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Lawrence music: we’ll persevere

Cami Koons | @koons_cami

Lawrence hasn’t had a concert in over four months, yet venue owners and local musicians are confident the vibrant music scene will persevere. 

The Lawrence music venues have canceled, postponed, and rescheduled shows over and over since closing in mid March amid COVID-19 social distancing orders. Local musicians have turned to recording in their garages, canceling tours, and vending merchandise online as they learn to live without the income from playing live shows. 

Rick McNeely said when he closed the doors to his club,  the Jazzhaus, on March 15, he told people he wouldn’t reopen until May 15. He said people rolled their eyes at the time and said, “we’ll be open before May 15.” Then he pushed it back to July 6, and that didn’t happen. Now McNeely said he’s pushed it to August 1, though he is fairly certain the club won’t be able to open by then. 

“It’s not good,” McNeely said. “There’s no way to put lipstick on that babe.” 

McNeely said he has a backlog of bands who he knows are ready to take the stage again. With each reopening date he has filled up the calendar with shows. With each date change, he has had to call the bands and reluctantly cancel. Just as McNeely isn’t turning a profit with a closed club, musicians and performers are missing a large chunk of their income. 

Max Indiveri, a local musician and second-year student at the University of Kansas, said before coronavirus-related closures, he would perform several times a week. Indiveri said his most recent single, “The Bomb (live in Kansas)” is about living day-to-day when the world is crashing down. 

“See my calendar don’t count the days where we’re not moving on,” Indiveri sings in the single.

Without the cash flow of performing, Indiveri said he is looking to rent out his in-home studio space to other local musicians. This would help musicians record and provide supplementary income for Indiveri. 

Another local band, Galactique Acid, has recorded an entire EP while in quarantine and yet remained socially distant from one another. The band explained the process to KJHK in a past interview. Band members Dave Besson and Mark Stockham play in the garage (at separate times) of the band’s drummer, Andy Bricker, who runs the recording equipment through a window and into his kitchen. The band members can only see one another through this small window. 

Galactique Acid in an interview with KJHK.

“So most of it’s me sitting in the kitchen, either playing the drums or running the recording equipment while they take turns coming over,” Bricker said.

A lot of musicians have spent their time in the past months writing and recording new material. Indiveri said he is blessed to have been able to record and continue his music while in quarantine. He has played several small, outdoor shows this month, but said he is ready to get back to his normal playing routine. 

In the live-music industry, big shows are booked 6-9 months in advance and venues make most of their money on the volume of people in attendance. This business model, while ordinarily fairly stable, is a recipe for disaster amid COVID-19 closures and regulations.  

“To return to business, I believe that venues like ours are going to be held until a vaccine is available,” Logan said. “That’s if our venue, and venues across the nation, can hold out that long.”

Mike Logan, owner of the Granada and Bottleneck

The Granada closed on March 12, followed shortly after by the Bottleneck on the 14th. Other industries were limiting capacities and enforcing extra cleaning procedures when COVID-19 was first declared a pandemic, but bars, night clubs, and venues had to completely close. Owner of the Granada and the Bottleneck, Mike Logan, perhaps put it best.

“We went from full board, to turn the faucet off.” 

Logan said the Granada did some fundraising and merchandise sales in the early months of closure to help support its staff, almost all of whom were furloughed. Aside from working at local venues, many live-music employees work on traveling shows and festivals throughout the summer. As all of these events were cancelled, Logan said these people lost a lot more than just one source of income. 

“They went, at the same time, from a stacked calendar through the fall, to nothing,” Logan said. 

Aside from the personal impacts of the venue’s closure, Logan said it has affected neighboring industries as well. According to the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) on average, every $1 spent at a live music event, generates $12 of revenue at a different business in town. This money goes to the restaurants where people get dinner before the show, the hotel where they stay the night, and the gas station where they fill up on the way out of town. 

“I’m bummed certainly for us and our industry, but also the businesses that we interact with, or have some attachment to,” Logan said. 

Realistically,  Logan said 2020 is gone in his mind. He said he doesn’t expect to fill the coming months with artists, because even if he could legally reopen, he knows a socially distant, limited capacity crowd would not be profitable. Logan said he does, however, already have shows lined up for the spring of 2021. 

Limited-capacity, reopening options exist, though Logan said he is doubtful of their success. Logan said he’s also considering some outdoor events, but the logistics are intense and high risk for the business.

“To return to business, I believe that venues like ours are going to be held until a vaccine is available,” Logan said. “That’s if our venue, and venues across the nation, can hold out that long.”

In North Lawrence, Uplift Coffee is hosting socially-distant, outdoor concerts. Owner Kelli Huslig said these shows are less about making a profit, and more about giving the community something normal to do. Indiveri was one of the Wednesday night performers at the venue. 

Uplift Coffee in North Lawrence hosts live music on Wednesday nights at 7 p.m.

“This is not something where I’m making money,” Huslig said. “But I kind of feel this is a way for me to give back to the community.”

Uplift Coffee, which opened in January of this year, has a large patio area and can rely on coffee and pastry sales to break even. The Granada and the Jazzhaus don’t have the same luxury; nor could these venues satisfy their normal audiences with an acoustic singer songwriter willing to work for gift cards and tips. 

The Jazzhaus is an intimate space with its 250 person capacity. McNeely said he will not reopen if he can’t promise the same close-natured atmosphere he’s cultivated since 1982 when he opened the club. 

“I’m not gonna do it until we can safely reopen in a configuration that we’re used to,” McNeely said. “When that’s going to be, I honestly cannot answer. But my optimistic thing is probably not until the first of the year.”

The Jazzhaus closed its doors on March 15 and won’t reopen until it can promise the same intimate setting it has had since opening in 1982.

Logan said as a member of NIVA, he has been following the association’s lobbying efforts to generate relief, and he is trying to work on the state level for guidance and aid. He said a large portion of his day is spent talking to city and county officials, trying to strategize for the future. 

The Bottleneck, as a smaller venue with typically local artists might be able to open sooner than the Granda Logan said.

Bars and nightclubs in Douglas county had a brief, 26-day period to re-open (under some restrictions) from June 8 to July 3, per Governor Laura Kelly’s Ad Astra phased plan. Neither Mcneely nor Logan reopened during this time, knowing it wasn’t profitable or safe. During this period, establishments were capped at 45 people. McNeely said his staff and a band would only leave room for about 35 paying customers. 

“All of us in this business are built on volume,” McNeely said. “I’m not saying that if we’re not sold out every single night that it’s a catastrophe. But you do want to have a pretty high occupancy level over the course of a month.” 

“It’s all we think about,” Robinson said. “We text each other everyday and are like: man, I just want to play a show.”

Inez Robinson of LK Ultra!

When people can safely go to concerts, there is going to be a demand. Logan said this stint is the longest he’s gone without a live show, since he was 14. He said he knows many of the local artists and community members and believes they are facing similar withdrawls. 

“Live music is good for the soul,” Logan said. “It’s sad that we can’t experience it at all really right now.” 

Just as the fans miss attending the shows, the bands miss playing the shows. Inez Robinson of LK Ultra! said the band plans to perform as many shows as possible once it is deemed safe again. 

“It’s all we think about,” Robinson said. “We text each other everyday and are like: man, I just want to play a show.”

The demand for live music exists on both ends, but Logan said he knows not everyone will be ready to flock to a venue and pack in with a bunch of people even when it is deemed safe. He said live-streamed shows will likely continue to exist to help generate funds for the artists. 

McNeely disagreed and said he doesn’t see it sticking around. He has considered live-streaming with some bands to generate revenue in the present, but said he doesn’t see it as a long term addition to his business. When he is able to reopen, McNeely said wants the Jazzhaus to be exactly as it was and always has been. 

“We’re going to wait for the environment to accommodate us,” McNeely said.

McNeely said he is lucky to have a long-established business in Lawrence and to have the assets to support the Jazzhaus through this time. McNeely said that while he has the funds, it’s still tough to see them diminish each month as he pays the rent. 

Both Logan and McNeely said their businesses received some money in the form of  Personal Paycheck Protections (PPP). Each owner said this money helped but didn’t last long as the venues sat  (and still sit) stagnant. . While the two seem hopeful in an eventual reopening, they acknowledge the toll of four months without income and a grim, upcoming season. 

“We’re going to wait for the environment to accommodate us,” McNeely said.

Rick McNeely of the Jazzhaus.

Logan said aside from the economic impacts of losing live music, there is a cultural and historical loss as well. The Lawrence venues consistently bring in musical legends for intimate shows right before they become full-blown stars. Liberty Hall has been around for well over 100 years and now can’t host any concerts. The Jazzhaus’ Thursday night drag shows have come to a halt. 


“They’re [the venues] a piece of the vibrance of what our downtown is specifically,” Logan said. “If we were to lose one, or all, it would be a real, real sad day for Lawrence and Downtown Lawrence.” 

Artists might not be performing downtown, but they’re still actively preparing to come back. Robinson of LK Ultra! said that after taking a couple of months off, the band started practicing again in early July. They’re now wearing masks and standing six feet apart, rehearsing in one member’s garage. 

“I get really sweaty because I’m screaming, in a mask,” Robinson said, “It feels like I’m screaming into a pillow and like I can’t get air.” 

contributed image: Lily Pryor of LK Ultra! plays bass at the band’s socially distant, masked rehearsal.

Not every band can stand 6 feet apart and fit in a garage for a socially distant rehearsal. McNeely said his 17-piece jazz band, that he started when he opened the Jazzhaus, has not met since the bar closed four months ago. It’s the longest time the 38-year-old band has gone without playing together. 

“But the guys are all still with me,” McNeely said. “They’re rearing to go, just as soon as I start waving the flag.”

Most of the artists have not been idle. Aside from yearning to play and developing new ways to record, the Lawrence music scene has continued to stand and fight against political and human rights issues. 

Robinson said LK Ultra! had to cancel a spring event planned around the release of its new EP You’re Not Gonna Like This and a touring schedule planned for the summer. The EP’s release was postponed until June 26 because of the virus, however Robinson said the group pushed its release back again, choosing to instead release the single “Pussy Hat.” All funds from the single will be donated to “Black-led funding for trans women,” according to the band’s Facebook.  

Robinson said they are excited for the EP to release but have no problem postponing it to make room for voices in the Black Lives Matter movement. 

The Granada once used its social media platforms and large Massachusetts street marquee to promote upcoming shows. Since closing, Logan said he has tried to use the venue’s platforms to help educate the community. The poster frames outside of the venue are filled with printouts reading “Black Lives Matter” and the marquee has reminded Lawrencians to wear a mask and to keep their heads up. 

“If we can’t talk about music, we want to talk about things that affect us and our neighbors,” Logan said. 

While closed, the Granada uses its marquee and social media to spread social awareness to the community.

The artists of Lawrence are excited to come out and play again. Rather than scorn the new reality, these bands have adapted. 

It’s because of the spirit of these artists that Logan said he knows Lawrence will not be devoid of music, even if the worst were to happen and the venues went out of business.

“We have so many talented musicians in this town,” Logan said. “There’s going to be music. Whether it’s on front porches, or backyards, or street corners. I think music is a part of Lawrence. Music will always be in this town.”