Transitioning back to indoor gigs: How local venues are adapting

If the last year and a half have taught us anything, it’s that it is safe to say there’s no replacement for real in-person human interaction. Whether that’s a movie theater experience, a live comedy showcase, a live concert or another entertainment industry event, there are simply experiences that can’t be replicated via a computer screen. Unfortunately, the live entertainment industry is one of the most hard-hit industries during the ongoing pandemic, with many venues being shuttered for over a year. Local independent music venues are no different and while many of them have reopened, the process of booking and hosting shows looks a lot different these days. With the upcoming seasonal change, transitioning from outdoor gigs to the return of traditional indoor shows comes with its own differences and potential challenges for owners, musicians, and fans alike. 

The Listening Room, one of Grand Rapids’ most intimate venues, prides itself on creating a closer connection between artist and audience with its stage just a foot off the ground. Since opening in fall 2019, they have hosted a diverse lineup of music, featuring a world-class sound system and a semi-circle of seating for a truly engaged show. In the height of social gathering limitations, they did not host any indoor shows at the 200-person capacity venue. Quinn Matthews, general manager and talent buyer at Listening Room, says the venue pivoted to some outdoor concerts due to safety reasons, when they could. “Our venue was only open for about four months and we averaged 20 shows per month, so we were on track to have about 240+ shows in a year,” he says. “We had no indoor concerts for over 15 months, therefore we lost 300+ planned performances.”

Outdoor Listening Room shows over the summer included national-touring acts and statewide musicians like Michigander, Luke Winslow King, Rachael Davis, Joshua Davis, The Go Rounds, The Accidentals and more. Live concerts and sunset cinema movies were hosted outdoors on the Studio Park Piazza, where guests could bring their own chairs, food and water. 

Multiple outdoor shows sold out, and Matthews considers them a success. “These have been great and allowed us to not only bring back our staff, but hire additional staff,” he says. 

Another popular indie venue, The Pyramid Scheme, a pub, pinball arcade and music venue, opened in 2011. With a 420-capacity venue in the back and a 200-capacity bar in the front, it typically hosted 3-4 local, regional and international events per week. After being forced to shut down in March 2020, Co-Founder and Co-Owner Tami Vandenberg says the situation was “a nightmare, shocking and something I never prepared for or expected.” Unable to host any indoor or outdoor shows — given the venue has no space to do so — The Pyramid Scheme lost 90% of its revenue.

While the venue reopened on-and-off with the front bar and an outdoor social zone with seating throughout 2020, the music did not return until July 2021. In a full-circle moment, Charles the Osprey was the first band to return to the stage, the same band that played the Pyramid Scheme’s very first show at their soft opening 10 years ago. “It was emotional for everybody to get the venue cleaned out. We had to hire new staff who were really excited. The place was buzzing. Everybody was excited then and frankly, still very excited now. The energy is just palpable; people are so happy to be back.”

Although happy, the return of live shows also proves to be nerve-wracking for bookers, promoters, artists and fans. Vandenberg describes the current atmosphere as “a little anxiety-provoking because lots of musicians are getting exposed [to the virus] on their tours. We’re working really hard to make sure that doesn’t happen at our venue. The other anxiety is where artists are coming from, and whether they’re going to have to cancel shows if they were exposed somewhere else.”

Despite the worry that hosting indoor concerts amid a current pandemic brings, the feedback from promoters and concertgoers has been positive. According to Vandenberg, “about one-third of all of our shows have required vaccination records or a negative COVID test. I do expect to see more of that and, depending on Delta and how things look, we may do that for all shows, but we have not made that decision yet.” 

The Listening Room’s policy, as stated on their website, states indoor shows require proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test within 72 hours of the event. 

Putting a potential mandate like that in place is a heavy decision for independent venues, who have to weigh the pros and cons from both a financial and community health standpoint. Without a statewide mask mandate, varying nationwide case numbers and local health department guidelines, individual business owners are now left to make their own rules. Rules that are best for them, their employees and communities.

“That leaves all of us individual business owners in a really difficult position where we have to make public health decisions, which is another thing I didn’t expect to have to do so intimately in this industry,” she says. “There was some concern that folks wouldn’t come, concern of protest, concern of general vitriol being thrown around. At the end of the day, we have a really solid group of promoters we work with and many we’ve worked with since the day we opened 10 years ago, so we wanted them to be able to have a significant say. We’ve gone to promoters, staff, customers, artists and, so far, the consensus from everyone is that they want to do it on a show-by-show basis. If the numbers continue to go up, we might have to make an executive decision and say this is what we’re doing but, as of now, all of our various stakeholders all wanted to do it show-by-show.”

Vandenberg says The Pyramid Scheme calendar is fully booked every weekend through the end of 2021, and many days throughout the week and still, bands are contacting her daily inquiring about booking shows. 

For local folk/acoustic/americana/rock singer songwriter Nicholas James Thomasma, virtually all of his gigs were canceled in 2020. He’s been performing music for over 20 years and hosted a variety of open mics including Founders Open Mic for nearly 15 years. 

In 2021, so far, he’s played only two public indoor shows, but is happy to return to the stage, to experience the interactive experience playing in front of a crowd creates. “The hardest thing about livestreams for me was when I hit the end button, and suddenly there I was again in my home, quarantined, alone, quiet and isolated from my community,” he says. “No hugs. No merch sales. No post-show selfies. No further interaction. It was just over. That was hard on me. Performances are more than just the time spent onstage. I need the before and after parts too.”

From a musician's standpoint, eager to perform in front of live audiences again, Thomasma is happy to abide by all local venues’ orders and wishes. “I’m happy to comply with anything that allows me to be able to work,” he says. "Despite public opinion, musicians, by definition, are not lazy. We worked hard to get to the point of being able to perform. We all want to showcase our work and be paid for it just like everyone else. So, if a venue is putting protocols [in place] that will allow me and my colleagues to continue to work, I’m all for that.”

Sarah briefly lived in Grand Rapids years ago, before moving back to Lansing, but that West Michigan love never really left her heart. Through her coverage on small businesses, arts and culture, dining, and anything mitten-made, she’s committed to convincing any and everyone -- just how great the Great Lakes state is. Sarah received her degrees in Journalism and Professional Communications. You can find her in a record shop, a local concert, or eating one too many desserts at a bakery. If by chance, she’s not at any of those places, you can contact her at [email protected]