Live Music Venues Find Innovative Ways to Reach Audiences During Pandemic


As all 50 states begin the tricky work of reopening their economies, the music business is taking its own steps toward bringing people back to the bars — virtually, in many cases.

On Monday, The Temple Live in Fort Smith, Arkansas, sold 239 tickets to its 1,100-seat venue, where the bathrooms had roped-off sinks equipped with no-touch soap dispensers, and audience members submitted to quick temperature checks before entry. Americana roots musician Travis McCready played on an equipment-packed staged devoid of the members of his group, Bishop Gunn, a good 14 feet from the audience, which watched in small groups 6 feet apart, wearing masks.

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On Armitage Avenue in Chicago, the blues bar Rosa’s Lounge opened its doors Saturday and admitted John Primer and the Real Deal Blues Band. The trio donned masks, set up 6 feet apart from one another, and began playing to remote-controlled cameras that club owner Tony Manguillo used to livestream the show.

While Illinois is not going to be replicating The Temple Live’s concert anytime soon, livestreaming from inside a music venue is an innovation. And it’s only been legal for a few days. 

Last Friday, Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued a revised executive order concerning essential businesses. In a document summarizing the order and answering frequently asked questions about it, the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO) states that while “live music venues should remain closed to the public,” they can open their doors to musicians and employees for the purposes of recording or livestreaming, provided everyone in attendance is more than 6 feet apart, wearing masks, and groups do not exceed 10 people.

Attorney Marni Willenson, of Willenson Law LLC, a workplace class action lawyer, and Manguillo’s spouse, was responsible for that allowance.

She and Manguillo wanted to livestream from Rosa’s Lounge as they were doing the week between the governor issued his original stay-at-home order, which deemed music venues nonessential businesses. She connected with a board member of the Chicago Independent Venue League, known as CIVL, and within an afternoon, the group, which speaks for 34 venues across the city, had endorsed the idea. Willenson then moved on the governor’s office.

“I worked with Deputy Governor Dan Hynes’ office,” said Willenson. “I don’t usually inhabit this industry. I specialize in workplace and gender discrimination cases. But I’m a lawyer, I know how to write. I helped tweak the language that ended up in the DCEO’s FAQ document.”

CIVL has recently joined forces with a new organization of more than a 1,000 venues across the country, the National Independent Venue Association, or NIVA. Together they hope to share with policy makers the specific needs and concerns of their community during the pandemic.

“The initial orders were blunt instruments,” said Willenson. “No one’s arguing with the need for us to shut down for reasons of public safety. But we shouldn’t be dealing with a blunt instrument when it comes to reopening. We want this to be a participatory process as opposed to something being handed down from above. Independent music venues are different than theaters or Symphony Center. There are so many details to think of that won’t be considered if we’re not at the table.”


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