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Concerts return to Tampa Bay as struggling venues await government relief

Venues closing in other states under coronavirus shutdowns could affect the future of Tampa Bay live music.
Ybor City's famed chickens strut down a nearly empty Seventh Avenue sidewalk outside the Ritz Ybor in Tampa on May 5, 2020. The Ritz hasn't hosted a concert since March. As the coronavirus pandemic stretches into summer, it's unclear when the venue will be open for business again.
Ybor City's famed chickens strut down a nearly empty Seventh Avenue sidewalk outside the Ritz Ybor in Tampa on May 5, 2020. The Ritz hasn't hosted a concert since March. As the coronavirus pandemic stretches into summer, it's unclear when the venue will be open for business again. [ JAY CRIDLIN | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Dec. 17, 2020

Concerts are back in Tampa Bay. Or, maybe a better way to put it: concerts once again exist in Tampa Bay.

When 38 Special advised the half-capacity crowd at Ruth Eckerd Hall to “hold on loosely” last week, it was arguably the highest-profile show in the region since March.

National acts have returned to Jannus Live and country stars to Dallas Bull. You can catch a touring singer-songwriter at the Attic in Ybor or bang your head to a multi-band lineup at Brass Mug.

But these are the exceptions. Industry insiders say you’ll be waiting a long time before the local calendar is as lush as it was at the start of 2020.

We had the Rolling Stones, Elton John, Justin Bieber and Ozzy on the calendar. Alanis Morisette was back. Brittany Howard was coming to St. Pete. Halsey and the Black Keys at the fairgrounds. Brent Faiyaz at the Ritz. Crowbar had bands your cool friend knows about but haven’t yet graduated to those larger rooms.

The coronavirus wiped the slate clean. Dates remain mostly blank, but promoters and agents say there’s a flurry of planning, negotiating and hand-wringing happening behind the scenes.

“The new starting line we’re looking at right now is May, but no one really knows for sure,” said booking agent Garry Buck of Paradigm. His client Geoff Tate of Queensryche played at Ruth Eckerd Hall recently and did one other show in New Hampshire, out of 20 that were planned.

“It’s kind of like swiss cheese,” Buck said of trying to plot out a tour right now or in the coming months. Venues are limited due to different regulations and changing situations in each state and municipality.

Florida is open for business and concerts, but there aren’t enough states open to justify many artists hitting the road.

Only a week ago, Buck moved the date of a Tate show in north Florida to next year because the venue did not feel ready to meet their safety requirements. “I appreciated them telling me that. We don’t want anyone to die to see a great rock show. There’s no excuse for that — ever.”

For bands that play small and mid-size clubs like Crowbar and the Orpheum, the type that travel in a bus, or a van with a trailer behind it, touring is extremely expensive. They’re waiting. They can’t afford to travel long distances without playing between gigs.

Tours that might go to the Orpheum in Tampa are hard to coordinate with other states closed.
Tours that might go to the Orpheum in Tampa are hard to coordinate with other states closed. [ DIVYA KUMAR | Times ]

There are also concerns of bad publicity if fans think artists are heading back too soon.

“I’m advising my artists to hold off for now if they can, stay home and hone their craft,” said Jesse Rosoff, of Mint Talent Group, an agency formed this year by veteran agents after staff reductions at the country’s largest agencies. “And that’s coming from me, as an agent. Having them play is my livelihood.”

A silver lining of the pandemic, some think, is that it could bring a renaissance of fresh albums from artists who would have been too busy touring to record.

The few concerts that have returned in Tampa Bay so far are the work of independent and local promoters. Industry giants like Live Nation and AEG Live won’t chance it. That means major stars at the MidFlorida Amphitheater, Raymond James Stadium, Yuengling Center and Amalie Arena will likely be last to return.

“My understanding is (Live Nation and AEG) are trying to work out liability risk,” said Rob Douglas, a longtime promoter in Tampa Bay, who now primarily books Jannus Live.

Douglas said the shows happening now are unlike before, and that even when the industry really gets going again, concerts may look different.

“When a vaccine is widespread, you’ll start to see people take their shows on the road again, but right now, and coming back, you’ll be seeing some stripped-down versions of what you used to see,” he said. “So it’s one truck instead of two, less musicians, less crew, less people to pay.”

In this time of lower capacities and lighter ticket sales, he said, artists also have to “be more realistic” about playing for lower fees. It’s another reason you might not see your favorite band until we’re back to normal.

“There are a few smaller names interested in doing some dates as early as April, but they’re not the stereotypical headliners that would typically sell out,” said Tampa Bay promoter Joe D’Acunto, with Brokenmold Entertainment. “These are baby bands hungry to spread their music.”

Much is up in the air. Agents and promoters say fans should not count on anything until the third quarter of 2021, even if it’s on the calendar now.

The Tampa Bay Blues Festival in St. Petersburg’s Vinoy Park is still planned for April, one of the only festivals in the U.S. happening in the spring. The multi-day Gasparilla Music Festival in Tampa will not happen as usual in March but will be rescheduled later in 2021. Big City Events, promoters of Tampa Bay Margarita and Music Festival and Summer of Rum, are not booking anything until late 2021.

“When the vaccine rolls out, and if there’s acceptance of the vaccine, is going to play a big role,” Rosoff said.

At Crowbar, an Ybor City rock club, owner Tom DeGeorge said touring acts won’t be playing again for a while. He is booking Tampa Bay-based solo acts and duos for intimate, seated shows with low capacity and strict mask rules.

Tom DeGeorge, the owner of Crowbar in Ybor City, poses for a portrait in May.
Tom DeGeorge, the owner of Crowbar in Ybor City, poses for a portrait in May. [ ALESSANDRA DA PRA | Tampa Bay Times ]

He loses money opening for those shows — the slim margins for the concert industry are built on filling rooms to capacity — but it’s a way to give people the relief of live music, help local artists and get his staff working.

DeGeorge said while almost no bands that could fill his venue are interested in playing currently, he has heard from a handful of willing touring acts. No rules would stop him from trying to fill Crowbar to capacity if he wanted to.

“I could say I don’t care about people’s health, I could say I want to make money,” DeGeorge said. “But if I did that, my morals would be destroyed, number one, and number two, my industry would remain in shambles, because the longer we go without getting this virus under control, the more it hurts all of our venues.”

What have the first Tampa Bay concerts to return been like?

Dallas Bull went full bore, hosting country singer Tyler Farr Nov. 6 and drawing a packed crowd — and some criticism — to the 2,000-capacity, indoor venue. Country rap group Moonshine Bandits plays there Jan. 8.

The vibe at Jannus Live, which has the benefit of being outdoors, has depended a lot on what the performers were okay with during the pandemic, Douglas said.

The venue cut its max capacity in half, to 1,000 people, but some shows, like Shinedown members Smith & Myers last week, are “cabaret-style,” with only a few hundred fans at reserved tables.

“Some of (the bands) are very specific,” Douglas said. “And then some of them aren’t worried about it at all.”

Tropidelic, a six-piece, reggae-hip-hop-funk band from Ohio, played Jannus Live Dec. 5. Photos online showed a large, mostly maskless crowd jammed against the stage and each other. Jannus Live was not the promoter but rented out the venue.

Douglas said Jannus Live checked temperatures, handed masks to everyone who entered and posted signs everywhere encouraging social distance. What the cropped photos did not show, he said, was the huge amount of empty space in the courtyard.

“If you saw the whole picture, that every person there had 30 square feet of space, you’d say, well, these people are making a personal decision,” Douglas said. “You’ve been given every opportunity to be safe and chose not to.

“And a lot of the power is in the artist’s hands to say, ‘Hey, if you want this show to continue, you need to spread out a little.’ "

Jannus has JJ Grey & Mofro on New Year’s Eve. That was possible, in part, because they live in Florida.

Those who are ready to go out for live music do have far more opportunities to see local musicians. New World Brewery in Tampa frequently has local artists playing outside, as does Ale & the Witch in St. Petersburg. Ringside Cafe in downtown St. Petersburg has local bands playing again indoors.

D’Acunto said the one positive aspect of no tours has been the opportunity to grow hometown bands. Kat Lynes, a promoter in the DIY scene, agreed.

“There have been so many times I’ve been asked to get an opener for a traveling band, and whoever works at the venue has never heard of them,” Lynes said. “So this has been a moment for them to stop and say, let me check out what’s local.”

Venues: Lack of relief could alter Tampa’s concert scene forever

DeGeorge, the Crowbar owner, has spent much of 2020 focused on his role lobbying with the National Independent Venue Association.

He now typically spends 12 to 15 hours a day with his computer, organizing, posting and strategizing over Zoom with other venue owners, emailing and phone conferencing with politicians.

Some days, “I myself have gotten on the phone with Florida members’ landlords and tried to keep people from getting kicked out of their freaking buildings.”

The association of 3,000 businesses banded together this year to ask Congress to pass the Save Our Stages Act. It would provide billions in relief, and has broad bipartisan support, but has remained stalled within broader relief packages.

A spokesperson for the venue association said at least 200 venues in the U.S. shuttered in 2020. Threadgill’s, the Austin, Texas, venue where Janis Joplin got her start, is gone, as are beloved venues like Boston’s Great Scott, Asheville, N.C.’s Mothlight and Washington, D.C.’s U Street Music Hall. Skipper’s Smokehouse in Tampa closed after four decades and thousands of shows.

DeGeorge said if the national trend continues, it could have a domino effect.

The nation’s concert venues are a network, so there’s an economic calculus to plotting out tour cities. Bands traveling long distances in a van or a bus must play often.

Florida has always been a tough sell, promoter Joe D’Acunto said. It’s big and leads nowhere. Once a band starts down the peninsula, they can’t get anywhere else without a big U-turn. To afford Florida, there must be the right venues from Jacksonville to Tampa to Miami.

And if the only 200-person club in Charleston, S.C., or the only 450-seat theater in Augusta, Ga., closes, the dots may no longer connect to Florida. Great tours may skip the state altogether.

“Maybe instead they go out west, where they can hit a different market every 90 miles or so,” D’Acunto said.

These days, it’s touring, not album sales or streaming, that sustains up-and-coming artists.

“Without small venues, only bigger bands can afford to tour,” said Tony Rifugiato of No Clubs, who has been promoting shows locally since the mid ’80s. “Every band starts at a Crowbar, and jumps to a State Theater, and jumps to Jannus or the Ritz. That’s a stepping stone that works for a lot of bands.”