By John Trump
Raleigh, NC – The Pour House Music Hall and Record Shop is eerily quiet.
It’s as though the music hall is still under construction, or in some stage of renovation. A cordless drill and some sound equipment are spread out over one end of the L-shaped bar, adjacent to a row of beer taps. A couple dozen, at least at first glance.
Now dry, unused.
A twisted irony, really.
This venerable venue on Blount Street in downtown Raleigh, a hub for live music since 1997. Gone dark, though the record store remains open.
This part of Blount Street is an example of the dichotomy Raleigh — and cities throughout the country — have become. Restaurants that just a few months ago were awash in national attention, their doors clogged with customers, are temporarily closed. A Dollar General DGX a few hundred feet to the south is dark and foreboding, a sad memorial to the violent protests that battered the city just a couple of months ago. A shiny new park, Moore Square, seen as a place to gather, a place for concerts and festivals, is mostly unused.
Music venues throughout the state have been closed since March, when Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, ordered a statewide lockdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was part of a three-part plan, he said then, to “flatten the curve” and to prevent overwhelming hospitals with patients. Cooper in May enacted a modified Phase 2, opening restaurants, breweries, hair salons, tattoo parlors, and other businesses at limited capacity. Cooper on Tuesday, Sept. 1, reopened gyms and playgrounds, for example, but myriad businesses, including bars, smoking lounges, and theaters, are closed.
For many businesses, such as bars and music venues, Cooper’s decisions are the difference between successfully traversing a swinging, shaky bridge and getting to the middle of the span, high above a river, only to feel the ropes snap in your hands, the boards crumble under your feet.
For some business owners, it’s already too late. They never made it to the river, let alone tried to cross it.
Without meaningful federal assistance, the National Independent Venue Association says in a news release, 90% of its members will close for good. A bipartisan group of lawmakers is pushing a measure, the Save Our Stages Act, to help — through Small Business Administration grants — independent live venues throughout the country. The act could be part of the next stimulus bill, but negotiations between Congress and the White House are stalled.
Some clubs, for instance, have tried to fill the void with online streams. Places such as The Blind Tiger in Greensboro re-opened recently at about 25% capacity, changing seating to meet social distancing requirements, the Triad Business Journal reported. Co-owner Doc Beck told the TBJ customers are required to buy hotdogs or sandwiches to help the club meet Cooper’s requirements on food and non-alcoholic beverage sales. The Grey Eagle in Asheville has taken acts outside, to the “patio,” albeit with limited capacities and strict rules.
The Pour House plans to reopen, though it has taken on considerable debt to do so.
Imurj, an arts collaborative tucked under Whiskey Kitchen on Raleigh’s South McDowell Street, closed in March.
It won’t reopen.
Not in its space under the restaurant. Not as it was.
“We’re closed down,” says Karl Thor, a managing partner for the venue, catering to emerging and amateur artists. Anyone with a passion for the performing or visual arts. “We try to give them a platform to try to get started and get moving. We also have burlesque, we have comedy, we’ve had the North Carolina Symphony. We’ve had the North Carolina ballet do some small groups. …”
The venue, an arts incubator including a gallery, stage, recording studio, and shop, opened about three years ago. Construction on the space started about a year before that.
Thor said he’s working to get out of the lease and plans to focus on the art gallery and the club’s internet radio station.
“I think, again, because our mission and vision was to help promote artists and musicians, we can still do that through our website. So, we’re going to try to keep the Imurj radio popular and build on that a little bit.”
Trying to figure things out.
Thor said he was frustrated with Cooper’s lockdowns. At first. During the early days of the shutdowns and executive orders. The rules, he said, kept changing.
“If we’d have had time to get a better plan, we might have been able to stay open longer,” Thor says.
Maybe. The frustration? Not so much anymore, Thor says.
“Even if we could be open, if we had to be socially distanced, we couldn’t make enough money to pay the bands and keep the lights on, really. … I understand, you know, it’s a rough situation.
“But,” Thor says, “we can’t have people packed into that place. It’s in a basement.”
Adam Lindstaedt lets me in through a side entrance of the Pour House, over a row of sandbags at the door’s threshold. He owns the club, along with the record shop upstairs.
Never mind the dust, he says before grabbing a stool at the bar, the dormant beer taps along a wall just a few feet away. Rows of posters advertising beer line a wall behind him. One, with a big red “R” stands out, just over Lindstaedt’s right shoulder — Raleigh Brewing Co.
He pauses to adjust the yellow and black bandana covering his mouth. Shakes his head.
“If it wasn’t for loan money, we would have gone out of business a month ago,” he tells me. “We would have gone bankrupt.”
He had 17 employees, including engineers, bartenders, door people, managers, and people to work in the record shop, which has gone online and is open by appointment. A PPP loan helped, but only a little. Lindstaedt said he took a disaster loan, which, before COVID-19, existed for businesses and nonprofits recovering from natural disasters, such as hurricanes.
The loan isn’t forgivable, he says, which means Lindstaedt will be paying it until 2051. It will cover rental insurance for about a year. There’s also the rent itself, as well as the cost for liquor permits, which he can’t use. The club’s air conditioning went out. Throw another $1,500 onto the pile.
The Pour House record store opened in November. Customers could browse the extensive collection, grab a beer, and even listen to some live music. The timing, said Lindstaedt, couldn’t have been better.
“At the end of the day, we’re in better shape …,” he says, “because we actually do have a revenue stream coming in. Everyone else has been sitting at zero revenue since March 17.”
Businesses like Lindstaedt’s have closed and will continue to close, even with government payouts and small legislative victories. Three times Republican lawmakers tried to reopen bars. Three times Cooper vetoed their bills, which managed to pass the General Assembly largely among party lines. Three times lawmakers failed to override Coopers’ vetoes.
“Something’s got to give,” Lindstaedt says. “We have to be given a chance to operate like everybody else.”
I glance at the colorful and ornate taps, trying to decipher brands, beer styles. From Foothills, Raleigh Brewing, Red Oak, New Belgium, Shock Top. I’m wearing a mask, so I miss the smells so ubiquitous in a music club, even hours after the night’s final note. The sweat and spilled beer, breath spoiled by liquor and cigarettes. All sorts of residual smoke.
At the start of the lockdowns the state ABC resolved to amend some policies, this time permitting local boards to allow bar owners to return bottles of liquor for a refund, less the mixed beverage tax, a news release said. Thing is, that mixed beverage tax amounts to $3.75 per bottle, which would be twice that should a bar owner sell ABC the liquor and then buy it back.
“It didn’t seem necessary for us to do that,” Lindstaedt says.
The bigger problem, as counterintuitive as it sounds, is beer. Thirty taps, in barrels costing between $160 and $250. He has sold growlers through the website and, for Labor Day, planned a “blowout” sale, with price breaks on gallons and half gallons. PBR for 50 cents. Coronas for a penny, “just because nobody wants to buy a Corona anymore.”
All of that brings in money. But all of that was never meant to pay the bills.
“You always hear about restaurants having thin margins and bars having thin margins, but music venues have the thinnest of margins. We usually operate on 1% or 2%, and on a good year we might get up to like 5% or 7% profit.”
September should be a good month for live music in North Carolina, especially for Raleigh. The International Bluegrass Music Association, each September for the past few years, has brought world-famous artists and bands to the capital city, musicians who play in front of hundreds of thousands of fans.
Some of these bands, as part of the festival, fill downtown music clubs: The Lincoln Theatre, Kings, The Architect, the Pour House, which also holds a festival of its own: Groove in the Garden. Hopscotch, an eclectic and vibrant music festival that, too, brings huge crowds to downtown, was scheduled a couple of weeks earlier in September.
“By far, September and February, for us, have always been our top two months,” Lindstaedt says.
Not this September. February? Who knows?
“There’s seven classifications for selling alcohol to the public in North Carolina,” Lindstaedt says. “Six have been operating since the middle of May. Private clubs are the only ones that are not allowed to operate … about 1,200 in the state.”
Lindstaedt talks about a man who’s doing some work for him. The man, he says, plays in a church band. Unlike bars and gyms, churches are open. Even running at half capacity, Lindstaedt says, that’s 500 people attending any given service.
“At the same time, you go to these restaurants that are operating at 50% capacity, they might normally hold 300, but now they can put a 100, 150 people in those spaces, and that’s OK.
“Extremely frustrating,” Lindstaedt says.
His feelings are genuine, raw, palpable. Emotions a cloth bandanna can’t hide.
“This type of environment, more than any other business, is used to regulating people. We’re constantly telling people they can’t do this, they can’t do that, but approaching it in a way that doesn’t piss them off and create a scene; just letting them know like, ‘Hey, please don’t do that.’”
We’re ready for it, Lindstaedt says. To reopen, he means.
“We’ve been ready for it, and I feel like we can do it better than most people because we’re used to it, and people are used to being told no in places like this. Not just our place, but other independent venues across the town, across the Triangle, across the nation.
“So, just like, right off the bat because of our license type, that we’re not allowed to be in business is extremely frustrating. I mean, my rent is $9,000 a month, and I’m not getting any breaks.”
Tables and stools, in various stages of completion, take up space on the floor, in front of the silent stage, more than six feet from the bar. Lindstaedt has a plan. The thinking is, when decreed clubs like the Pour House can re-open, they’ll open at limited capacity, probably 50%. The Pour House has room for 289 people. But, Lindstaedt says, allowing 145 or so people in the space makes social distancing impossible. More like 20% then.
“Never in a million years did I think we’d only be allowed to have 58 people in the building that’s 5,400 square feet.”
Dead space. Lots of it.
Lindstaedt points to a strip of masking tape, which someone stuck to the front of the bar. That’s four tickets, he says. Over there, that’s two tickets.
“All the tape marks on the floors are spots where tables are going to be,” he says.
Basically you’re buying, more like renting, a table.
“Between all those tables, I’ve got 58 tickets to sell to a single show.”
The lights, someday, will come back on. In a typical — well, normal — year, Lindstaedt says, more than 1,100 bands and artists play the Pour House. It can be overwhelming, if one person is deciding on the acts, programming them, and promoting them.
In a normal year.
Imagine thousands of bands, artists who have been writing and playing online gigs, just to scrape by. Thousands of artists looking to play in front of actual people. Artists who want to work, to get paid.
“I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of people that have given up on music and gone and pursued a career elsewhere,” Lindstaedt says. “But at the end of the day, a lot of people are still out there. It’s just going to be even harder to get in here now than it was before.”
Bands, especially those who are almost famous, or even less than that, can’t help but try to keep going. Same for the clubs.
It’s a kind of addiction, says Patrick May, an agent and partner with Crossover Touring, based in Nashville, Tennessee. The agency represents dozens of bands and artists, including Billy Strings, Mandolin Orange, Sam Bush, and Scythian.
“You can’t stop trying to survive, but at the same time it’s not living, it’s just surviving,” May says.
“For every person you talk to you they’re gonna have a different idea of what’s going to happen,” May says. “But in the frankness of, Can we get a bunch of people in an enclosed room over the next six months of the winter, while things are rebounding, and then do that in a way that is financially viable for these venues? It’s really difficult to end up with a ‘yes’ when you look at those parameters? Are there going to be little ways to kind of do this and that? Yes. These are entrepreneurs, and they can’t sit still. They’re going to try.”
Some will survive — bands, artists, clubs. Many, maybe. Who knows?
“We’re going to lose a lot of bands,” May told CJ. “A lot of bands are going to have to break out to get day jobs. We’re gonna lose a lot of venues.”
Small concert series and festivals may go by the wayside, cities and towns will cut funding for similar events, or decide to spend it elsewhere. Or politicians simply won’t risk bringing people together. More than 10 or 15 at a time.
“It collapsed in a matter of days, to zero, and to start it back up is going to be so much more challenging,” May says. “This thing is like an aircraft carrier. It’s going to take a long time for it to start back up.”
Bands and artists with a loud voice. Bands and artists people should hear.
“Before all this happened, I would have between 400 and 500 bands a week contacting me to do shows, and I don’t have that many slots a week.”
It’s an evolving process, which will continue to change. Morphing into this or that. Week to week. Day to day. Bands will still get paid, but the formulas will change.
Typically, he says, bands work off the door, getting a percentage of ticket sales.
“In the past, our typical deals have been the bands take 85% after the first $250 that comes in. So now what we’re talking about is a straight-down-the-middle 50/50 split.”
“Everyone’s been flexible,” Lindstaedt says. “You’ve been hurting, we’ve been hurting, we need to approach this like a true partnership.”
Lindstaedt says future shows, three each night, won’t be longer than an hour. Crowds in, crowds out. Like a restaurant, or movie theater. Customers will place orders from the table, reducing interactions with staff. Doing everything possible to keep customers, bands, and staff safe.
“We’re going to be taking people’s temperatures at the door, myself or my manager will be bringing people in one by one, taking them to their tables, explaining to them how this is going to work. People are going to be required to keep their masks on the entire time, even when you’re at your table, which is not a requirement in restaurants.”
Lindstaedt stops to demonstrate, dropping his bandana to his chin, just long enough to tilt back an imaginary glass. Just long enough for a sip.
“If people got a problem with it, they’ve got a problem with us, and then they’re going to have to go.
“The last thing I want to do is open up and then have pictures going out on social media that show everyone rubbing shoulders, or one of my customers get sick, or a band member, or one of my staff get sick. That’s the last thing I want, and then we’re going to close down again. Then, if that happens, we’re screwed. It’s going to be really hard to come back from that. It’s my business, it’s my livelihood,” Lindstaedt says.
“I do this because I love it. It’s not because it’s making me rich. We’ve lost every single penny that was in our account when this all started. We were on track to have our best year ever in 22 years, 23 years, and that’s all gone. Everything’s gone. We’re operating on borrowed money now.
“Everyone’s in the same boat. Streaming is great, just like selling online is great … but everything related to live music and picking records out, it’s a very hands-on experience. And when you take out the thing that drives people to it, it kind of loses its essence. So, it’s a sliver of what it can be, because live music is about feeling, it’s not about seeing or hearing … especially when you have a group of strangers experiencing the same thing at the same time and, you know, whatever’s happening on that stage brings them together.”
Online streams reach audiences, bring artists a little money. To keep going. The bands and the fans, too. Until they can play again, and the people can come.
Until then, though, something will be missing, something falling somewhere in the middle. Maybe that middle is a club, packed shoulder-to-shoulder. No one cares, or even notices.
It’s about the music, the experience.
Standing on a farm, in a wide-open field “with 5,000 of your closest friends. A commonality lost. A guitar riff, barely audible. Fading to silence. Maybe the middle is there.
“There’s no connection between the bands and us, the fans and us, you know, it’s a whole ecosystem that exists on its own, and it’s all been stripped away,” says Lindstaedt.
“For a lot of people that come to places like this, this is our church.”
Like the Maren Morris song: “Hank brings the sermon. Cash leads the choir.”
“We don’t go to church,” Lindstaedt says. “We don’t go to temple. We don’t follow that part of life, right? This is our release. This is our way to connect, unwind.”
Live music will return, of course. Outdoors at first, swaggering slowly back inside. Someday. Lindstaedt and May say they’ve talked to a lot of people. About festivals and big arena shows. To artists and people in the industry. In the U.S. and around the world.
A general consensus exists. It’s concise and succinct.
“I don’t know.”