The COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on the music industry throughout the country 2020, and in Boulder County, the story was no different.
But venues have been weathering the storm as best they can.
Christian Hee, senior marketing manager for Z2 Entertainment, which operates the Boulder Theater and Fox Theatre in Boulder, said that the venues were closed for much of 2020, about eight months out of 12. The last shows thrown at full capacity happened in March. They did, however, throw a handful of socially distanced shows with small audiences and live-stream concerts with no in-person audience. Socially distanced shows can be a challenge because it means a steep decline in the size of the audience. That makes turning a profit for the venue or the band a difficult endeavor.
“We’ve done both of those,” Hee says of live-stream shows. “We’ve had Trevor Hall at both the Fox and Boulder Theater. We’ve had the Infamous String Dusters at the Fox. We’ve also had The Floozies at the Boulder Theater, which was a cool one. That one was actually a hybrid. So we had a 100 person audience in addition to a live stream.”
They had planned more shows, including “The Last Waltz Revisited,” a tribute to the famous last concert by Bob Dylan’s backing band, The Band. Martin Scorcese filmed the original show for a famous concert movie of the same name. Hee said the popular touring show was canceled because COVID cases began to increase sharply in November. A large band is required for that show, which would have constituted an indoor gathering, prohibited at the time.
Hee says most of Z2’s staff at Boulder Theater, Fox Theater and the Aggie Theater in Fort Collins have been furloughed because of the pandemic. That includes bartenders, security and some of the administrative team. The company also hires a smaller number of independent contractors who have also been laid off. She says that most of the furloughed employees have burned through their available unemployment.
“They are hustling hard,” she says. “They are working contract jobs, picking up odd jobs here and there. Some are working at restaurants. It’s hard. It’s tough. I deal with a lot of survivor’s guilt especially considering many of our staff have been there for years. There are some that have been here for 10 or 20 years, and I came on board less than two years ago.”
She says that once the venues are able to bring back even limited capacity shows, the plan is to hire at least some of the employees back.
“We do hope to bring everyone back once we’re back to full capacity,” she says. “I don’t know if it will be normal like it was pre-COVID, but at least closer to that, closer to the way we were supposed to enjoy live music.”
Noella Colandreo, owner of the Dickens Opera House in Longmont, said in an email that the venue remains closed.
“We really aren’t doing a lot just yet,” Colandreo says.
A couple blocks from the Boulder Theater lies eTown, a nonprofit nationally syndicated radio broadcast/podcast, multimedia and events production company. The venue inside the building hosts events like bluesman Otis Taylor’s annual Trance Blues Festival and all kinds of performances including the live tapings of eTown. Their venue, eTown Hall, like most others in the area, is currently closed because of the pandemic. The crew had some trepidation about continuing with live concerts because it didn’t feel safe to do so. Currently, the venue has no live music scheduled.
But host and co-founder Nick Forster says staff at eTown have been keeping busy nonetheless.
“We haven’t had any events here since March,” Forster says. “The building also includes a recording studio and our office and lots of editing suites and other things, so we’ve been making stuff.”
Forster says eTown recently completed a music program for formerly homeless young people in Boulder with the help of homeless advocacy organization Attention Homes, located nearby in Boulder.
“We started with 19 residents in their new facility that is just a half a block away from eTown Hall,” he says. “I think 11 of them completed the program. It is a really cool program where everyone got an instrument, and some lessons and instruction and then recorded their original songs in our studio.”
Forster says staff at eTown have also been making new radio shows on a weekly basis. They recently recorded Nathaniel Ratliff with a string quartet.
“We did new (shows) with Rufus Wainright and Brandi Carlile and Joan Osborne and Marco Price and Swamp Dogg,” he says. “We are just making new shows by just recording Zoom calls and recording people remotely.”
Forster made several episodes of a show called “Teach Me One Thing,” in which, for instance, comedian Steve Martin taught him how to shuffle a deck of cards and play a banjo lick that he thought was cool. He made about 10 episodes of the show with various people, all available online.
“That was definitely COVID content,” he says.
Forster says he hasn’t been able to keep the entire staff, but they’ve kept about seven full-time employees out of 10. Everyone on staff is adjusting to the change as best as they can through a challenging year.
“Our goal is to just keep staying true to our mission and making good things that we can put out in the world through our radio stations,” he says. “We’ve been putting out a show every single week, and we’ve been putting out videos as fast as we can make them. I think that’s been enough to keep people busy and focused and feeling productive.”
He adds that eTown feels lucky to have generous donors and supporters, and they have obtained Payroll Protection Program loans through the federal government to keep things running through tight times.
“We are doing all the things,” he says.
Z2 entertainment has launched an online recovery fund to help it weather the storm and keep the lights on so to speak. The fund offers rewards for contributors including items like free drinks and choice seats at future shows, when they return. The rewards increase with the size of the donations. As of late January, people have contributed more than $30,000.
“We’ve had a good number of contributions,” she says. “We have packages or tiers as low as $25 all the way up to $10000. We were able to get one $10,000 donation which we didn’t expect but we did want to put it out there.”
She says the venues are keeping in close contact with Boulder County officials, and there are currently plans for live music at the Boulder Theater beginning in late February. The Fox Theatre, which has a much smaller capacity, currently doesn’t have any music scheduled until May, according to its website.
“We go week by week, depending on how our calls go with Boulder County, which happen every Thursday to see what we want to decide to do,” she says. “We are trying to keep shows on the schedule as long as we can in hopes that we can have them sooner.”
She adds that Z2 entertainment is grateful to the patrons and ticket holders who have been patient throughout the season of canceled and postponed shows.
“I know everyone’s going through the same thing,” she says. “It’s frustrating on our end, too.”