August 16, 2022

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Concert halls hope for return of live shows later in 2021

Last year at this time, the biggest perceived threat to many Western Massachusetts entertainment venues was competition from MGM Springfield. This year, that idea seems rather quaint.

Now, the threat from the coronavirus pandemic is much more serious, but local entertainment bookers still sounded a hopeful note when talking about their outlook for 2021.

MGM Springfield has not brought a steady parade of Las Vegas-level stars to the city despite assuming management of the MassMutual Center and Symphony Hall.

The casino brought Stevie Wonder to the MassMutual Center for its grand opening bash in 2018, and marked its first anniversary with a string of Aerosmith performances. In the 11 months in between, the center welcomed Cher and Christian rockers Casting Crowns.

The track record at Symphony Hall has also been uneven. While DSP Shows rented the hall for a sold-out Bob Dylan show in 2018, MGM Springfield has succeeded in bringing in a handful of noteworthy acts since then, including Motown legend Smokey Robinson, Boyz II Men and funnymen Steve Martin and Martin Short.

John Sanders

DSP Shows partner and talent buyer John Sanders.

DSP Shows partner and talent buyer John Sanders said 2020 was devastating, with the company’s business down 96% from the previous year. The company, which books shows up and down the Pioneer Valley, as well as all across the country, is already looking forward to a time later this year when it can bring live shows back.

Northampton’s Academy of Music will be ready to go when the time comes, and they are working on their usual concert series at the Pines Theater at Look Park, Sanders said.

With Holyoke’s Gateway City Arts now closed — at least until a new owner steps forward — Sanders and company are working on finding new venues for some of those shows that were scheduled there. He mentioned the Shea Theater Arts Center in Montague as one possibility.

Springfield’s Bing Arts Center is also looking for a new owner. The nonprofit that operates the venue listed it for sale at the end of January for $175,000.

The Iron Horse Entertainment Group, which runs three Northampton venues that feature national talent, shuttered the Iron Horse Music Hall, Pearl Street Night Club and the Calvin Theatre in March when the COVID-19 lockdown began. Like most people, the staff wasn’t sure how long the suspension of live shows would last back then.

“If we had known it might be as long as a year or more, our eyes would have gone wide,” said IHEG marketing director Jim Neill. “Would knowing have made a difference in our plans? I doubt it. Really we’ve never known how long we’ll be dark, and we still don’t.”

Neill said the company is tentatively looking down the road for when it can return.

“The wide window we are working with is this September 2021 to early 2022 depending on how efficiently the vaccine rollout goes,” he said. “Basically, we mothballed the venues, and we will reopen when the world is back on its axis. I suspect it will be with safeguards in place for a while, and we hope that maybe someday there will be the live musical communions we all miss so much.”

Jim Oslen - Signature Sounds

4/28/2020 – Northampton – Jim Olsen, president of Signature Sounds and The Parlor Room, a live performance venue in downtown Northampton. (Hoang ‘Leon’ Nguyen / The Republican)

Likewise, Jim Olsen of Signature Sounds, who also runs the Green River Festival in Greenfield and the Parlor Room in Northampton, said he is “hopeful for live music in 2021.”

“The big blow for us was losing the Green River Festival,” Olsen said. “Our team immediately turned to figure out how to do livestream concerts, producing the first one just a week after our club the Parlor Room was forced to shut down.”

Since they started, they have produced more than 70 livestream shows, the income of which gets shared with artists. The company has paid out more than $130,000 to date.

Similar to what Neill said, Olsen envisioned indoor shows to possibly start in the autumn, with socially distanced outdoor shows beginning in the summer.

“The new administration has prioritized vaccine distribution, and I think things will look very different by this summer,” he said.

Danny Eaton

Producing Director Danny Eaton addresses the audience at a “Home for the Holidays” show at Majestic Theater in West Springfield on in 2019. (The Republican file photo)

Reflecting on a tough 2020, Danny Eaton, director of the Majestic Theatre in West Springfield, said that furloughing staff, including himself, along with federal loans allowed the theater to stay somewhat operational.

“We also had some online programming: I taught a playwriting workshop, we streamed some of our children’s theater productions, and via Zoom did a reading of a new play,” he said

Eaton also hosted a weekly interview show talking with a couple dozen Majestic performers.

“We did get approached to ‘produce’ some events, again via Zoom, but I have refused to do any of this since it flies in the face of what live theater truly is — performing before an audience, which is our cultural uniqueness.”

Eaton is targeting a June 5 opening for the theater, but is keeping his fingers crossed.

“This, of course, is contingent on vaccinations, etc., but I’m a glass-half-full guy, so I do anticipate that June reopening,” he said.

In the end, Sanders held out hope from what he heard at a recent Association of Performing Arts Professionals virtual conference, where Dr. Anthony Fauci said that if the vaccine rollout is successful, promoters should be able to do some indoor shows by the start of the fall.

“This summer I expect to see a lot of socially distanced shows outdoors with smaller audiences than the venues can typically hold. We have been working on a few scenarios to make this work in the region as well,” Sanders said.

Sanders said he is hopeful that, by September, patrons will be back seeing live music indoors. In the beginning, he noted, DSP will probably have temperature checks and wellness questionnaires at the door, with patrons and staff all wearing masks.

“Overall we are excited to get back to work, and from our conversations with artists, venues and patrons, we feel that when it’s safe to do so, folks will be very excited to return to these venues to see live music again. The pent-up demand should make for a lot of great shows in the near future,” Sanders said. “Just thinking about seeing an artist hit the stage to a roaring crowd gives me the chills! I can’t wait.”

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