Their stages may be quiet, but representatives from local music hubs are speaking out about the toll the lack of live music has taken on their communities and questioning state mandates surrounding it.
“Music is essential and every single favorite song that anybody has is from an artist that started out on a stage just like ours,” said Dora Philip, co-owner of The Hollow Bar + Kitchen in Albany. “If these venues disappear and they’re going to . . . the world without music is a colorless place.”
Live music venues like Caffe Lena, The Egg, Upstate Concert Hall, etc. were among the first businesses to physically close when the coronavirus pandemic began impacting the Capital Region this spring. Many remain shuttered or have dramatically shifted their programming.
According to the New York State Liquor Authority, “only incidental music is permissible at this time. This means that advertised and/or ticketed shows are not permissible. Music should be incidental to the dining experience and not the draw itself.”
The mandate halted live, in-person concerts at Caffe Lena, which is known first and foremost for presenting music.
“Instead of giving venues the same opportunity that restaurants have been given to prove that they can [provide] a safe experience for the audience, they’re not even giving us the opportunity to show them what we can do,” said Sarah Craig, the executive director of the music venue/coffeehouse.
“That’s frustrating. Obviously, as a New Yorker, I’m incredibly proud of what this state has accomplished and that has come through tremendous sacrifice on the part of many business owners. But I do feel like there’s a blunder or a misunderstanding being made right now.”
Craig also pointed out that in neighboring states like New Jersey and Connecticut, venues are being allowed to reopen in some capacity.
“I feel like surrounding states are starting to set an example and they’re showing good results. It could be coming fairly soon for New York; that’s my hope,” Craig said.
At Saratoga Springs’ Putman Place, they’ve kept live music going on the patio outside during dinner time by serving food and drinks. However, because they can’t advertise what musicians are playing, it’s been tougher than expected to get people there. Since they’ve stopped listing the schedule on the website, some regulars thought Putnam was closed, according to general manager Gary “Sly” Fox.
“We’re only trying to help local musicians who are all starving at this point. So we’re having smaller acts. I just think the whole thing’s tough,” Fox said. “I think if you’re following the rules, then it really shouldn’t matter the intent of why the people came to your venue.”
Across the state, various venues have taken NYSSLA representatives to court over the issue. In some cases, the judges sided with the state, however, last week, a justice on the state’s Supreme Court sided with the Sportsmen’s Tavern of Buffalo, saying that the ban on holding and advertising ticketed shows is “irrational,” according to The Buffalo News. Since then, the NYSSLA has said that the ruling only applies to the Buffalo venue: “We are considering all options, including filing for an immediate stay and appeal. Remember: we are still in the midst of a global pandemic, and with the threat of clusters around the state and cases surging across the country, preventing mass gatherings remains one of the best public health tools in our toolbox.”
From Philip’s perspective, there’s been a lack of acknowledgment from government officials about the needs of musicians and music venues during this time.
“We’ve been trying to get the governor’s attention for a long, long time. Not only us as a small live music venue but also . . . the National Independent Venue Association and the New York State edition of NIVA. The governor, unfortunately, has dismissed us and won’t even give us a seat at the table to even discuss how to function safely because this is an entire ecosystem of people that are suffering,” Philip said. “Musicians are working-class people, there are very few who are incredibly wealthy. This is a form of art and it’s not something that should just be thrown away because it’s slightly challenging to figure out.”
“I don’t like to think this, and I hope that it’s not the case but one can’t help but feel that it’s a statement about the value that the state places on the arts,” Craig said. “Music is all about giving ourselves courage or moments of reflection or helping us understand things and to not have that right now seems like such a loss . . . It’s unnerving. What are we losing? As time slips through our hands and all of these songs die on the vine.”
Throughout the last few months, musicians, agents and venue owners have been trying to find ways of safely and legally presenting live music. Some have turned to drive-in movie theaters to hold shows. Some have turned to live-streaming concerts. Caffe Lena has gone that route, keeping up with a robust streaming schedule, featuring a mix of regional artists and more.
Putnam Place has turned to its patio, presenting music Wednesdays through Saturdays, checking the attendees’ temperatures at the door, and scanning their ID’s for contact tracing purposes.
The Hollow, after months of planning, will have live music this weekend during The Supper Club.
Presented by Guthrie/Bell Productions, it’s a chance for the Hollow’s chefs to get creative and test out new recipes and for local musicians to play during an early dinner session.
“Music was never part of our dinner service and it’s something I’ve wanted to explore before but because our schedule was just so packed with either private parties or national touring acts, there was no opportunity. This is an opportunity for us to be able to hire a musician and let them work,” Philip said.
The first one is scheduled for Friday, with seating starting at 6 p.m. and a three-course meal. Girl Blue will perform during the evening.
“It’s my goal to help The Hollow out a little bit, help out some local musicians a little bit, getting them in front of some people and hopefully help myself out a little bit,” said Greg Bell, owner of Guthrie/Bell Productions.
To comply with safety measures, attendees have to wear masks and remain at their socially distanced tables, which will be set far back from the stage.
While Friday’s Supper Club is sold-out, the following Supper Clubs will be held on Friday, Oct. 23 and Friday, Oct. 30, and Fri. Nov. 6 each with different menus. To attend, reservations must be made in advance, and attendance is capped at around 30 people. For more information visit Guthrie Bell Productions on Facebook or guthriebellproductions.com.
“I think this may be the new normal for quite a while. I don’t think you’re going to see general admission shows for at least a year,” Bell said.