venue, The White Rabbit.

Carey said that at the time, artists were bypassing San Antonio, primarily in favor of Austin.

“I thought that was crazy because this city deserves to be a place where those artists can play,” Carey said. “We wanted to be that place.”

Just down the street from Paper Tiger sits The Lonesome Rose. The venue, dubbed the “oldest honky-tonk on the St. Mary’s strip,” just celebrated its second anniversary.

(Copyright 2020 by KSAT - All rights reserved.)

One of the bar’s owners, musician Garrett T. Capps, said The Lonesome Rose has created a spot for the alternative country scene in San Antonio.

“It’s been amazing,” Capps said. “One of my dreams was to open a place like this.”

Blayne Tucker owns The Mix, which is another staple of the St. Mary’s strip. Tucker said venues like his are incubators for music development in any community. That’s been put at risk this year.

“There really aren’t any opportunities when you see a decline in revenue by 95 percent,” Tucker said.

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With venues still largely sitting empty, cash registers and tip jars are suffering the same fate. And with COVID-19 cases on the rise again, these bar owners are faced with the uncertainty of having to shut down again.

“I’ve wanted to take care of the people that work in our places first and foremost as best as I can,” Carey said. “I’m not a rich guy. I can’t do that forever.”

‘It would be an absolute godsend’

In March, the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) was created to push for legislative help.

Thousands of venues have now joined NIVA’s cause, including more than a dozen in San Antonio.

A poll of these members showed that 90 percent said they will be forced to close permanently without federal assistance. It’s this apparent need that sparked the Save Our Stages Act.

U.S. Senators John Cornyn and Amy Klobuchar co-authored the legislation and introduced it in July.

The bipartisan bill would create a $10 billion grant program for independent music venues. It would allow these venues to get a grant equivalent to 45 percent of 2019 gross receipts.

Tucker, who is a part of the effort to lobby for the legislation, said the program would be the difference between survival and the industry shuttering completely.

But despite support across the aisle, the bill’s future is now in limbo. With Georgia’s two U.S. Senate races heading to runoff elections, it’s unclear what the makeup of the senate will look like, or whether the Save Our Stages Act will be left on the chopping block during negotiations over another stimulus package.

And as the legislation remains stalled, venues at every level are struggling. Besides a drop in ticket sales during a time when touring acts have taken a break, there has also been a dramatic drop in another major revenue stream for these businesses: alcohol sales.

From January to October 2019, 15 local venues that are members of NIVA posted $9.6 million in alcohol sales, according to the comptroller’s office. During that same time period this year, these same venues posted just $3.9 million.

The Tobin Center, San Antonio’s largest performing arts center, has had to furlough employees. While they have brought back some shows at limited capacity, Vice President of Programming and Marketing Aaron Zimmerman said they are still hopeful for some federal relief.

“The expenses to present or produce a show don’t actually go down because we’re in a social distance setting,” Zimmerman said. “But the revenue does. And that’s the real challenge.”

Thousands of live and non-profit music venues and theaters have gone dark since the pandemic swept across the country.

Community theaters like The Woodlawn Theatre have also been hit hard. The historic venue was built in 1945 and has put on musical productions and hosted educational programming year-round since 2012. But this pandemic is threatening its existence.

“Hopefully in the new administration, our voice will be heard,” Artistic Director Chris Rodriguez said. “But every week that goes by, someone may not have a job.”

For now, those in the industry will have to continue to wait and hope that aid comes either in the form of the passage of the Save Our Stages Act, or through other legislation.

“It would be an absolute godsend,” Carey said.

‘It’s somewhat insulting’

While venue owners wait to see whether any help will come from the federal government, some Texas cities have provided grants of their own to live music venues. But so far, not San Antonio.

Tucker said he has had successful conversations with some city council members, but he feels he’s facing a roadblock when it comes to Mayor Ron Nirenberg.

“Unfortunately his attention is more to workforce development,” Tucker said. “But if businesses aren’t surviving, there aren’t going to be any jobs.”

Carey echoed Tucker’s frustration and pointed out that there are people out of work and in need of immediate help. He also said he finds the focus on getting service workers new jobs insulting to those who are in the business because they love it.

“I think these people are all capable of doing other things,” Carey said. “They enjoy being a part of creating experiences for other people.”

In response to this criticism, Nirenberg released the following statement to KSAT:

‘These are pillars of every community’

The shutdown of performance venues in San Antonio has left thousands facing pay cuts, furloughs or job losses. It has thrown a curveball at so many arts industry workers including Lizel Sandoval.

In a normal year, Sandoval works with budding performers at the Woodlawn Academy, directing and choreographing productions.

And at the beginning of this year, she left her day job to focus on her contract work with the theater. But when the pandemic hit, all of her projects were canceled.

“It’s obviously been a financial blow to me and my family, but it’s also a personal and artistic blow,” Sandoval said.

While the loss of jobs for theater and live music venue workers are an obvious economic blow from this pandemic, here’s another that may not be as obvious: when people go to arts events, they tend to spend money beyond just the cost of a ticket.

That spending amounts to an average of $31 or more, according to a report by Americans for the Arts.

The cultural loss of closing these venues is something those in the industry said would be immeasurable.

Culture is a big part of what draws opportunities and ultimately people to a city.

“These are places that make up a huge part of the cultural infrastructure of a city,” Carey said. “When you don’t have places for artists to perform, both local and national, it diminishes what it’s like to live in a place.”

Stan Renard, assistant professor of Music Marketing at the University of Texas at San Antonio, said that while jobs may be the initial reason a person chooses to consider moving, they also take into consideration access to arts and entertainment.

“Another thing that matters is to have a concentration of venues within walking distance,” Renard said.

In San Antonio, we currently have that on the St. Mary’s strip.

St. Mary's strip (Copyright 2020 by KSAT - All rights reserved.)

‘It’s like watching Hamilton on Disney Plus’

Despite the challenges, venues have had to adapt to survive. Virtual performances, smaller crowds and new technology to keep spaces clean are some of the changes business owners have tried to stay afloat.

The Woodlawn Theatre has been offering audiences virtual shows they can enjoy from the comfort of their home.

“We’ve revamped our cabaret series called Woodlawn After Dark,” Rodriguez said. “It is now a virtual cabaret that we film live at the theater with four performers each weekend.”

Recently, the theater has welcomed guests for in-person shows at a limited capacity.

The Public Theater has also experimented with virtual performances. They have added new technology to give people a better experience.

“We have a brand new camera system that’s giving different angles and different side views and different perspectives of the show,” company manager Courtnie Mercer said. “It’s like watching Hamilton on Disney Plus.”

Of course, many people would argue that virtual performances are just not the same as seeing shows in-person.

“The way the sound feels, hits you, the experience of singing along to a song you love with your friend, you can’t replicate that on your couch,” Carey said.


About the Authors:

Lexi Salazar produces KSAT Explains, a weekly, in-depth streaming show that digs into the most important issues facing San Antonio. She previously produced the News at 9, San Antonio's first streaming-only news program.

Myra Arthur is passionate about San Antonio and sharing its stories. She graduated high school in the Alamo City and always wanted to anchor and report in her hometown. Myra anchors KSAT News at 6:00 p.m. and hosts and reports for the streaming show, KSAT Explains. She joined KSAT in 2012 after anchoring and reporting in Waco and Corpus Christi.