Staying Live: 2021 brings hope of concerts to come

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Claire Redinger
DIGITAL EDITOR

With venues closed and stages sitting empty, independent singer/songwriters like Nebraska-native and Nashville-based Tommy O’Keeffe didn’t play live for over a year. O’Keeffe says his first night back on stage in March was one to remember. Photo courtesy of Bushwackers.

Don’t quit your daydream, or your day job – and then, maybe, you’ll make it.

When COVID-19 began its global headline tour last March, the live music scene came to a standstill. Indie artists, venue owners and crews across the country took a beat indefinitely.

By 2021, the U.S. live music industry’s revenue would be $11.99 billion, Statista forecasted based on data collected from 2012-2015.

But, instead, the 2020 live music industry saw an estimated $30 billion in losses worldwide, according to Pollstar.

Stadiums and venues across the country closed their doors, leaving behind quiet stages and empty seats.

When your profession is performing, how do you recover from such a loss?

For Tommy O’Keeffe, a Nebraska native who moved to Nashville in 2018 to pursue music, the solution was straightforward: He worked. He saved. He recorded.

“People left Nashville. People did not make it. So, for me, I put a big emphasis on working so I could record,” he said. “It was more important to record music than to write music. I still wrote, but I betcha I wrote about 75% less in 2020 than I did in 2019, because I had to work a lot more.”

O’Keeffe, 25, spent the pandemic working at both FedEx and Postmates. Music City was quiet, he said, and “you could park wherever you wanted” on the once crowded streets. When he wasn’t working, he recorded videos for YouTube and Instagram and wrote with other songwriters on Zoom. O’Keeffe said it was important to him to always keep a “day job” in Nashville, even as he pursued music.

“Being comfortable and stable is extremely important, because it’s all about longevity in music. If you have structure and if you have stability, you’re going to have the mental focus and drive to continue to overcome challenges,” he said. “If I was being the ‘starving musician,’ before COVID-19 hit, I would be done. I would be out. I would’ve had to go home.”

One year later, O’Keeffe is working nights as a server and working on music during the day. In March, he once again played for a live audience: two nights at Bushwackers Saloon, back home in Nebraska.

“That first night, we had to shake the rust off a bit, but everyone was just ready to hear music,” he said.

Small independent venues, like Bushwackers, are where up-and-coming artists play to “earn their chops.” When O’Keeffe was a college student at the University of Nebraska Lincoln, he said he spent numerous nights playing in front of his college buddies and his older sister, Emily, at any place that would let him.

Brandon Miller is the owner of Falconwood Park, a concert, drive-in theater and wedding venue in Omaha. Prior to becoming a venue owner in 2015, Miller toured as the bassist in the Kris Lager Band for years and said he got his start in small, independent venues, like O’Keeffe.

“There’s thousands and thousands of smaller, up-and-coming bands that need places to hone their craft, perfect their sound and get that experience under their belt. Years later, you’ve built up a following and a crowd,” Miller said. “The band gets supported, and their families, and the touring agents and managers and productions and sound guys and bartenders and venue owners, and then we pay for taxes and insurance – it’s a wide network of support that goes out into the community around live music.”

This wide network, which employs thousands of people across the country, suffered significant losses during the lockdown – and the National Independent Venue Association responded. Save Our Stages, a petition for legislation to provide emergency COVID-19 relief to performance venues, became a national movement. Music fans were encouraged to sign the petition and speak with their local congressmen, while established musicians, like Miley Cyrus and The Lumineers, collected donations and performed in a live YouTube festival. The Save Our Stages Act was passed on Dec. 22, 2020, authorizing the Small Business Administration to give $10 billion in emergency relief grants to “eligible live venue operators, producers, promoters, or talent representatives,” according to congress.gov.

This emergency funding was the lifesaver many venues needed – but not every venue qualified. Miller said to receive funding, venues had to report a significant percentage of income loss between 2019 and 2020.

“I was kind of extra hosed because in 2019, I had a flood,” he said.

When the coronavirus pandemic struck, Miller canceled events and closed his doors, for the second time in 12 months. The flooding in April of 2019 caused him to rebuild much of his venue. Miller said he and his dad ripped out chairs, tables and siding, taking the main building “down to the rafters” to let it dry out and clean up all the mud.

“My dad said ‘I don’t know if we’re ever going to be able to reopen,’ but I said ‘no, we’re going to reopen,” Miller said. “We’re not letting this go.”

Owner of Falconwood Park, Brandon Miller, says a friend came to him with the idea to host a drive-in concert. The event, and the large outdoor space available at the venue, got the attention of booking agents across the nation. Now, Falconwood Park will host Mt. Joy on May 4. Photo courtesy of Falconwood Park and Christopher Tierney.

Two months and two days after the flood, Falconwood Park reopened. And, despite both setbacks, Miller remained determined to keep his business afloat – floods and viruses be damned. His solution, which came from a friend, was out of the box, but it put him “on the map” : drive-in concerts.

On May 15, 2020, Falconwood Park hosted one of the first live, in-person concerts in the nation since the pandemic’s start. The venue offered no concessions, and people couldn’t leave their cars, but there was live music. This concert, coupled with Falconwood’s large, outdoor space, caught the eyes and ears of booking agents across the country.

On May 4, Falconwood Park will host national touring band Mt. Joy, putting this venue at the forefront of live music once again.

Miller’s quick and creative thinking set him up for a full summer lineup of socially distanced shows. He said concertgoers can buy groups of four or eight tickets and remain in “people pods” throughout the shows, safely creating distance between members of different parties.

“We’re back to full open. It’s all ready to rock again since the flood,” Miller said.

Miller and O’Keeffe are heading into the summer optimistically, with hopes that the worst is behind them. O’Keeffe plans to release three new songs in May and perform live again in Nebraska in June.

Miller said the drive-in theater will reopen in May, and he has a full list of concerts and festivals booked for the summer, including The Floozies, Leftover Salmon and The Infamous Stringdusters. Hippie Fest will take place at Falconwood Park in August.

Other venues in Omaha are starting to open again as well. Slowdown announced on April 2 tickets for local live shows were available for purchase. Performers and performance venues seem to be pulling through.

“The desire to go to a live show is going to be so great,” O’Keeffe said. “I was talking to someone who said, ‘the whole world is gonna’ be on spring break for the next two years.’”

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