Greater Cincinnati Music Venues Plan to Reopen Despite Uncertain Future

Woodward TheaterPhoto: Hailey BollingerThe economic impact of COVID-19 on local businesses is one that has been felt uniquely by local music venues. While many establishments have been able to remain open in limited forms the past three months, either through curbside services or delivery, the congregational nature of live music has forced many independent spaces to remain closed.

Though Cincinnati’s economy has gradually begun to reopen in recent weeks, local owners say the future of their venues is somewhat uncertain.

“Everything is hanging by a thread nowadays,” says Dan McCabe, co-owner of both the Woodward Theater and MOTR Pub. “And it’s all contingent on whether that thread can keep us in the air.”

Though live music is slated to return to The Woodward in early July, MOTR — a bar with less dedicated space for crowds and more frequent shows — has yet to announce a reopening date (at press time). 

According to McCabe, he and his business partner Chris Schadler are currently devising a plan to resume operations while keeping patrons and performers safe. 

“We need to continue to educate ourselves,” McCabe says. “The landscape of live music changes daily. We participate regularly in webinars and Zoom meetings. We’re a member of the Greater Cincinnati Assembly Alliance. The National Independent Venues Association has offered, among other things, solace, but also a forum for everybody to get together and exchange best practices and ideas. Our position now is to keep our ears to the ground and study what operations in this new environment look like.”

Arnold’s Bar & Grill, which reopened its dining room on May 21, managed to host live music the past few months by hiring street performers to play their weekly drive-by fish frys — a curbside service held on Fridays. 

The restaurant brought its live acts indoors on the same day that patrons were allowed to dine in, however. 

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s Responsible RestartOhio Plan and the Ohio Department of Health’s Dine Safe Ohio Order required that the “open congregate areas in restaurants, bars, and banquet and catering facilities that are not necessary for the preparation and service of food or beverages remain closed,” which allowed Arnold’s to open their stage while preventing visitors from gathering around the stage. (Though that order just changed on June 5 to once again allow for “open congregate areas” to reopen, and for live entertainment to resume — with social distancing still in place.)

Because performers are required to remain six feet apart from audience members and fellow band members, owner Chris Breeden is only booking solo acts for the immediate future. 

“I figured, why mess with it,” says Breeden. “Can’t mess up the spacing if it’s only solos.”

Across the river, Newport’s Southgate House Revival also plans to open its doors in early July, though owner Morella Raleigh says that it’s uncertain exactly what that reopening will look like. 

Because the venue does not serve food, it isn’t considered a restaurant by the state of Kentucky. At press time, Gov. Andy Beshear had yet to release official guidelines for music venues, but Raleigh expects that it will require the Southgate House to operate at a third of its maximum capacity.

“When I reopen, my staff and I will all be wearing masks,” she says. “Is that going to be long-term or not? I don’t know. We’ve got to play this out and see. A lot of it relies on the numbers that we see from the virus. We have to negotiate what we can have fun with and do our thing with while still being safe.”

Raleigh also believes that it’s important for venues like hers to be a resource for smaller artists and bands to gain recognition. She cites bands like The Black Keys, Band of Horses and the White Stripes as currently established acts who played early shows at the Southgate House.

“None of those artists, when they first started out, had that corporate machine behind them that gets the word out. So, we kind of help get the word out. There’s a circuit of musicians that rely on independent venues in this part of the country,” she says. 

McCabe agrees, stressing the value of independent venues as an alternative to spaces run by larger promoters like Live Nation. 

“It’s a platform for artists to develop,” he says. “To help them learn their craft, give them an opportunity to build an audience and test their material. That’s a vital thing that happens in cities all across the nation. It would be a hardship to lose that.” 

Before venues reopen, there are many things that fans can do to help them pay their bills. 

Southgate House is currently offering gift cards alongside tickets on their online store, while an array of merchandise is available on MOTR’s website. On May 23, Northside’s The Comet offered T-shirts “for the first time in 25 years,” according to their Facebook page, live-printing designs onto patrons’ shirts or tote bags.

CincyMusic has also held livestreamed events to benefit local venues. Their virtual “Live with Inhailer Radio” series, for example, helped raise over $10,000 for the staff of MOTR and The Woodward. 

“Many of the MOTR staff have been with us for 10 years,” McCabe says. “They’re what’s integral in building what we have here on Main Street, so it makes sense to me that they’ve been supported as graciously as they were.”

To appeal for federal aid, more than 2,000 owners have banded together to form the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA), launching the #SaveOurSpaces campaign to spread awareness of their cultural value and economic impact on the U.S. economy.

In May, NIVA board president Dayna Frank told Rolling Stone that 90 percent of the organization’s members “do not have cash on hand to last more than six months without federal intervention;” 55 percent said they didn’t have enough to last more than three months.

Southgate House’s Raleigh says that it’s in the music scene’s nature to band together during difficult times.

“Anytime there’s something that affects the community, the music folks really come together,” she says. “We’re all kind of feeling our way through this because nobody’s been through this before. 

“I think at this point, the one thing that’s keeping us all going is the fact that we can reach out to one another and say, ‘Hey, I miss you. I miss hearing your guitar and hearing you play your song.’” 

For more information on MOTR Pub, visit motrpub.com. For more information on the Woodward Theater, visit woodwardtheater.com. For more information on the Southgate House Revival, visit southgatehouse.com. For more information on Arnold’s Bar & Grill, visit arnoldsbarandgrill.com. For more information on the National Independent Venue Association, visit nivassoc.org

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