live music

Guitarist Donavan Dailey and violinist Danny Desantis of the Speakeasy Jazz Quartet played to a packed house at the Last Dollar Saloon during 2019’s Jazz on Main, which was a free kickoff to the 43rd annual Telluride Jazz Festival. After canceling the 2020 festival, organizers are optimistic about the gathering happening in 2021. (Planet file photo)

Music lovers yearning for the return of live music may feel the tiniest glimmer of hope that, possibly as soon as sometime this summer, they will attend a show. But for a slew of entertainment-affiliated businesses, the yearning to go back to work is even more acute. In a recent virtual conversation hosted by Colorado music industry supporters, SBG Productions Director of Operations Courtney McClary put the industry’s woes into sharp perspective.

“We haven’t had revenue in a year,” she told the panel’s participants.

SBG, which produces the Telluride Jazz Festival and Telluride Blues & Brews Festival, as well as the two Durango Blues Train events, is, like other Western Slope music producers, ready to get back to work. But the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown numerous stones in the passway, to paraphrase blues legend, Robert Johnson.

Not being able to gather in large numbers, in accordance with public health orders, has impacted few other industries as it has the music and entertainment sectors. And, without that revenue, communities are impacted. According to data on the National Independent Venues Association (NIVA) website, “The sixth edition of the Arts and Cultural Production Satellite Account finds that arts and culture contributed $877.8 billion, or 4.5 percent, to the nation’s gross domestic product in 2017.”

Additionally, the industry employs over 5 million wage and salary workers who earn a total of $405 billion.

McClary, who is active in the Colorado chapter of NIVA (CIVA), is again understated about the desire to return to work.

“It’s been an interesting year for us,” she said. “We’re looking forward to getting back to work. Everything’s at a standstill.”

Last week’s forum’s panelists — which was presented by CIVA, Levitt Pavilion Denver and Colorado Business Committee for the Arts, and moderated by Jessi Whitten, Levitt Pavilion Denver director of development and marketing — painted a grim, yet optimistic picture. Along with McClary, Rick Christensen, general manager of the Mesa Theater in Grand Junction, and Michele Redding, owner of Durango’s Animas City Theatre, shared what the pandemic has wrought on their livelihoods.

“Music is big business in Colorado,” moderator Whitten said, “even in some of our smallest communities.”

And those communities are grateful, McClary said.

“There’s a great support system in the community,” she said. “Local support is what keeps us going.”

A recent news release from SBG announced that its 3,000-ticket Jazz Festival may be a go.

“Like many of you, we are eager for the day when it is safe to return and gather for live music and events,” the release read in part. “Currently, we are planning to celebrate the Telluride Jazz Festival in Telluride Town Park on Aug. 13-15, but only if it is safe to do so. We are working closely with health officials, while monitoring the success of the vaccines and keeping an eye on the changing state of live events for this summer. When we have a clearer picture of what events will look like and receive a ‘green light’ from officials, we will provide additional updates.”

Though tickets won’t be on sale until assurances from public health officials can be made, the news was most welcome.

Elsewhere on the Western Slope, venues are still waiting on funding from the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program (formerly known as Save Our Stages), which was part of the recently passed COVID Relief Bill.

In Durango, the Animas Theatre’s Redding said her venue has been hanging on by a thread, but credited her “wonderful landlord” for some rental relief.

“Otherwise, I don’t know if we’d have a venue to reopen,” Redding said.

“We’re fortunate.”

Redding is hoping to host events again by April.

The historic Henry Strater Theatre in downtown Durango has not been so fortunate. The popular venue closed permanently last April, the coronavirus the proverbial final straw. According to a report in the Durango Herald, Strater Hotel president and CEO Rod Barker said the lease was no longer affordable.

“It’s just come to a point, with this virus, that’s pushed us over the tipping point where we can no longer extend ourselves on those kind of expenses,” he told the Herald. “We bought the building over many times just in rent. It’s time for us to figure something else out.”

In Grand Junction, which the Mesa Theater’s general manager Rick Christenson characterized as “Florida” — an allusion to a more casual attitude by some toward public health regulations in Mesa County — Christenson had to adjust to shifting regulations in order to host events and keep as much of his staff on the payroll as possible. In 2020, after the strongest first quarter returns he’d ever realized, “it came to a halt.” The theater, which hosts “death metal to dubstep and everything in between,” has had some acts perform this year, but, in accordance with cleaning protocols and keeping his patrons as distanced as possible, has had to bring in more staff for fewer attendees.

“We’re all navigating what this means to all of us,” he said of his fellow Mesa County venue operators.

But bottom line, he has no trouble selling tickets for the few shows he’s been able to stage.

“People are being pretty cooperative and positive,” Christenson said. “They just want to see live music.”

For SBG, McClary said the five full-time staff members have been on furlough since October. As each of Telluride’s summer events pulled the plug, McClary said SBG “held out as long as we possibly could,” before eventually joining the list of cancellations. But, as the vaccination rollout continues with anticipated greater supplies and San Miguel County’s case rates fall off, she and others in the industry harbor optimism for at least some version of live music events for 2021.

“The hope of it is what’s driving us and the industry,” she said.