Local music plays on — differently — with stages dark during pandemic

The stage is dark at the Firefly and other local live-performance venues, but musicians are finding
new ways to reach audiences during the COVID-19 shutdown. (Matt Benoit photo © 2020)

By Matt Benoit

— Bellingham musician Chuck Dingée had his entire summer booked with gigs.

From outdoor concert series and private weddings to indoor venues like the Shakedown, the 66-year-old would normally be handling rhythm guitar and vocals in the five-piece band The Walrus, performing as one half of the acoustic duo Free Harmony and doing the occasional solo show. 

But it all disappeared in an instant when the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March, indefinitely altering the lives of anyone associated with live entertainment. 

“It’s really surreal to be a musician at this point in time,” Dingée said.

Getting by

Though losing an entire calendar’s worth of gigs was devastating, Dingée hasn’t let his skills get rusty. He invested in a good livestreaming camera, and began playing solo half-hours each day on Facebook Live to collect tips. Other paid virtual gigs followed. Dingée also managed to perform outside at several bar venues before Washington state announced live entertainment would be banned until Phase 4 of the Safe Start program. 

Chuck Dingée is among local musicians whose gigs
have gone online during the pandemic.
(Geri DeZarn photo © 2020).

The only in-person gigs he’s playing now are, interestingly enough, at retirement communities. Free Harmony recently played the outdoor courtyard at The Willows while residents listened safely from their windows and balconies. 

Financially, he said, he’s doing okay, relying on a combination of virtual gigs, Social Security and pandemic unemployment assistance, which was offered to self-employed workers experiencing income loss from the pandemic. Other musicians, he said, aren’t as lucky.

Empty rooms

Nor are some for-profit music venues. 

The Walrus was scheduled to play an August show at downtown Bellingham’s Shakedown, where the stage has been completely dark since March 16. 

The 9-year-old performance venue, co-owned by Hollie Huthman and Marty Watson, did receive a Paycheck Protection Plan loan, but Huthman said they haven’t been able to do much with the money until recently. Their second business, The Racket, is a bar and eatery directly next to the Shakedown, and recently reopened with limited hours. 

“The idea that we’ll actually be able to have 50 people in a room at once, it just feels further and further away all the time,” she said. “But the thing that makes me more optimistic is the efforts people are putting in to save live music venues.”

The Shakedown is set to host its first livestream of the pandemic for Virtual Downtown Sounds, put on by the Downtown Bellingham Partnership to raise money for the Wild Buffalo, Shakedown and Boundary Bay Brewery. 

Nationwide efforts are also underway to provide support to noncorporate performance spaces. The National Independent Venue Association, which has more than 2,000 members since forming in March to address pandemic-related closures, is lobbying for political and financial support. Recently, the “Save Our Stages Act” was introduced in the U.S. Senate. The bipartisan bill would establish a $10 billion grant program to help venues, promoters and producers pay for expenses during the pandemic.  

Venues like the Shakedown, explained Huthman, have a unique challenge during this time. In addition to being the last to reopen when the virus subsides, they already face high overhead costs like insurance and rent. These venues also, of course, need the support of touring bands. If cancelled tours are rescheduled next year without Northwest legs, Huthman says it may take additional months to regain the momentum of having full calendars and audiences.

“We need venues of all sizes,” she said. “We need venues for people who are starting out at the very bottom, performing to 10 people. The people who are performing to 10 people become the people who perform to an entire theatre or stadium.”

Calendar questions

The Mount Baker Theatre is among venues large and small whose seats
sit empty during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Matt Benoit photo © 2020)

The Mount Baker Theatre also is dealing with the question of what venue calendars will look like.

When the 91-year-old, 1,500-seat theatre closed indefinitely in March, the result was the cancellation or postponement of more than 60 events through June — a total of more than 48,000 unused tickets. John Purdie, executive director for MBT, said the theatre considered livestream events before ultimately deciding against it. 

“Unlike a restaurant, there really is no alternative format for us to take on,” Purdie said. “You can’t really replicate a live performance with a streamed event.”

MBT events range from national touring shows and booked mainstage performances to local rentals of the theatre by dance companies and orchestras. The reduction in events has meant a reduction in operating expenses. Because the theatre primarily relies on annual memberships and building management fees from the City of Bellingham, they’re weathering the coronavirus storm well. 

It still hasn’t been painless, however. Purdie said the nonprofit theater usually has 24 full-time-equivalent employees, but after furloughs it is operating with only three. In total, a theater that employs up to 195 people annually is rolling through 2020 with just nine employees working reduced hours. As long as memberships stay steady and there aren’t city funding setbacks, Purdie said the theatre should manage through the rest of 2020. (Editor’s note: updated Aug. 3)

The theatre will reshuffle the deck of mainstage events for the 2020-21 season, which was originally set in April to start in the fall. When it does reopen, safety plans will determine what kinds of shows will work. If MBT re-opens under limited capacity, the venue will host up to 350 people and utilize social-distancing guidelines and mask usage. Purdie estimated it will likely take about two months to retrain staff and volunteers (such as ushers) for this scenario. 

“We can do pairs of seats with a six-foot buffer around them,” he said. “We could bring in performing acts and maybe do some film screenings that would make sense for 350 people at a time. We couldn’t bring in a Broadway musical or similar show.”

The other option is to remain closed until normal reopening becomes possible. Either way, Purdie said they won’t reopen until they know it’s safe for people to be there.

“We can’t bring a bunch of people back and then have them get sick.” he said.

Creative collaborations

The Bellingham Symphony Orchestra, which hosts six to eight concerts a year at the MBT, hasn’t performed together in person for months. Digitally, however, they’re still making beautiful music with one another. 

Gail Ridenour, executive director of BSO, said their final rehearsal for a cancelled March 15 concert was recorded and released as an online video, and since then, their concerts have and will continue to take a strictly virtual approach. 

This includes the continued involvement of guest artists, who usually fly in from different places to perform with the symphony. Now, these artists are recording music and interviews from their homes. In May, Ridenour said BSO took segments from soloists in Houston and Nashville, digitally combined them with local symphony musicians playing from their homes and created an hour-long performance which aired on their website, KMRE 102.3 FM and BTV. More than 50 musicians took part. 

“It was a fun collaboration to make something cool for our community,” Ridenour said. 

Financially, BSO president Barbara Ryan said the organization’s reserve fund is helping cover their lack of ticket sales, in addition to the help of generous donors. 

“We will have enough at the end of this pandemic to move forward as the robust orchestra we have always been,” she said. 

When allowed to play in-person again, Ridenour said they could potentially stage about 30 musicians, utilizing distancing measures. That would be substantially down from the normal number of 80 or more musicians on one stage at a time. The prioritization of health, Ridenour said, outweighs any desire to perform again in person. 

In the near future, BSO will roll out an online concert season, continuing to incorporate guest soloists remotely. Local musicians in duos, trios, quartets and quintets (meeting the requirement for in-person gatherings of no more than five people) are rehearsing both in person — outside and distanced from each other — and virtually, based on their particular desires and needs. 

Virtual rehearsals can be problematic. Different apps introduce audio desynchronization — a problem Dingée knows all too well: The Walrus rehearses outside and six feet apart. 

No one knows how long these venues and musicians will have to endure in less than ideal settings in order to survive and sustain creative talents. But when asked, everyone interviewed for this article seemed optimistic about that day eventually arriving, with audiences eager to greet them. 

“I’m hoping that people are so thirsty for that experience again, that everything will be great,” Huthman said. “Seeing a live performance is so multisensory, and you can’t get that same experience virtually. I hope people will continue to value that after all this is over.”

Matt Benoit is Bellingham-born and raised. He’s written for the Bellingham HeraldTri-City HeraldPacific Northwest InlanderDiscover Magazine.com, and WhatcomTalk.com, among others. He holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and media production from Washington State University.