PLAY IT BY EAR: How Music Survived the Pandemic, Part One

How musicians, arts organizations and venues are staying alive, innovating and uniting in the pandemic era

Part one in a four-part series.

With the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine underway and the promise of warmer weather, expectations this spring are rising like the first timid bulbs in the wet soil of February. For anyone who loves music, there is new hope. After a year of being shut in, we can feel better about gathering to hear and to play live music.

In March the Carmel Symphony Orchestra (CSO) celebrated by hosting its first indoor concert of 2021, bringing central Indiana’s music fans Vivaldi’s joyous Four Seasons. The CSO is one of a few American orchestras that continued indoor concerts during the pandemic by offering limited seating and following social distancing protocols.

“We’re very fortunate to have the Palladium,” says Cara Pittenger, director of operations for the CSO. “Not everyone has the space to spread out the way we do. People have been very good about keeping masks on. I feel safe.” Wary ticketholders also have access to the concerts though live streams, a ubiquitous format that has all artists and arts organizations thinking about how they can manage virtual connections in a strategic way — and why they didn’t offer more virtual programming sooner.

After months of closure, Josh Baker opened Hi-Fi Indy for two concerts during the last weekend of February. Hungry music fans devoured tickets quickly, anxious for the better-felt-than-told experience of enjoying live music surrounded by other people. Thanks to grants from the city of Indianapolis, Baker had funds to build a temporary outdoor venue and hosted over 40 outdoor concerts during summer and fall of 2020. The February 2021 concerts were the venue’s first indoor performances since last October, when the Hi-Fi experimented with bringing concerts inside and ultimately decided to abort.

Never mind economies of scale

The decision to reopen indoors for two nights at a fraction of the Fountain Square venue’s capacity was financially questionable. “We got to the point that this felt like our only chance to reopen and get back to generating some revenue and some positive emotional wealth,” says Baker, who is also president of Indiana Independent Venue Alliance (IIVA), an organization founded during the pandemic to represent the interests of independently-owned venues. “We needed the good vibes and the momentum.” The IIVA estimates that Indiana’s independent venue owners lost $22 million in revenues due to the pandemic.

Musicians sidelined for nearly a year by the pandemic jumped at the chance to perform at the Hi-Fi’s first 2021 concerts. Afterwards, they refused to accept payment from Baker. “They were like, ‘No, we did this for you. We got what we wanted out of it. We want to do this again, and we know you guys need to keep this going, so put this in the pot and book us again in two weeks.’”

Even at that, the concerts turned only a modest profit, not enough to keep the Hi-Fi going, much less pay for air ventilation systems and other investments Baker is making to improve safety for patrons, musicians and employees. But not everything connected to the music business can be measured in dollars and cents.

“There are a million ways we’re affected by live music,” he says. “You discover your favorite artist, or you meet the person who becomes your spouse. At the end of the day, the feeling you get standing there in that moment is irreplaceable. That’s what music venues provide.”

Stay tuned to the conversation about music and the arts in our four-part series.

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