Keeping Live Local Music in Business
By Kathy Knotts
The recent announcement of Governor Hogan’s $30 million relief package for entertainment venues and promoters is music to the ears of theaters, concert halls and arenas—as local music has been hanging by a thread since the start of the pandemic.
Over 90 live music and performance venues, live entertainment promoters, and independently-owned local movie theaters were awarded emergency economic relief from the State of Maryland. This includes funds that support operating and capital costs and will directly help preserve more than 800 jobs at venues like the Maryland Renaissance Festival, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, Merriweather Post Pavilion, Royal Farms Arena, Strathmore, the Senator Theatre, and the Maryland Theatre.
In Anne Arundel County, funds were awarded to the Annapolis Shakespeare Company, the two Bowtie Cinemas locations, Colonial Players, two Horizon Cinemas locations, Hoyts West Nursery Cinema, Maryland Theatre for the Performing Arts, PrismAnnapolis, Rams Head on State and Rams Head Presents. Calvert County’s Flagship Premium movie theater and the PNC Pavilion at Calvert Marine Museum are also fund recipients.
“These awards will save hundreds of jobs and help many of Maryland’s entertainment venues sustain their operations until they can safely and fully reopen,” said Hogan. “While safe and effective vaccines will help bring a return to normalcy and end the damage to our economy, we need to continue to do everything we can to support our small business community.”
The funds will certainly help pay the bills at venues, but funds to pay musicians are still hard to come by. With venues like Rams Head or the PNC Pavilion currently closed to crowds, the only place to find a musician strumming a guitar or tickling the ivories is at a restaurant. Now that Anne Arundel County is moving to 50% indoor capacity in restaurants, live music may be finally getting its much-needed refrain.
Larry Lay has been a regular performer at Brian Boru in Severna Park for years. While it is not his full-time job, he had been playing consistently two to four times a week around Annapolis for the past 25 years. Since the pandemic began, that dwindled down to one or two times a week.
He says performers have been frustrated by their options for gigs, especially when dining rooms are constrained to low occupancies. Many turned to performing from home in a virtual concert setting to keep their passion and their bank accounts alive, offering fans an option to electronically “tip” during their streaming shows.
Lay streams his performances live from behind the keyboard. “People really do appreciate the entertainment and show their support.”
The public’s desire for live music was a surprise to Michael Kocher, a local musician who regularly performs in restaurants around the area. When the pandemic forced restaurants to close, he offered to stand outside on a sidewalk, serenading customers at Brian Boru or Garry’s Grill who were picking up their takeout, or later, dining in an outdoor tent.
“I wasn’t worried about getting paid,” Kocher says. “I was just trying to help out the restaurants.”
It’s the common chord for those who enjoy live music. The musicians want to play and the restaurants and patrons want them there.
Eddie Conway, owner of Garry’s Grill, didn’t have to think twice about having music in his restaurant once it reopened.
“We decided to continue it despite being only at 25% capacity because it’s not just restaurants that are struggling. It’s those who are also affiliated with restaurants as well. It trickles down,” he says. “We felt it was imperative to help our friends in the entertainment business by continuing live music.”
For musicians making the restaurant circuit, the work has been pretty steady. For Kocher, he’s busier than ever.
“I was playing mostly duos and band gigs before the pandemic began, when everything shut down. My last gig as a trio was March 14. Once restaurants were able to reopen—I’ve played almost every single weekend since.”
Kocher can be found at Brian Boru, Sullivan’s Cove, Garry’s Grill, Middleton Tavern, S&J Riverside, and Mother’s Peninsula Grille. It’s been a busy year for him, and he says his friends joke that he’s the busiest musician they’ve ever known.
“When the restaurants went to 25% (capacity), I thought that was the death knell for live music, with the cold weather setting in,” says Kocher. “I worried there’d be no place to put musicians indoors or for it to be fiscally worth it for the restaurants.”
Kocher began to reach out to restaurants and offered to play as needed, “picking up the scraps.”
“It seems to be very important to these businesses, to have music, because they enjoy the music and want to support the local scene.”
While restaurants may want the musicians, sometimes the artists decide the exposure risk just isn’t worth it. But Kocher and Lay both say that they feel pretty safe playing their live gigs and that the restaurants mostly adhere to safety protocols.
Kocher says he brings a mask, disinfecting wipes and hand sanitizer with him to every show, and that most of the patrons coming to hear the music are cognizant of social distancing. “It’s only when you get those few wayward souls who want to give you a hug or sing on the microphone,” that Kocher ever feels wary. “It still happens from time to time.”
Performers say that the public response has been great every time they play and that tipping is up and people are generally very appreciative of the live music, be it in-person or streaming virtually.
Online events are still happening. Kocher mentioned Jimi Davies’s weekly Wednesday night couch concerts and Timmie Metz’s front yard live streams, no matter the weather. “Tuning in and tipping is a great way to show your support if you don’t want to go out,” he says.
To support musicians in a real way, Kocher and Lay both say a donation to AMFM (see story accompanying this article) stretches farther than a dollar in a tip jar ever could.
If you are ready to go out and support live music, here are a few that we recommend: Brick Wood Fired Bistro (https://brickwfb.com/), Brian Boru (http://www.brianborupub.com), Garry’s Grill (www.garrysgrill.com), Ketch 22 (https://ketch22.net/), Killarney House (www.killarneyhousepub.com), Middleton Tavern (http://www.middletontavern.com/), Old Stein Inn (https://www.oldstein-inn.com/), Pirate’s Cove (https://www.piratescovemd.com/), Riverbay Roadhouse (https://www.riverbayroadhouse.com/), Sam’s on the Waterfront (https://samsonthewaterfront.com/), S&J Riverside (https://www.stanandjoessaloon.com/), Sullivan’s Cove (https://www.sullivanscovesp.com/), and Westlawn Inn (https://westlawninn.com/). Most restaurants list live music details on their website or Facebook page.