Features, Print December 3, 2020

The Thin Black Line: Venues Fight To Survive

by Dan England


Travis Ragan spent a recent Tuesday morning in a 40-foot truck rocked by a bumpy road – not rocked by the bands that supported his lifestyle before the coronavirus stole it from him.

Ragan was a partner in the Roxy Theater in Denver and the Mesa Theater in Grand Junction, and he booked shows in 15 different markets. Now he hauls equipment for his brother, a construction manager out of Colorado Springs. Ragan had, at one time, supported himself this way – he still has a Class A license – but he spent most of his time before COVID-19 on a computer, booking acts, instead of spending 50 hours a week in a “roughneck” lifestyle.

Still, Ragan was grateful for the work. 

“It’s nowhere near the money I need to sustain,” Ragan tells BandWagon, “but I was lucky to have something in my corner like this. I’m just trying to keep my head above water.”

Ragan, like many other venue owners in the area, was also grateful for landlords who have forgiven rents for now, only asking for taxes and insurance. Those costs are significant — they total more than $4,000 a month for him— but that, along with federal loans and other assistance, will allow him to survive. 

Blueface raps to a pre-pandemic sold-out crowd at Denver’s Roxy Theater.

Most music venues are, so far, still surviving, although they also aren’t sure for how long. The virus was more out of control than ever in late November, and even though vaccines are allegedly on the way, owners don’t expect to be booking acts regularly until the summer and fully operating again until next fall. 

Ragan said Mesa County had relaxed restrictions compared to Denver (although that may have changed as Gov. Polis put new restrictions in place and was considering more as the virus raged). He had shows of up to 400 people, with masks and social distancing, and so far, that was working, he said. He had a show in the Roxy, too, but it only made money for his staff, which is important, he said. 

“I think we are very lucky,” Ragan said about his own experience, as he will open a third place in Spokane, Washington soon. “We are able to power through this. But we are in dire need of leadership throughout the country. I know venues are closing down, and yet, we have no leadership backing us and supporting us. We have no one telling us what we should do as opposed to what we shouldn’t do,” Ragan says. “You still have to respect the situation. We want to try to enjoy life while not being a risk to the public.”

Flip through the entire December 2020 issue by clicking here.

• Scraping By •

There were probably better times to open a new venue, admits Renee Jelinek, co-founder of The Lincoln, a venue that can hold 1,200 in Cheyenne, Wyoming.

“The timing was SO BAD,” Jelinek tells BandWagon with a sigh.

Which is fair. They began work two-and-a-half years ago, and by March, they were close to being through with construction, when they heard the news about a virus from China. They were lucky to keep construction going, she said.

“We did open this summer,” Jelinek says, “but not at all in the way we thought we would be doing things.”

The stage at Cheyenne’s brand-new Lincoln Theater, forced to function with most seats remaining open.

The capacity was reduced to 250, only 20 percent of what it could be. It took a while for the virus to reach Cheyenne — the town just got a mask mandate in mid-November — but it’s there now, so Jelinek doesn’t know what will happen in the next weeks. Jelinek volunteered to follow more rigid restrictions, such as those in Denver, but even then, the venue isn’t making much money.

“The place is not made to be at a 250 person capacity,” she says, “and even then, it’s not like we sold out those shows. People just aren’t coming out.”

Still, Jelinek calls herself lucky too, with a bank that wants to see them succeed, so she’s confident they will make it through. But they’re also a new venue, and it takes time to get established even without a virus complicating things. She hopes to start booking acts for February, ramping things up in the summer, and hoping more bands will trust her venue – some dropped out in October because they didn’t take it as safe.

Sold-out but sparse: The new Lincoln Theater in Cheyenne operating at a fraction of its capacity.

Because she’s new and scraping to pay bills, when she finally does book bands, it will be an extra gamble, as she doesn’t have the extra cushion it takes to absorb the shows that don’t draw big crowds.

“Partnerships with promoters are hard,” Jelinek says. “There’s not a lot of money on the table for them, for artists, or for us.”

Partnerships, however, are one way to make money. Ely Corliss, owner of the Moxi Theater in Greeley, worked with Hamilton “Jake” Byrd and his Blue Pig Presents company in Cheyenne, who produced a series of drive-in concerts at Terry Bison Ranch on the border of the Colorado and Wyoming with some success. The two, Corliss said, hope to have “a significantly larger calendar” of acts this spring play on that stage.

The Chinook – a Cheyenne music and movie venue born in the socially distant era of 2020.

Corliss, who owns the Moxi Theater, was doing what he could with his Downtown Greeley venue, holding shows with a limited seated capacity of 60 and hosting a virtual concert series called Moxi Live. He can no longer afford to close, even with shows that don’t make much money.

“Socially distancing shows don’t pay the bills,” Corliss said. “It would be one thing if we didn’t do them every night, but that’s not working right now. Individual shows do work, but I haven’t been able to do them as often. Some money is better than no money, but it’s a Band Aid.”

He, too, said he’s lucky with a supportive community and good landlords, but he said additional aid was vital to his survival and the survival of many other venues.

“This is our life source – for a lot of people,” Corliss said.

“We’ve been asked to shut down, or told to shut down, for months now. We’ve done that, and where are we now?”

• That’s The Trick, Isn’t It •

City venues are struggling, too, even when the pressure to make money isn’t as high, given that it’s not a private business, but that can make it hard, too, because so many city events take place in them. 

The Union Colony Civic Center in Downtown Greeley hopes to resume programming with national touring acts in the Fall of 2021, assuming the risk levels permit gatherings by then, says Jason Evenson, manager of cultural affairs for the UCCC. It was open for rentals as of late November, but it wasn’t advertising the availability. 

Greeley’s Union Colony Civic Center’s massive Monfort Concert Hall may provide opportunity for successful holiday events at appropriate distance.

“Right now we’re being very careful to go slowly,” Evenson said, “especially with the rise in new cases.”

At the end of November, the UCCC was getting ready for the community event Festival of Trees, just like it does every holiday season, but with many changes. That includes getting rid of all the popular events in the festival that draw large, family-friendly crowds, such as the Teddy Bear Bash and Silver Bells Social, and putting performances on the stage instead of out among the people, to discourage crowds. There’s also a timed entry and limited capacity.

“Sales are going OK so far,” Evenson said. “As long as people cooperate with the rules, we feel it will be successful.”

But that’s the trick, isn’t it? Venue owners who have put on shows said crowds have been responsible for the most part, but there’s always a few, or even some, who don’t obey the rules, whether that’s because of defiance, denial or just weariness from wearing a face-covering for three hours. 

“I think my staff, and everyone, really, is just so sick of mask patrol,” Jelinek said of The Lincoln.

The Aggie in Fort Collins and the Boulder Theater and Fox Theater in Boulder have hosted shows of limited capacity, although that changed at the end of November with new state guidelines. The shows, as others said, covered the overhead but left little room for much profit. 

Taking it from the top: The Aggie Theater in Fort Collins adheres to state health guidelines, cancelling a three-night run of sold-out shows this month by electronic, dance artist SoDown.

“It’s nice to be able to give artists and staff some work,” said Cheryl Liguori, CEO of Z2 Entertainment, which runs those three venues, “and [to give] everyone some enjoyment and live music mental therapy.”

She survived with fiscal conservation, her philosophy of more than 30 years in the business. 

“I’ve seen situations come up in that time,” she said. “I never operate so thin that we aren’t prepared to weather a storm. I also don’t use ticket sales as operating capital. Those funds don’t belong to us until the show plays off. But it’s been pretty devastating. Not all will weather this.”

That worries her, as she is seeing more companies swoop in and purchase independent venues, which means fewer will exist next year. 

“We don’t panic,” Liguori said. “When you panic, you make bad decisions.”

All that talk about responsible money management did turn emotional at times, though, as Liguori, like many other owners, had to cut staff to survive. She said she will continue to pivot and search for loans, aid and grants to continue to survive until life can, one day, return to normal.

“You have to do what you need to do to stay afloat and keep morale up,” Liguori said, “so that they see the hope – and an end to this.”

Support the survival of music venues. Visit saveourstages.com to contact congress and donate. Directly support the venues in this story at thelincolncheyenne.com, facebook.com/theroxytheatredenver, foxtheater.com, ucstars.com, moxitheater.com, bluepigpresents.com, theaggietheatre.com and bouldertheater.com