When will concerts return to the Bay Area? Promoters speak up

The Smashing Pumpkins, Billy Corgan

The Smashing Pumpkins perform at Oracle Arena (now Oakland Arena) in Oakland on Aug. 27, 2018. When will concerts return to such a high-density attendance? Alessio Neri/STAFF.

In 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic, Ineffable Music booked and oversaw 1,100 concerts at the five venues it either owns or at which it has exclusive booking contracts. Last year it had to cancel or indefinitely postpone about 300 shows, not counting the shows that were never scheduled to begin with.

The return of some live music seemed plausible last summer as California briefly allowed indoor dining and business, said President Thomas Cussins. But that dream was quickly snatched away for music clubs statewide, including Cussins’ Mystic Theatre in Petaluma, Felton Music Hall, Fremont Theater in San Luis Obispo; as well as the two clubs at which Ineffable Music books shows exclusively: The Cornerstone in Berkeley and the Catalyst in Santa Cruz.

But for the first time since he initially stockpiled PPE, thinking he had a chance to return to any sense of normalcy, Cussins, who said he’s a glass-half-full man, sees hope.

“I think the best thing about the vaccine news is that there’s a tangible light at the end of the tunnel,” Cussins said, whose Ineffable Music also manages artists and releases music. “That’s really important, because for the last over nine months, what used to be over 70 percent of my business—and for a lot of the people I work with, 100 percent of their business—has been completely shut down.”

For Cussins, glass-half-full means that smaller traditional indoor concerts may begin to return in the fall—if vaccine distribution goes according to plan—with outdoor one-off shows popping back up sometime over the summer.

“I am really hopeful that, as our vulnerable populations get vaccinated, the hospitalization rates will go down significantly. As hospitalization rates go down significantly, we have the capacity,” he said. “When you’re not seeing these these horrific death rates, which is such a travesty … I think it makes it easier for legislators to open the economy and make it a personal choice … whether you go to a restaurant indoors or whether you attend a concert.”

Larger, national and international tours may not arrive in California until much later, because of the time involved in booking them—which can be upwards of nine months to a year. That timeline can’t begin, at least for Cussins’ business, until Gov. Gavin Newsom give the go-ahead to reopen concert halls.

“You can’t just [say], ‘We’re open,’ and then the next day there’s concerts,” he said. “So there’s no way that anything resembling real touring, in any sense of the word, can come back until at least spring of ’22, if not later.”

That’s the glass-half-full scenario.

“Oh, you don’t want to hear the other side,” he said.

Most of the region’s largest concert producers are following suit. Another Planet Entertainment, which produces shows at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, the Fox Theater in Oakland, the Independent, some smaller venues and stadium shows—including the Outside Lands Music Festival—did not return a phone call or email seeking comment. However, its website allowed for the purchase of tickets—until the first week of February—to a Feb. 27 a Geographer show; three shows in March, five in April, three in May and 11 in June. A spokesman for Geographer said the former Bay Area artist’s spring tour has been canceled and another official with knowledge of the event said the San Francisco show was postponed indefinitely, with refunds being possible within 30 days after a new date was announced. The next show still on-sale is on March 5.

AEG Goldenvoice has canceled Coachella for a third time in the last 12 months.

A spokeswoman for another large producer said her company is eyeing a summer return to shows. Live Nation—which produces shows at the Fillmore, Masonic, August Hall, and others including stadium shows—lists some comedy shows in March. The first concert on its calendar is Die Antwoord at Bill Graham on April 30 (an Another Planet show) and a Dead Can Dance show at the Masonic in San Francisco on May 5.

“The writing on the wall seems to be [artist] agents that are booking tours are not booking tours before fall of 2021,” said Lynn Schwarz, the co-owner and booker of the 350-capacity Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco.

Many artists are looking even farther ahead, to 2022, she said. Earlier this week The Weeknd announced a massive world tour for next year with multiple Northern California stops.

Ineffable Music artist Trevor Hall had originally pushed a 2020 tour to April and May of this year but rather than pushing it out into the fall, Cussins said they decided it would be for the best to move it to 2022.

“We don’t want to move it yet again,” he said.

Schwarz said she’s been pushing concerts at her venue out numerous times and that for her, it’s a better scenario than to wait until a certain time of year—because she needs shows to begin as soon as possible after the state gives the go-ahead.

“I have to have some shows … to survive,” she said.

She said that while some Bay Area music clubs will eventually be able to open at a limited capacity, hers is not one of them because of its size, and because all operations are “in such hibernation” currently.

Schwarz, who’s a spokeswoman for the San Francisco Independent Venue Alliance, said it’s miraculous that the alliance has not lost any members due to permanent closure as a result of the pandemic.

“None of us thought we’d last longer than six months,” she said. Her hope is that the city will allow the smaller venues to host outdoor and physically distant shows by this summer; preferably without having to invest in their own infrastructure—meaning that the city would provide a space, stage and hardware for the smaller venues to host shows and begin making money again.

As for full capacity shows? She doesn’t see that happening before September.

“Thats’ expecting vaccinations to ramp up and expecting for people to want to go to shows after … all this death,” she said.

Both Schwarz and Cussins said they’re concerned that the $15 billion in Save Our Stages funds, approved by Congress as part of a $900-billion December bill, will not be distributed quickly enough or correctly.

“The applications are still not open so, although it has already been passed, no one has been able to actually apply for it yet,” Cussins said.

Cussins said he has a rough timeline that his company has been following and hopes holds up. Between now and April, he will continue focusing on artist development and virtual content production, which he likens to trying to survive as an independent business. By May or June he hopes Gov. Gavin Newsom again approves indoor dining, which will allow him to do some physically distanced, partial attendance shows and maybe even record some live records. He hopes for other smaller outdoor shows through August.

“We had already built up a lot of protocols for the first round of indoor dining,” he said. “In terms of having the PPE equipment, we made a big investment in that when we were allowed to open before. We have a lot of that already for our venues; masks, sanitizer and whatnot, but then we had to shut down again, so it’s that sitting idle.”

Once the federal relief funds begin to arrive he’d like to look at improving airflow at clubs, which can both assist in making shows safer in the short term and prevent such a big hit to the industry if something like this ever happens again. Cussins pointed to studies from Spain and Germany that suggested that a concert hall with good ventilation, when combined with mask-wearing and physically distancing, was as safe against the new coronavirus than not going to the show at all.

But unlike Schwarz at Bottom of the Hill, he will not start planning for shows until the state gives the green light. “We’ve spent so much of our dwindling financial capacity to prepare, only to have things pushed back, changed and re-closed down [before],” he said.

Follow editor Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter

This story has been updated to reflect that the Geographer show at the Independent is now marked as “postponed” on the Another Planet Entertainment website.

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