nashville music scene covid
Maitane Romagosa/Thrillist
Lifestyle

What Will Happen to Nashville’s Iconic Music Venues Post 2020?

Musicians and clubs struggle with how to safely put on shows again.

Nashville musician Erin Rae remembers getting the phone notification that changed everything. Since releasing her first album, Putting on Airs, in June 2018, Rae had been on the road constantly, playing as far away as Hamburg and Stockholm. For her and so many other indie artists trying to be heard in the crowded room of the music industry, this -- the spot dates and tours, domestic and abroad -- is a crucial part of her livelihood. 

Rae didn’t mind the frenetic performance schedule. She knew it was part of the deal when she signed up to go full-time with music back in 2017, and thanks to a more recent signing with William Morris Endeavor, her audience had been growing consistently. After coasting through the holidays and doing a short run of shows in February 2020, Rae’s plan was to rest, regroup, and record a new album. She went to Philadelphia to cut some demos and her band would spend March and April fine-tuning. They also planned to play a handful of bigger shows, like South by Southwest and the Newport Folk Festival, before releasing the project in the fall. It was going to be a busy, productive spring. 
 
That was the plan, at least. 
 
“We were coming back from Philly on March 6,” Rae says, “and we were landing when we got the alert that South by Southwest had been cancelled. It was only a week out from when it was supposed to start. We just kinda looked at each other, like whoa.”

Erin Rae
Erin Rae | Erin Rae Facebook

What music means to Music City

COVID-19 was, of course, already sweeping the globe by then. On February 25, the World Health Organization reported for the first time that there were more new cases outside of China, where the virus originated, than inside the country. By the first week of March, the U.S. had reported its first handful of deaths. But life was still relatively normal for musicians until the announcement that iconic music festival SXSW was being canceled -- a wakeup call and the first sign that the pandemic was hitting home for touring musicians.

“We’ve basically been at a standstill since March,” says Brittan Allison, marketing manager of Nashville’s Marathon Music Works concert venue, describing the coronavirus closure as both sudden and devastating. “We’ve been empty for five months now.”
 
In a city like Nashville, the lack of live music has been especially devastating. Known as the capital of country music and steeped in musical history thanks to the traveling Fisk Jubilee Singers, the city has sheet music in its DNA. It is the reason people come -- and it is the reason they stay.

Ryman Auditorium
Wooden Pews in the Ryman Auditorium. | KennStilger47/Shutterstock

According to a 2020 report from the Recording Industry Association of America, Nashville’s music industry supports more than $3.2 billion of labor income annually while contributing $5.5 billion to the local economy. That $9.7 billion in total economic output snakes its way through the hands of songwriters, musicians, and venues. Not to mention the fact that some of the most iconic country music venues in the world -- including the cathedral-like Ryman Auditorium and intimate and historical Bluebird Café -- are located here.

When the music stopped in the earliest days of the pandemic, these venues, large and small, were among the earliest sites of COVID-19’s financial carnage. There were no more ticket sales, no more drunken concertgoers downing shots at the bar. And overnight, as Nashvillians stocked up on pasta and toilet paper before hunkering down in their homes, the owners of those venues were forced to pivot.

“We were just kind of brainstorming as a company and thinking about what we could do,” Allison says of Marathon’s early shift. “We went back to our mission statement which is, one, to create unique live events, and, two, to be an asset to the community. Obviously, we can’t put on live events right now, but we can be an asset to our community.”

How music venues learned to pivot

In the first three months of the pandemic, Marathon hosted 150 live-streamed shows on its Facebook page. There was no charge to local artists invited to play, just an opportunity to reach the venue’s 60,000-plus followers and perhaps collect some cash in a virtual tip jar. The federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program kept full-time staffers employed at full pay and, to help hourly workers make some extra money, Marathon again offered up its social media platform, inviting bartenders and servers to host happy hours and yoga classes.    
 
Perhaps most significantly, Marathon also launched its #MaskNowPartyLater campaign. By taking the pledge, Nashvillians promise to stay home as much as possible and, when it’s not possible, to wear a mask and socially distance. A line of merch bearing the hashtag was launched, and while the first quantity of masks sold out, Allison clarifies that it generated “nowhere near the revenue we need to sustain ourselves.” More than anything, the campaign is meant to encourage people to do their part in slowing the spread of the virus. 
 

There were no more ticket sales, no more drunken concertgoers downing shots at the bar.

A May 28 article in the Tennessean detailed a road to recovery that is still very much under construction. Phase Two of a four-phase reopening would allow restaurants and bars to feature live music from two musicians only. Phase Three would allow small venues to open with limited capacity and ease restrictions on the number of allowed performers. 

“The phases could stall or regress if health data refuses to stabilize,” declared writer Matthew Leimkeuhler, and sure enough, a hasty advancement to Phase Three in late June led to a spike in new coronavirus cases that necessitated a reversion to Phase Two by early July. This time, however, there were modifications. Live music was permitted, but without a dance floor, and only for audiences of 25 people or fewer. 

With these regulations in place, it was up to individual venues to determine whether they would, in fact, return to live music. Some, including Marathon Music Works, have decided that it’s not worth the risk. “We want to get artists back on stage and we want to get our fans back in venues,” Allison says. “But we want to do it right and we need to do it safely.”

Adia Victoria
Adia Victoria | Mason Hickman

Grappling with two sides of Nashville

At the same time, there have been artists taking to other Music City stages and fans visiting other local venues that have decided to open -- and not all of them have been doing it safely. Countless photos and videos from Lower Broadway, the city’s famed block of honky-tonks, have shown apathetic partiers in all their maskless revelry. Indeed, Mayor Cooper’s Phase Two modifications were likely a response to the owners of Broadway establishments who bemoaned the massive losses of revenues.

After spending 237 days on the road last year, and even playing an NPR Tiny Desk concert in 2016, Nashville-based blues artist Adia Victoria has made adjustments to cope with losing her main income stream. She’s had to take on a day job at an Amazon fulfillment center to make ends meet, but it’s a sacrifice she’s willing to make. Victoria says that the possibility of her playing an in-person show, even to make money, is a “hard no.”  

“It points back to our government refusing to provide proper social safety nets,” she says. “I have friends and family in Europe and they’re being paid to stay at home -- properly paid -- and we’re trying to take money away from people, so they’re forced to go back to work. This is not a civilized country, it never has been, and COVID is just showing that.”

“We want to get artists back on stage and we want to get our fans back in venues,” Allison says. “But we want to do it right and we need to do it safely.”

Only a month into the pandemic, reports began to surface that all COVID catastrophes weren't created equal, that it was Black and brown communities who bore the brunt of it. And in a town like Nashville, so reliant upon the creatives whose talents inspire the Music City moniker, these inequities have drawn a line right down the middle of the music community, separating Black musicians from white musicians like a rusted train track.

It was via a Facebook group that local bass player Andre Hayden learned that the musicians who played regularly at well-trafficked establishments like Tootsie’s and Ole Red were still being paid during the days of complete shutdown, before Nashville began its reopening process. In addition to receiving payment from venue owners, Hayden also notes that there was a musicians’ fund established in the city to help offset any lost wages.

“But what we found,” Hayden says, “which is pretty typical in this country, is that, disproportionately, those funds were allocated toward white musicians.”

Hayden, meanwhile, plays off-Broadway in the All-Stars band at BB King’s Nashville, one of only two downtown establishments (along with Bourbon Street) that regularly hires Black musicians. And when he learned that March 14 would be his last show for the foreseeable future, there was no fund to keep him and his bandmates afloat, no checks that continued to roll in bi-weekly like they did for other musicians around town. With little recourse in sight in the earliest days of the shutdown, he decided to file for bankruptcy. 

BB King’s is different from most other Nashville venues in that it part of a larger franchise. While locations in Orlando and New Orleans remain closed, BB King’s outposts in Nashville, Memphis, and Montgomery have opened to COVID-relative success. The Nashville GM Carone Tharpe says that, although his club is doing better than other local venues facing permanent closure or forced buyout, operating at 50% capacity is still not ideal. Some venues, like The 5 Spot in East Nashville and Mercy Lounge on Cannery Row, have resorted to live streams only. For its part, Ryman Auditorium has been putting on virtual performances and just hosted its first live concert at 5 percent capacity, or 125 tickets.

“We have other units pulling for us, helping with the company, so right now we’re still in a decent position to move forward,” Tharpe says. “Obviously, we’d be in an even better position if all locations could contribute together.” 

Hayden is just happy to be on a stage again, even if it means standing six feet away from his bandmates and playing to only 25 people who aren’t even allowed to dance.

Needless to say, this shared business model has enabled BB King’s Nashville to bring back many of its musicians immediately after reopening, a blessing for Hayden and others who were less likely to benefit from city-wide relief efforts. Despite the hardships that Hayden has endured, he is now happy to be on stage again, even if it means standing six feet away from his bandmates and playing to only 25 people who aren’t even allowed to dance.

“Some companies are not even allowing musicians to play, or they play and they can’t pay them,” says Tharpe. “So we’re in a fortunate position to be able to do so. If everyone just takes care of each other and wears their masks and follows the rules, I think we’ll be back to normal sooner than expected.”

Musicians find light in the darkest of times

If there is any bright side or glass half full to be seen in these dark times, it is most likely that musicians will find it. Rae, who was able to secure PPP funding, notes that the shutdown has given her the space to focus on her art. “The unknown is scary, but it’s afforded some time to just slow down fully and tap into some stuff under the surface.”
 
Country singer-songwriter Emma White agrees. Like Rae, she is still early in her career, building a fan base and establishing her sound after first cutting her teeth playing the women-only Song Suffragettes songwriter rounds. She has used this time to connect with new fans online and release new tracks via streaming shows. “I don’t think I would have made those connections before and really felt this sense of community, and COVID has brought that,” she says.
 
White is undoubtedly optimistic, even as she notes that there are essentially two Nashvilles: a community of people doing everything they can to beat COVID-19 and another who, she feels, may not believe that the virus is real. Still, she is hopeful for the entire Nashville music community, and not just her own career. 

“Having to pivot in all these ways -- and we all have to be so malleable right now -- I feel like we’re all going to be so much better off,” she says. “I think we’re going to learn so much from this period -- in Nashville, especially.”

Marathon Music Works
An empty Marathon Music Works | Marathon Music Works

How to support Nashville musicians and venues

Save Our Stages
An initiative launched by the National Independent Venue Association, Save Our Stages provides direct financial support to independent venues via public donations. The Nashville venues affiliated with the program include 3rd and Lindsley, The Caverns, Drkmttr, Exit/In, Marathon Music Works, Springwater, The 5 Spot, The East Room, and The End.

#MaskNowPartyLater
Marathon Music Works launched its #MaskNowPartyLater initiative to encourage Nashvillians to help slow the spread of COVID-19 in an effort move more quickly toward a wide reopening. You can take the pledge here, and also purchase a t-shirt or mask featuring the hashtag. 

The 5 Spot Relief Fund
Just one day after reopening after the devastating March tornado that tore through Nashville, The 5 Spot closed its doors to keep the community safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. The 5 Spot Relief Fund was created to provide financial support for staff and musicians. 

The 5 Spot
The 5 Spot

The Opry Trust Fund
Nashville’s historic Grand Ole Opry created the Opry Trust Fund in 1965 to support artists and musicians in country music. The fund provides assistance for medical bills, living expenses, rent or mortgage payments, and utilities -- and is currently accepting donations. 

Grammy Musicares Fund
Long committed to providing support for individuals in every genre and role within the music industry, the Grammy Musicares Fund has quickly worked to fill in the massive gaps created by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Song Suffragettes
In an industry that has been hampered by sexism since its inception, the Song Suffragettes songwriters provide a much-needed opportunity for up-and-coming female writers to play their songs for a live audience. Rounds are held at the Listening Room Cafe to a reduced audience, but shows are also simultaneously live-streamed. You can also tip the artists here

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Andrea Williams is a writer and editor based in Nashville, Tennessee. Follow her @AndreaWillWrite.