Like all businesses, live music venues have been hit hard by the social distancing measures and shutdown necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic. 

Unlike many other businesses, bars and clubs that stage live performances rely on people being willing to pack into their facilities for several hours at a time, at least a few days a week. There’s no delivery or curbside model that can be adopted to continue to reach their customers. 

Many in the industry are wondering, even once local and state shutdown orders are lifted, how long it may be before they can expect a full house again. 

Bandleader Doc Watkins, owner of Jazz TX at the Pearl, vows resilience but acknowledges that the economic impact has been “huge.”

“It’s impossible to know when we’ll be able to safely reopen, and what that will look like, so the best way to plan is to be prepared for a variety of scenarios,” he said. “The unknown element in this whole crisis is such a key factor.”

The Aztec Theatre, one of the more popular venues in town for touring acts as well as occasional local bands, jumped quickly into livestreaming, hosting a virtual music festival featuring six local acts. Dubbed The Couch Sessions, the virtual fest streamed to Facebook on April 10 and all performers joined from their homes.

The show, put together by the Aztec’s Libby Day, was the first installment of a series, with announcements about future occurrences forthcoming.

Meanwhile, all of the venue’s live, in-person shows have been canceled or postponed through the end of May – at least for now.

Watkins’ venue also was quick to offer livestreaming content. He has put on several live streaming shows, both in collaboration with Texas Public Radio and independently.

The venue closed voluntarily on March 14. Watkins said that “safety concerns for our customers and staff” drove the decision to close even before the March 23 implementation of Bexar County’s Stay Home, Work Safe order.

Despite having utilized it well, Watkins said, “the technology for livestreaming has a way to go” and that he looks “forward to seeing what new innovations” may come about as a result of so many people now turning to livestreams.

He said that the response to his livestreams so far has been good, reporting that over 10,000 people have tuned in.

Paper Tiger owner Chad Carey hasn’t gone the livestream route, saying live music fans go to venues like his to “be around other people and watch a show – otherwise you could stay at home and watch concert clips on YouTube.”

When restrictions on businesses like his reopening are eventually lifted, he expressed concern that “any live music venue is going to have a different problem than other businesses.”

“Bars are going to be packed immediately,” he said, “but with the live music stuff, there is such a lead time on [booking acts] – it’s probably going to be real scattershot events” once the shutdown lifts and shows can be rebooked.

In the meantime, Carey said that his venue advanced hourly employees some money to help hold them over and has kept all salaried employees paid. 

“Essentially, my strategy is to advance money to employees, to pay salaried people, and just bleed money,” said Carey, who added that he has about two dozen hourly and salaried employees. “We have and will continue to take care of people.”

Carey said that Paper Tiger, the most popular live music venue on the St. Mary’s Strip, is in a position to do this because his partners and co-investors “were always in it for the right reasons and have wanted to build something sustainable.”

Sam’s Burger Joint, which has been a staple for live local and touring acts for more than 20 years, has kept many of its employees busy and is trying to approach the future strategically, from a place of optimism.

Owner Samuel Panchevre said that he has been using the downtime to remodel, repaint, sanitize, and improve the venue’s facilities while also keeping employees on the clock, at least those who can and want to work.

He said that his team has offered to help promote livestream events for bands that the venue frequently works with, but has no plans to attempt any livestreams.

Panchevre has spent a lot of time thinking about “how it’s going to look when we are able to open back up.”

While he is confident that people will be eager to get out of the house again when the shutdown ends, he acknowledges that venues have to be prepared for people’s post-pandemic anxiety to change the game a bit.

“Do customers want to go to a place with 300 people in six months?” he wonders.

He said that he is optimistically hoping to be back at 75 percent of normal business in six months.

Billing itself as “the oldest honky tonk on the Strip,” the Lonesome Rose has amassed a large following in its 1 1/2 years of operation. Run by part-owner Garrett T. Capps, an alternative country artist, the venue books an eclectic variety of shows ranging from country to conjunto, from metal to experimental Americana.

Capps said that during the first few weeks of the shutdown, the venue was successful enough in selling venue-branded T-shirts online that they sold out. The proceeds from those sales went to the venue’s seven employees.

Capps said that it was important to him to “put money in all our employees’ pockets.”

The other top priority for Capps is to “stay alive in the eyes of our customers.”

On May 9, Capps will host ¡VIVA! – A Telethon Supporting The Arts & Artists in San Antonio. This event, a 12-hour affair, will stream live on Facebook, YouTube, Texas Public Radio, and elsewhere. Like a typical telethon, the main point of the event will be to solicit donations from viewers, all of which will go to support the Corona Arts Relief Program.

The event’s organizers have asked San Antonio artists and performers – from visual artists and chefs to filmmakers and musicians – to submit videos of themselves in action. Selected videos will be aired as the main content of the telethon, which will also feature commentary and some performances from Capps.

Artists interested in submitting a video, can visit Texas Public Radio’s submission page for more information. The deadline is May 1.

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James Courtney

James Courtney is a freelance arts and culture journalist in San Antonio. He also is a poet, a high school English teacher and debate coach, and a proud girl dad.