Features, Print March 25, 2020

NoCo Music NoGo: COVID-19’s Massive Impact On Colorado’s Music Industry

by Dan England and Valerie Vampola

The Outset:

Brian Claxton saw the first hints of how the coronavirus would sweep the country as he flew through Seattle for the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival in late February.

“I was coming across a lot of sick people and coughing in the various gatherings and airports,” Claxton said from his home in Greeley. “It’s pretty easy to see how unprepared everyone was.”

Claxton himself was feeling sick, with mild, almost annoying, cold symptoms he’d had since January. Once the virus exploded in the U.S., with Seattle acting as a quasi-Ground Zero, a doctor pronounced him healthy, which would be the only good news of the month. Now, as he sat at home in mid-March, with the virus just starting to really flex on the world, Claxton felt an uneasy urge to get out.

Claxton is a drummer, a teacher and a working musician who travels nationwide playing gigs to make a living. These are hard times. In fact, musicians, especially those who tour, in front of a new audience every night, probably feel as if they were real estate agents after the housing bubble caused the Great Recession back in 2008.

Musicians understood, at least partly, why things had to be shut down: Some medical experts estimated that if the virus were left unchecked, hospitals would be overrun by the first week of May and more than two million would die.

“The weirdest thing is feeling the pressure to continue to play,” Claxton said. 

But those same musicians increasingly found themselves without a stage to perform and an inability to make any kind of a living. Some watched in horror as their spring and summer calendars fell apart in an afternoon after spending all fall and winter booking them. Others on tour hit the road only to discover the road ended just as it was beginning. Still others even lost their standard local gigs as bars, music halls and venues told musicians to stay home either because they couldn’t afford them, didn’t think it was safe or simply shuttered their doors until things got better, whenever that would be.

Some venues, including those in Colorado, were even ordered to close: Gov. Polis shut down all bars and restaurants, the lifeblood of the entertainment industry, for 30 days starting March 17. Denver took it a step further, banning them from seating patrons until May 11. Claxton, like many musicians and venue owners, understood the ban but also expressed frustration and fear over it.

“I’m so pissed off at the lack of resources available right now,” Claxton said, “because it’s not like I can just take two weeks off.”

Moxi Theater Owner Ely Corliss in what will be his empty venue for the next several weeks.

Scrubbing For Nothing:

The bad news got worse day by day, as jabs turned into kidney punches and finally uppercuts.

Matt Estrin, owner of Tower 56, one of the bigger supporters of live music in Greeley, with regular jazz gigs featuring faculty and students from the University of Northern Colorado, released new guidelines of cleanliness that would please even Mary Poppins. With the deep nightly scrub-downs of an intensive care unit, consistent wipedowns and mandates for employees to regularly wash their hands were strictly enforced.

“We hold a lot of value in the jazz community and with the UNC jazz department,” Estrin said. “A lot of staff and family in the music business work at Tower 56, so they want to continue to support the community.”

In the end, scrubbing simply wasn’t enough. Ely Corliss, publisher of Bandwagon Magazine and owner of The Moxi Theater and Luna’s, a taco and tequila bar in Greeley, had already absorbed what he called the worst day in his professional life on March 12, when bands began calling that morning and canceling their gigs. This wiped out his April concert calendar one piece at a time, costing him tens of thousands of dollars. Polis’ order four days later was almost an afterthought, and yet it was just as devastating. Corliss was even forced to lay-off all 17 of the Moxi’s employees.

“I think it will take a year to recover, not just in the economy but in the entertainment industry here,” Corliss said, “and that’s if we resume in April. If this goes until May 11 or so, it’ll be catastrophic for the Moxi and Luna’s both.”

Corliss planned for Luna’s to offer takeout food, as did many other places. Tower 56 would sell bottles, and both Wiley Roots and WeldWerks were offering takeout beer orders the day of the official closing.

All business owners said there was a good chance some in Greeley wouldn’t make it. The marketing manager for Wiley Roots said as many as 40 percent of the breweries in Colorado, the ones who relied heavily on taproom sales and typically offered a place for musicians to play, would probably close for good.

The City of Greeley shut down the Union Colony Civic Center, a major performing arts hub in the region, until the end of March. The city’s cultural affairs manager, Jason Evenson, like Corliss, was hopeful that he could reschedule the concerts instead of outright canceling them. Acts such as folk star Don McClean and the massive orchestral ballet Shen Yun, the two immediately affected, were marked “postponed” instead of canceled on the venue and city’s websites as of press time.

The move was a part of the city’s decision to close all non-emergency facilities such as the two recreation centers, the Ice Haus and Greeley Active Adult Center. The Lincoln Center, Fort Collins’ equivalent to the UCCC, would remain closed until the end of March as well, and so would Loveland’s Rialto Theater Center.

“We’re actively working with tenants (rental customers) to identify if they’d like to consider rescheduling or just outright cancel,” Evenson said. “Since the situation is still evolving rapidly, it’s a complicated answer about when to consider rescheduling events to be on the calendar.”

Temporary closures of stages and across the county, state, nation and globe could lead to permanent closures.

Road To Nowhere:

Float Like A Buffalo spent months investing and preparing for a tour that began on March 11. It started well for the Denver-based 7-person funk band, with gigs in Del Norte and Cortez, and the band was heading to New Mexico when they got a call that the show there had been canceled. By the end of the day, their entire tour was over.

Jason Clukies, the band’s bass player and a server at Outback Steakhouse, had to take time off for the month-long tour. He wasn’t sure what he was going to do, given the hit the restaurant industry absorbed while their tour was stripped away. Shifts were already running thin. Cory Meier, the band’s keyboardist, works as a sound guy at Dazzle, Denver’s famous jazz club, which, of course, was now also closed.

Their situation mirrors that of many working musicians, demonstrating why the virus is hitting them especially hard: Most have jobs in the service industry because the hours are flexible and part-time, perfect for a musician’s schedule, but now disastrous in a pandemic era.

The band divided up the allowances set aside to cover expenses while out on the road as well as the tour food they purchased, but money will be scarce until the clubs reopen.

“We are trying to rebuild the tour, but it could take many months until that can even happen,” Meier said. “We’re ending up in the hole as a band pretty deep.” The band lost money on the van, gas and merchandise, such as T-shirts they had made especially for the tour. 

“Even our further dates have canceled, so it doesn’t seem likely we’ll go back out,” Cluckies said.

Float Like A Buffalo posted this image to their social media – a vision they imagine during their upcoming online streaming shows in lieu of their cancelled in-person tour.

The band did squeeze in one consolation show at The Alley in their hometown of Littleton on March 15, which they also live-streamed to Facebook, one shred of hope for the performing arts industry. It may have been their last in-person performance for a long while.

But groups like Float Like A Buffalo aren’t the only ones struggling. “Side men” are feeling it just as hard. Degree-carrying musicians often seek out money gigs on cruise ships as a first-time job after they graduate from UNC, but those are gone, too. Kyle Cervantes, a saxophone player, had just arrived in Memphis for a two-week rehearsal in preparation for a five-month gig with Holland America Cruises. He had to fly himself out to Tennessee for the rehearsal, and while a cruise ship will usually cover travel expenses after the rehearsals, he was now unsure whether he would have to pay his way back to Colorado.

“There is so much uncertainty,” Cervantes said. “It’s because when you do ships, you have vacation periods. I stay busy with gigs, but I specifically waited an extra month so I could get a ship that goes to Europe and visit all the counties I wanted.”

Even though this timing seems especially unlucky, Cervantes believes the drastic measures are warranted.

“They are doing the right thing,” Cervantes said. “It might be time to consider trading my sea legs.”

Anniversary And Unknown Future:

Greg Weis had big plans for his doctoral recital. Recitals are essentially full concerts put on by students as a part of their performance degree, and Weis hoped to show off all the music writing skills he learned at UNC. He put together a full orchestra of 38 people, both jazz and classical music majors, scheduling time with them months in advance to prepare his music.

But those were canceled as well, as anything beyond a jam session with two people in a basement was deemed too dangerous to host.

“The hard part is getting people together for two rehearsals,” Weis said. “I probably won’t be able to replicate that. It’s so rare as a composer and especially as a jazz composer to get in front of an orchestra. It really sucks.”

Weis prepared mentally as UNC began to cancel big performances such as the 50th Anniversary installment of the UNC/Greeley Jazz Festival. He worked as the registration and student coordinator for the festival, and though braced for cancellation, when it happened, it still hurt. He wondered when he was going to put on a recital necessary to receive his degree: He wasn’t planning on living in Colorado next year.

“It was definitely the right move to cancel the festival. I was anticipating a bunch of cancelations anyway since there was a ban on student activity or travel. That would have put a big hole in the festival anyway if they continued with it,” Weis said.

Now Weis was busy communicating with 250 student groups across the country to arrange refunds of their registration fee to play the festival. The virus also showed it would affect many things down the road, as Weis’ replacement for next year’s student coordinator for the festival won’t have any hands-on experience.

“I have one of the biggest jobs, so that is rough,” he said. “How do we train that?” 

Indeed, even summer festivals are wondering what to do, as the spread of the virus is supposed to taper by then. Hot summer days and the sun’s ultraviolet light both weaken the virus’ chances of surviving long enough to infect anyone outdoors, but so much is still unknown.

“I don’t think anyone is canceling summer shows yet,” said Pam Bricker, who organizes Greeley’s Blues Jam with her husband, Al, “but it will be a wait-and-see for sure.”

Bricker worried about her son, Colin, who runs Mighty Fine Productions, a studio and live sound reinforcement business specializing in outdoor and festival shows in Colorado.

“Everyone has the blues,” Bricker said, and yes, she got the pun but wasn’t in the mood for laughing. “Everything is getting canceled.”

Music Finds A Way:

In the face of this massive unknown, Brian Claxton is uplifted by the musician’s steadfast, pragmatic spirit. Though the in-person gigs are halted for now, many musicians teach private lessons, which are of course, possible via the internet to an extent. Claxton says many have embraced online teaching, something he already practiced and taught at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

“The cool thing is, every conversation I’ve had is inspiriging,” Claxton said. “All of them are asking, ‘How can we refine our teaching?’ I’m making sure students don’t miss out on opportunities.”

Claxton, who just released When I Get Home, a CD of his own jazz compositions, has plans to start another one while he, like all of us, is socially distanced from the rest of the world.

“I’m hunkering down, doing some writing and trying to see the good in all this,” he said.

And others have found ways to focus on the possible rather than the pitfalls as well. Distilleries, Tower 56 among them, have begun to produce and bottle highly in-demand hand sanitizer. And in the case of Tower 56, the surprising sale of boozy ice-cream, a collaboration with another local company, has available for pick-up.

But the internet remains a stronghold of possibility for small businesses. Tower 56 offers online streaming classes on gin education and cocktail making, and musicians like Claxton can theoretically teach or offer recordings for sale via the web.

As for the live music venues, attempts at streaming concerts live on the web are the best option for now. The Stubby Shillelaghs annual Saint Patrick’s show went live to Facebook in the Moxi Theater to a physically empty house this year, and plans to stage the theater’s anniversary super concert on stage at the moxi, but viewable only via the web are currently underway. The Moxi is also currently selling season passes to the venue for the entire year of 2020, a great way to support future live music in Greeley when those who produce it need help the most: today.