By Dalila Bevab

After St. Patrick’s Day weekend, Kentucky shut down restaurants, bars and department stores, all of which gradually reopened, to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Many live-music venues remained shuttered until mid-summer. Zanzabar and the Mellwood Tavern reopened, while the KFC Yum! Center’s doors remain closed.  

Green lights outside Zanzabar symbolically honor COVID-19 victims in Kentucky.

Zanzabar, located at 2100 S. Preston St., had its first ticketed event since March on Halloween weekend.

Jessica Sayles oversees promotion and artist relations for the venue. She said the venue normally accommodates 350 people, but the table set-up to adhere to social distancing rules allowed for only 60 attendees for the burlesque show.

Sayles said the energy from the crowd was better than she thought it was going to be, considering attendees didn’t have the ability to dance. She said she was worried it was going to be awkward, but she said she thinks people enjoyed the event because they were eager to be out doing things.

Zanzabar introduced itself to the concept of seated events when it reopened because shows were typically standing room only. Single tickets weren’t offered, she said, and the problem with that was people not knowing whom they were going to bring to the show with them.

Masks were also required, and although some attendees had their masks off at times, Sayles said she doesn’t think people purposely disobeyed the mask mandate. “People are just social beings and they’re not used to not being all over each other so you’ll have people that want to congregate around tables and people don’t understand they’re not allowed to stand in groups and mingle unless, of course, they’re outside,” she said.

Zanzabar was known for its lively Saturday shows from midnight to 4 a.m., mainly attracting college students.

Sayles said Zanzabar normally booked any act who wanted to perform, but the venue wants to work with artists they’ve worked with before because they trust the people will come in and obey the guidelines. “It’s tricky waters to be in,” she said.

On Nov. 18, Gov. Andy Beshear announced new COVID-19 restrictions, including no indoor service at restaurants and bars. Sayles said Zanzabar will continue to operate as a restaurant with no shows.

Sayles said Zanzabar is wanting to reintroduce the concept of eating dinner and a watching show to make socially distanced seated shows more enjoyable for attendees.

Bellarmine alumnus Will Husband owns an independent booking and concert promotion agency that partners with the Mellwood Tavern, located at 1801 Brownsboro Road.

The Mellwood Tavern hosts a program called “The Early Service Concert Series,” which is a jam band music festival stretched over the course of 35 weeks with free outdoor shows every Sunday afternoon. The series features regional and national touring bands, mostly of the jam and bluegrass genres.

The Mellwood Tavern kicked off its 2020 season as normal during the first week of March and had two successful shows. The venue closed a few weeks later per state guidelines.

The Early Service Concert Series shows were held outdoors to accommodate several hundred attendees, but the Mellwood Tavern ended live shows indefinitely.

Kentucky lifted restrictions mid-June, and the Tavern reworked its business model to re-open in mid-September. The venue stopped live music on Oct. 25 when local COVID-19 cases increased again, but the bar and restaurant remain open. Husband said, “We ended up having to cancel our last show and sequentially go ahead and pull the plug on music for the foreseeable future.”

The Tavern’s business model centered around free shows and aimed to cram as many people as possible into the space at once, but COVID turned that model upside down. Husband said the venue had to adhere to state guidelines such as reducing the capacity to 60 to allow for social distancing, doing temperature checks at the door, mandating masks and switching to a fully ticketed show model.

Husband also said everyone who purchased a ticket had to agree to the venue’s terms and acknowledge the liability of attending a live event if they were in a high-risk category.

Pre-COVID, Husband said the venue was always over fire capacity and was standing room only, but to enforce social distancing, the venue had to buy tables and chairs and set them out throughout the courtyard and request people stay at their table.

Husband said cutting the capacity by at least 70% took the spirit out of concerts. “It’s definitely a lot like going to a sporting event. Even if you’re not engaged, when you feel that energy from the crowd, it’s powerful and it’s a real thing,” he said.

He said it was disheartening to see the venue barely break even with the new model, and he said he thinks many of the attendees didn’t feel the same type of excitement and energy as in previous years.

The Tavern is a member of Save Our Stages, which is a national group lobbying for additional funding for concert venues. Husband said some local venues like Headliners Music Hall were comfortable with the guidelines the Tavern set, but COVID-19 cases started to rise again. The Tavern and other venues went on an indefinite hiatus.

“There’s more social responsibility in not holding shows than there’s money to be made, so it’s kind of that risk-reward tradeoff at this point,” he said.

Christian pop duo For King and Country performed a successful drive-in concert at the Kentucky Expo Center. Photo credits to For King and Country.

Ian Cox, assistant director of communications for Kentucky Venues, said the Kentucky Expo Center hosted a successful drive-in concert in September. Cox said ticket sales were high because he thinks people were excited to get out and enjoy live music.

Upon entry, attendees were given a paper that explained the ground rules for being on the property and people followed the guidelines, Cox said.  Each vehicle had an empty parking space next to it that was a designated space to set up chairs, he said.

“The live drive-in events are really good,” Cox said. “I think at this point a lot of people were just thankful to have an event they could go to, especially a concert, to be able to go with their families and then being able to buy one ticket for everybody in the car. It was a good deal for them.”

Christian hip-hop artist TobyMac will perform at Freedom Hall in February and Cox said the venue is actively selling tickets.

Pappas said he thinks the demand for tickets will be slower once the Yum! Center is operating again because the public might be afraid to attend live events until a vaccine is distributed.

Taki Pappas, director of booking at Lynn Family Stadium and the KFC Yum! Center, said the KFC Yum! Center hasn’t hosted any concerts since March.

“With concerts, it’s not just about wanting them. You have to have the band ready to go out and play and… that’s one big issue,” he said. “The bands, on their end, aren’t ready to go out.”

But Pappas said the venue is rescheduling shows for 2021. Singer Michael Bublé will perform at the KFC Yum! Center in March and the venue is actively booking family events like Monster Jam for the beginning of the year, he said.  

He said the KFC Yum! Center will be at 15% capacity, which is about 3,000 people. The venue will sanitize everything, ensure social distancing in lines and seats, conduct temperature checks and require masks.

He said staff in the aisles will ensure masks are being worn. Attendees without masks on will have one warning and then they’ll be asked to leave, he said.

“It’s been pretty much a drain for the last six months,” Pappas said. To make up for lost revenue, he said venue management is generating new ideas for smaller events they can host safely.

Pappas said once the KFC Yum! Center is operating, it will help businesses in downtown Louisville because when the venue hosts events, the bars, restaurants and hotels get busy.

He said: “Even if you have 3,000 people at a basketball game, those 3,000 people, a lot of them will go to a bar or restaurant before or after the game. We’re not just a little silo. Everything in downtown is connected.”

The box office is open Mondays and Fridays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. for the public to purchase tickets for 2021 events, but social distancing guidelines are in place.

Billy Hardison, CEO of local booking agency Production Simple and co-owner of Headliners Music Hall, said Headliners has been closed since March because social distancing reduced the venue’s capacity from 700 to 100.

Hardison said ticket refunds took a financial toll on the venue. But he said he is working with the city to build a Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF) program, of which Headliners was awarded almost $100,000, for small businesses.

Hardison said he and the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) are trying to pass the Save Our Stages (SOS) Act, a bill issuing grants to independent live venues, in Congress. He said he’s hopeful for the future if the bill passes.

Fans feel the devastating effects of no concerts, too. Freshman Emily Richardson said her life revolved around live music and she struggled mentally with the loss of concerts. She had planned to see Taylor Swift, Halsey and Hayley Williams and attend various music festivals.

Richardson bought “tickets” to several virtual shows but she said she wasn’t fond of paying money because they weren’t “real shows.”

“I’m kind of torn on the whole paying for livestreams thing,” she said. “I feel like artists shouldn’t be charging us for livestreams, but at the same time I understand that they still have to make money, so it’s justified I guess.”

She said she started planning for concerts in summer 2021 but “if people don’t start taking this seriously, I don’t think we will get shows back for a long time, which is so upsetting.”

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