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Live aid: Pandemic puts pause on Colorado music scene as venues await help

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COLORADO (KRDO) -- As Colorado inches towards the one-year-mark since the state first went into lockdown, several businesses have begun to regain some semblance of normality. However, music venues are still waiting and watching from the sidelines, unsure of what lies ahead.

Some venues have been forced to turn into something entirely different, others have begun making plans to continue with guidelines in place, and far too many have been forced to close their doors for good. 

On March 10, 2020, Governor Jared Polis declared a state of emergency due to the emerging COVID-19 pandemic. By March 17, all dine-in services, casinos, gyms, and theaters were shut down. 

“We had a touring band called the Unlikely Candidates here two days before and I was talking with their tour manager and they were just dropping shows left and right. They were getting emails like ‘this show’s canceled, this show’s canceled, this show’s canceled.’ Their whole tour canceled within a day,” said Kevin Zirfas, the general manager for the Black Sheep in Colorado Springs.

“Seeing that was kind of a shock, like oh, this is what we’re in for as well.”

For the Black Sheep, the COVID-19 pandemic completely changed the way 2020 played out. 

“We had some shows last March, March 2020, we had lined up. We had a show on March 13 and that was kind of like when we were asking: 'Are we going to keep going? What’s going?' Then we got the word that night that that was our last show for the year,” Zirfas said.

For the rest of 2020, the Black Sheep had to cancel all local and touring shows. Zirfas said while he couldn’t have predicted how long this was going to last, he was shocked that the pandemic lasted this long. 

I think in March we were kind of expecting maybe like a month shut down. I think at that point, even as a whole, as a country, we didn't know what we were really getting into, we didn't know if it was going to last a month or if it was going to last six months,” said Zirfas. “But I definitely didn't foresee it lasting a year."

Starting February 4, the Black Sheep will open Thursdays through Sundays as a bar with limited capacity. It's actually their second attempt at this setup -- last year, they had re-opened briefly as a bar before being shut down again in November when El Paso County went into Level Red. 

Courtesy of the Black Sheep

We have tables like high-top tables, four chairs per table, all six feet apart. We bought picnic tables for the outside when it's warm. We can have people outside drinking. We extended our liquor license out into the parking lot so people definitely can go out there and hang out.” explained Zirfas.

Courtesy of the Black Sheep

They’ve even extended seating to the stage. People have the opportunity to sit on a couch from the green room, the place where artists like Twenty One Pilots spent time before and after shows. 

The Black Sheep isn’t re-opening like any other bar though, each night is themed and different from the last.

Thursday nights will be movie nights, featuring cult classics. On Fridays, local record shop owner and writer for the Independent Bryan Ostro will play music. Saturdays are called “Springs Spotlight”, which is a night where local artists have the opportunity to come in and exclusively play their music the entire night. Sundays are referred to as “Scene Good Sunday”, a night featuring throwbacks and music from the pop-punk scene.

In addition to re-opening, the Black Sheep is hosting Go With the Flow, a live stream event where all the proceeds go towards individuals who don't have access to feminine hygiene products.

Even when the Black Sheep was forced to completely shut their doors, Zirfas says they managed to stay afloat with the help of the community. 

You know, we got lucky with how awesome the city is. And we launched a bunch of new merchandise and we do punch cards. For $75, you get five shows, regardless if it's sold out, regardless of the price of the show.” said Zirfas. “We didn't want to try to do a route where we felt like people were just giving us money. We really wanted it to be that we gave people something back. And it has really been incredible how much people have helped out.”

When asked about whether or not the Black Sheep was going to take advantage of the 5-Star variance, Zirfas said it is a possibility, and that the owner of the Black Sheep is looking into it.

Even still with the variance, the possibility of having live-shows with an audience is one that doesn’t seem likely in the near future. While other venues have begun to create special accommodations, Zirfas notes the concerts they host wouldn’t feel right if people were forced to sit away from each other and far from the stage. 

“If it takes us a little longer to get shows compared to some of these other venues, that's fine. We just don't want people to feel uncomfortable or don't want it to be inauthentic. It's kind of weird seeing a punk rock band or a metal band playing when you're sitting down at a table,” said Zirfas. "We'd rather it be where people can stand and enjoy the band and have the energy rather than sit at a table.”

Courtesy of the Black Sheep

With the Black Sheep reopening as a bar, hope that revenue picks up and the venue can remain in good shape until the pandemic is over seems to be likely. However, not all venues have been lucky. Many major venues across the country have been forced to close their doors completely.

“There's a venue in Anaheim called the Chain Reaction, and they've been doing shows for as long as I can remember. I've actually been to shows there. They posted on Instagram saying, hey, we don't think we're going to be able to keep this going, it's been eight months and we don't know what's going to happen,” said Zirfas. “Seeing them post something like that makes you think, whoa, this is for real. It's scary and it's sad to see. Some venues are just never going to come back. And that's people's dreams right there.”

Up until the past few months, music venues and other art institutions have been left out of the conversation when it came to financial aid and planning on how to operate during much of the pandemic. 

“It's weird when you see sporting events literally have no halt. They're operating at limited capacity and it works when you're going to a Broncos game and you can space everybody six feet apart and cut the capacity down. But it felt like those things were really a top priority to the health officials,” said Zirfas. “But music venues definitely felt like they were not a top priority, and that really stinks because everybody loves music. Music is important to everybody. Live music especially is so important. I don't think a lot of people realized that until they couldn't go to a show anymore.”

Out of the lack of support, movements like Save our Stages came into existence. It was created by NIVA, the National Independent Venue Association. The goal was to help music venues, big and small, that have been struggling to make ends meet due to COVID-19 restrictions. 

Major music artists in the industry, like the Foo Fighters, Lady Gaga, and the Pixies, came forward and urged lawmakers to take those businesses into consideration. 

In December 2020, the Save Our Stage Acg (SOS Act) was included in the second stimulus package.

Through that inclusion, music venues, museums, art galleries, and more were eligible to receive aid through the Shuttered Venues Operators Grant. The U.S. Small Business Administration Office of Disaster Assistance is set to administer $15 billion in grants to shuttered venues. These funds are designed to go towards expenses like payroll costs, rent, and scheduled debt payments.

In Colorado, local lawmakers passed a similar grant in December aimed at helping the arts, cultural and entertainment artists, crew members, and organizations that have been affected by the pandemic.

The Colorado Arts Relief Grant Colorado offers $7.5 million in grants to individuals and businesses in the arts and entertainment community in the state.  

These grants have yet to be distributed, and they could positively impact the Black Sheep.

Not all music venues will benefit from these grants, however. In northern Colorado, Brian Kitts, a spokesman for Red Rocks Amphitheater, explained how the historic outdoor venue has not benefited from the grants or loans going towards other places.

Photo by Stevie Crecelius; pre-pandemic show

"We are actually owned and operated by the city and county of Denver,” explained Kitts. “Some of that funding that was made available for artists, musicians, and private partners that did not include us. That's a tough thing for cities and municipalities that own their own venues.”

Kitts explained that while 2019 was a record-breaking year for Red Rocks, the venue lost $50 million in revenue during the pandemic. 

We're going to face a tough couple of years coming up and we're going to have to try and recoup some of that revenue. But we're hopeful,said Kitts. 

Despite being owned by the City of Denver, Red Rocks Amphitheater doesn’t take money from the city.

“We raise our own money and spend our own money. We don't take money from the general fund, from the mayor's budget. And so every penny that we raise, we spend,” said Kitts. "When Red Rocks all of a sudden had that funding cut off, it was just like any other private facility. And you do feel that.

Right now, they are looking into the possibility of the 5-Star variance program, which would allow them to increase capacity.

Kitts explained a similar situation to what the Black Sheep went through. The entire 2020 summer lineup disappeared practically overnight, a major blow to the amphitheater. 

Still, the amphitheater managed to take advantage of the months of inactivity. 

“I think that if there is an upside to this, the downtime allowed us to do some programming, but it also allowed us to do some upkeep. When fans come back this summer, they'll see that there's been a new stage roof installed,” said Kitts. “That's a multimillion-dollar project that we had planned in advance, but we were able to get started earlier on it.”

Photo by Don Peitzman

Red Rocks Amphitheater has also hosted numerous COVID-19 safe activities during the pandemic in an effort to maintain some inflow of revenue. 

Film on the Rocks was turned into a drive-in experience that lasted through October. In September, a virtual festival called Red Rocks Unpaused hosted artists like Nathaniel Rateliff and the Nightsweats, Megan Thee Stallion, and Phoebe Bridgers. 

There was also a small series by the Colorado Symphony, 175 were allowed in the audience. Typical summer experiences like Yoga on the Rocks still happened but at a limited capacity. 

“You do what you can in order to make people feel like there's still access to Red Rocks and make them feel like they're still getting some sort of that Red Rocks experience, even if it's just with several dozen people as opposed to ten thousand people,” said Kitts. 

Even though there is still a lot of uncertainty surrounding the summer, Kitts said they’re hopeful. 

“We're hoping that the summer of 2021 looks a hell of a lot better than 2020 did. We're going to have, I think, a lot of shows. They're just not going to look the same as they might have in the past,” said Kitts. 

Going into summer, Red Rocks Amphitheater is planning on hosting live music, but with COVID-19 safety guidelines implemented. Kitts explained there will be specific entrances and exits, reduced capacity, specific restrooms, touchless payments, and any other restrictions health officials might require. Things like touchless payments and concessions could become permanent fixtures at Red Rocks going forward as well, according to Kitts.

“The good news is music will be back. I think that is good news. I don't know that there is bad news when you get to do that. It's just going to be different,” said Kitts. 

This year is also special for Red Rocks, not just for concerts coming back, but because the amphitheater is celebrating 80 years of music. 

“This is Red Rocks 80th anniversary. It's not going to look exactly like it did. But we're actually going to have more shows than what we had in 1941 when it first opened,” said Kitts. “It's fun to celebrate any anniversary and 80 years makes Red Rocks a kind of leader in longevity for a venue like this.”

In honor of the 80th anniversary, Red Rocks Amphitheater is putting on a series that looks back on the history of the venue. 

Eighty years means that you have almost the entirety of American pop culture that has been performing music at Red Rocks, whether it is Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole up to the Beatles and the Supremes into jam bands and the Grateful Dead,” said Kitts. “There is so much history there and thousands and thousands of artists and then millions of fans each have their own perspective. We're going to try and look back on what those 80 years have meant to the venue as well as Colorado.”

While the venue is celebrating 80 years, the actual rock formation itself is millions of years old.

Photo by Sam Hille

“The good thing with a venue like Red Rocks is that it is a fairly permanent facility. Realistically, it's been there for millions of years, even if it's not in the state that it's in now. And if it had to take a couple of years off, it still would have been there on the other side of this.” said Kitts.

On March 16, 2020, it might’ve felt like the day music died. However, thanks to the help of music lovers everywhere, several venues found ways to carry on.

The hope is now for people and lawmakers to continue understanding the importance of live music.

Photo by Vanessa McWhirt

“We miss music, we miss sports, we miss the chance to gather collectively and talk about or share those experiences, whether it's music or sports. And we'll never take that for granted again.”

For more information on the Black Sheep and the upcoming events at the venue, click here.

For more information on Red Rocks Amphitheater and the 80th Anniversary celebration, click here.

Business / Coronavirus / CovidRecovery / Entertainment / Lifestyle / Local News / State & Regional News
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Shelby Filangi

Shelby is a digital content producer for KRDO.com. You can learn more about Shelby here.

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