As Music Venues Sit Silent, Workers are Forced to Forge a New Path
Live music venues in Ohio were some of the first businesses to close and last to reopen as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
It’s been a little more than a year since concert clubs shut their doors as required by statewide mandates and regulations that were put in place March 2020.
Venue owners have been fighting to get enough funding to keep their businesses open.
Their employees, including bartenders, security officers and sound engineers, have had to search for other means of earning a living as their workplaces have been closed indefinitely.
Temporarily closing a Canton music destination
The Auricle, a live music venue in downtown Canton, has been temporarily closed since March 16, 2020.
This April marks the club’s 10-year anniversary, but owner Joshua Brewer said there are no set plans to celebrate the milestone or resume normal operations until it is safe to do so.
“I definitely saw this being at least six months and that was me being cheery about it,” Brewer said. “Then, obviously, now this has gone on for quite some time.”
Brewer is a musician and opened The Auricle on Cleveland Avenue in Canton in 2011.
In 2018, he moved the business four blocks down the same street to its current location, a former Burger King restaurant with ample space for crowds.
The Auricle houses a full bar but primarily operates as a venue for concerts and events.
“I’ve always jokingly said if you love music and money, don’t open a music venue. It’s not necessarily a profitable business,” Brewer said. “It’s something you do because you love it, and you love the art and the music and the people that truly come out and love and enjoy it.”
Brewer said he was keeping an eye on the news about the outbreak and spread of COVID-19 prior to the statewide shutdown.
He got his employees signed up for unemployment benefits as soon as possible but said it was difficult to navigate with the high volume of layoffs because of COVID-19.
Brewer hasn’t been earning a stable income during the shutdown and has been applying for grants and loans to keep The Auricle afloat.
He said he cares more about the health of people and not contributing to the spread of COVID than reopening before he can safely do so.
“I just don’t need to make money that bad to have someone’s health on my conscience,” Brewer said.
Shifting identities in the workforce
Courtney Hunt, 29, worked as a bartender at The Auricle prior to the shutdown.
Hunt grew up in Canton and moved back to the area after college. The Auricle was a big part of his life and helped him make new friends in his community.
It opened a year before he moved back home, and he said it seemed to be where everyone was hanging out. Going to First Friday events and seeing an actual “scene” in Canton was exciting, Hunt said.
“It was the first place I hung out at because downtown [Canton] used to be like a Scooby-Doo ghost town,” he said.
He met Brewer the first day he stepped foot in the music venue, and a few years later, Hunt became part of the staff.
“I fit right in,” Hunt said.
When Brewer told his staff The Auricle would be temporarily closing due to pandemic restrictions, Hunt initially felt a sense of relief.
“It was tough because everyone is kind of scattered to the wind now,” he said. “But it was also sort of a relief in a way. I live like one block away from The Auricle, so I can almost see it from my bedroom window. Because I’ve been in the scene so long, sometimes you just need a break.”
He said he felt like a public figure as a bartender at the venue, and the lockdown allowed him to just be himself for a minute.
“Before when I was working at the bar, I had a day job, so sometimes I’d be working 16-hour days,” he said. “So I never had much time to just spend by myself. So I thought, now I have the time, can’t really do anything else, so I’ll pick up the guitar and see where that goes.”
Hunt said once the pandemic hit and everyone went into lockdown, Canton looked like it went back in time 10 years; there was no life, no First Friday events, and nobody mingling and connecting.
Hunt started practicing guitar every day and has also spent the past year learning Japanese and coding.
He is employed by Radiology Partners, whose office transitioned to working from home. This has allowed Hunt to slow down and spend more time enjoying the space he lives in.
"It was the weirdest form of exhaustion and relief because all I’ve known since I was 14 was work,” he said. “So, I just never had a time where I could just live and not just [be] a utility for someone’s business."
Hunt said he currently feels “anonymous” while working from home, which allows others to value his work for what it is.
"I live like one block away from The Auricle, so I can almost see it from my bedroom window. Because I’ve been in the scene so long, sometimes you just need a break.”
“I don’t have to deal with being a Black person at work, being a male at work. I don’t have to worry about it at all because I have an androgynous name,” Hunt said. “People don’t assume one thing about me or the other. They just see ‘Courtney Hunt.’”
While the pandemic was rejuvenating at first, Hunt said he has struggled financially.
"Bills that I have to pay and just having one income and just living alone, and it’s been hard. I’m just kind of barely getting by at times," he said.
He was able to receive assistance to help cover lost wages from the sudden lack of tips and earnings from his night job at The Auricle.
"I went online, and there was all these COVID resources for retail workers, essential workers [and the] service industry. So, I looked on there, and United Way had some rental assistance, so I hit them up and eventually they helped me out, which I really needed at the time," Hunt said.
Hunt said he wants to return to The Auricle to bartend when doors open.
“First Fridays are great. I miss working the brunches. I get to make mimosas. There’s food. I miss making cocktails, talking to people, just knowing all the people around here. I miss the friends that I worked with,” he said.
Moving across the country for a fresh start
While venue staffers have been able to receive financial assistance or begin remote employment, for some, the pandemic presented an opportunity to find a new beginning.
Michael Bastas, 32, is from Northeast Ohio and began working as a bartender at The Auricle in 2018.
Last year, he decided to pack up and move to California.
“I’ve always wanted to make it happen, but I never really had the means. And when the pandemic hit, all of the sudden, I found myself with the means and above all else, the time. So it was kind of like, well, if I’m ever going to do it, now is the time to do it,” Bastas said.
Bastas said the initial weeks of the shutdown were strange. Brewer worked to make sure his workers were receiving financial aid, but Bastas said some of his coworkers faced challenges applying for and collecting unemployment.
“When all of this very first started going down, and all of us were scrambling to get on [unemployment], Josh was calling all of us weekly,” Bastas said. “We were all just doing weekly meetings to catch up and see how everybody’s doing and everybody is getting their money. A lot of us … didn’t receive anything for months and months.”
Bastas was collecting unemployment in California after moving then he got an email that there was an error with his unemployment benefits in Ohio. He had to send back $1,200.
“I know I’m probably not the only one. There are probably a lot of other people that got confused or filed something wrong,” he said. “But at this point, I feel this is where the compassion disconnect exists … you couldn’t just let people keep that in this strange time of crisis?”
Bastas is currently working two retail jobs. He plans to pursue a career as a studio musician and get into sound design for movies once there is some sense of normalcy, he said.
He said he does not plan to move back to Ohio, but he’ll apply to bartending jobs in his current location when things start opening back up.
“I know a lot of people in Canton had a very hard time adjusting because, of course, when you’re a bartender, there’s regulars. When people get into a routine, and all the sudden that routine is ripped out from under you, that is a jarring experience,” he said.
Bastas is a musician and plays with Raygun! Raygun! He has been remotely collaborating with his bandmate from Ohio during the pandemic, and they plan to release a new album this year.
"When people get into a routine, and all the sudden that routine is ripped out from under you, that is a jarring experience."
He said he chose to work at The Auricle because it “has always been the bar for people who don’t like going to bars.” It’s a laid-back atmosphere with a high-quality sound system, which is a draw for musicians, he said.
Bastas learned how to bartend from the ground up when he was employed at The Auricle. He said the downtown Canton community is tight-knit, and being a bartender felt like part of his identity.
“People knew me downtown slightly before, but once I was a bartender, there was like, ‘Oh, I know that guy,’” he said. “It was crazy because people that I never expected to meet, interact with, talk with, even become friends with, it had deepened the community relationship.”
Bastas performed additional tasks at the venue, like making sure the green room was clean, money was distributed, and guests were happy on show nights.
He said he had a strong bond with other members of The Auricle staff while working there.
“We all feel very much connected and very much like a family. You know, we look out for each other. And especially when you’re a bartender, that’s tenfold,” Bastas said. “We always have to be there to have each others' backs and make sure nobody’s taking any bull crap from anybody.”
Getting funding to keep a venue afloat
The Auricle hosted an outdoor show in July 2020 as a way to bring live music back to the area after months of silence.
Brewer said he worked with a promoter and the city of Canton to get a portable stage, shut down the street for one night and bring Chicago cover band Fool House on to perform ‘90s pop songs for an outdoor audience.
While he plans to try outdoor shows again this summer, he is being cautious.
“It was in that awkward place where people still didn’t feel like going out. And it was in that awkward place for me, too, because I didn’t want to let anyone in the building,” Brewer said.
Brewer said The Auricle had its best year yet in 2019.
Brewer drained himself financially to put a down payment on the venue’s new building and renovate it.
He was finally in a position to recoup the money in 2020, then he had to close the venue down during the state-ordered mandate.
“Things just kept getting better and better, then to just shut down, it was just heartbreaking,” he said.
To sustain his business, he originally applied for a COVID-19 Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) that would be paid back over 30 years at a very low interest rate.
The loan provides funding for small businesses and nonprofit organizations that have experienced a temporary loss in revenue because of the pandemic.
He was denied this loan initially. At the end of 2020, he was out $60,000 just keeping the building open.
Brewer didn’t want to ask for donations or fundraising if there was no guarantee the venue would reopen or recover financially from lost revenue during the shutdown.
“If the venue were to close due to the pandemic, it would take a pandemic to do it,” Brewer said. “It wasn’t anything I did. It wasn’t foolishness on my part. It literally took the world shutting down if it got to that point. And it almost did.”
He finally did get monetary assistance.
Last November, seven months into the pandemic, he was approved for the EIDL loan. He was also awarded an EIDL Advance grant of $7,000 and two grants from the city of Canton.
“I had to spend all of my savings, all of the bar savings, but there was a point, especially when I got that EIDL, and this not a joke, I had $500 in the bank account for the bar,” Brewer said.
The Auricle had seven employees on its payroll at the start of 2020. Brewer said he has been in touch with his sound engineers and bartenders. Some are ready to return to the venue, while others have moved on in their careers.
“I’ve told them since day one, you guys do what’s best for you. There would absolutely be no hard feelings at all, I want you guys to be in a good place,” Brewer said. “So whether you have to get a new job or what have you, I’m all for it, and I support you and I will give you nothing but a good recommendation.”
Brewer said he started out at the venue as a bartender and would get behind the bar again.
Bringing new employees in is a daunting thought, he said. He’s excited to bring back his former staff if they’re interested.
“We’re almost like a family. I love all of my employees. I don’t just pick anybody. We don’t have a high turnover rate. Usually when you work for me, you work for me for years, and you’ll come back if I need you to even cover something. I consider them almost like children,” Brewer said.
He has no set reopening date for The Auricle. It would take COVID-19 case numbers going down, herd immunity building, more people getting vaccines, restrictions lifted, warm weather and having the ability to do outdoor events to fully reopen, he said.
“Things just kept getting better and better, then to just shut down, it was just heartbreaking."
In the meantime, Brewer has been doing some work on the venue and redesigning The Auricle’s website.
“After being cooped up after a year, I’m not gonna argue when I can go out and see my friends and patrons and people who have supported us over the years on a regular basis,” he said.
Brewer plans to announce dates for summer outdoor shows. He said if things continue to go well, he could potentially see the venue reopening in May, but there is no rush.
“The bar is wonderful, and I love what it offers Stark County and Northeast Ohio,” Brewer said. “I’m just grateful that we’re still here a year down the line and still healthy a year down the line. I can’t complain about anything else.”
Struggling as music spaces fight for assistance
The Auricle is part of the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA), which has been working since 2020 to fight for economic relief, government support and longevity of live music spaces across the country.
For some venue workers, their places of employment feel tied to their identities; it’s where they make friends and become part of the local community. Amy Jarvis, lead bartender at Jilly’s, said she is a “career waitress and bartender” and has worked in the service industry since she was 15 or 16 years old.
Finding other work in a different industry hasn’t been easy. Jarvis said she has collected unemployment since Jilly’s has not reopened at full capacity for live concerts.
“You know, in the beginning, everyone was instructed to file for unemployment right away,” Jarvis said. “I didn't have, you know, a lot of complications with that, and I heard a lot of other people did, so I'm thankful for that. And now I'm just ready for us to be able to open Jill’s back up and get back to hearing wonderful live music and making good memories.”
Shari Lee Foertch is a server and bartender at Jilly’s and has been furloughed since March 13, 2020.
“As far as I'm aware, Jill is still intending to open back up,” Foertch said. “So I've just been kind of sitting back and waiting. I really like my job there, so I'd like to go back to that.”
Foertch said she has a strong support network, which has helped her get by financially over the past year. She doesn’t plan to get back into serving and bartending until businesses are operating safely at full capacity.
“Because of people not wanting to come out, and then also the restrictions as far as like how many people you're allowed to have in the bars and what hours you're allowed to operate, it doesn't really sound like it would be an especially good situation for me to get myself into right now,” Foertch said.
Unemployment funds are only a fraction of what Jarvis would make at Jilly’s on a normal night, she said.
Bill Lowery, lead sound technician at Westside Bowl, said the last year has been rough for everyone in the entertainment industry with layoffs and lost wages.
“You know, I was making a pretty good living working in the entertainment industry, and we get by, but it's definitely been a real struggle,” Lowery said. “We do what we have to do to make ends meet. But it's not been easy, that's for sure.”
Lowery said he received “gig workers unemployment” through the CARES Act.
Kyle White, lighting technician at The Kent Stage, said the money he had in savings has helped him during the last year, but these funds won’t sustain him forever.
“I'm watching my bank account slowly disappear,” White said. “I live in an apartment like downtown, so … I got some bills to pay.”
White was initially reluctant to file for unemployment but is now receiving this assistance. Above all, he misses working.
"We do what we have to do to make ends meet. But it's not been easy, that's for sure."
“It's terrible. I very much miss my job. I missed the concerts. I miss the people smiling and, you know, dancing and having fun,” White said.
How to get emergency assistance this spring
Grants equal to 45 percent of a venue’s gross earned revenue are available to eligible applicants. Venues could get up to $10 million in funding.
There has been $2 billion set aside for venues that employ up to 50 full-time staff members. Funding is allocated for rent and utility payments, employee and independent contractor payments, building maintenance costs and more.
Live performing arts organization operators, venue operators or promoters and talent representatives in operation since at least Feb. 29, 2020, are among those eligible to apply for a grant.