Clubs have been on shaky ground since the pandemic hit in March 2020. Some closed, others lost staff, and all were faced with navigating new rules and regulations to keep audiences safe. Falling Covid cases and vaccines brought a glimmer of hope last summer, but the onset of Omicron in November has left the future far from certain.
Despite these challenges, Chris Cobb, operator of Nashville club Exit/In — which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year — says Winter 2022 doesn’t resemble the dark days of March 2020.
“Absolutely not. A large percent of the population has had the opportunity to be vaccinated, and that’s a big difference between what we’re dealing with now and what we were dealing with before,” Cobb tells Rolling Stone.
He says that considering the availability of vaccinations, boosters, and masks, along with studies that show Omicron is less severe than the Delta variant, club concerts can move forward: “Outside of that, it comes down to a personal level of comfort. What level of risk are you comfortable with? And that’s probably with us for a long time.”
So what’s the state of clubs in Nashville?
The Music Venue Alliance Nashville did meet [recently], just kind of a check-in. The general consensus can be summed up in that we’ve just got to put our heads down and move forward. We did talk about policies and if anyone was considering changes to policy because of the CDC guidelines. But what we are going to do with staff who test positive is a huge problem. Staffing is already an issue and now people are getting sick and getting exposed. We talked about masking too.
Are you requiring masks?
We’ve been encouraging masks. When we reopened last summer, we tried to require masks for guests and learned firsthand that it was an unenforceable policy. So we decided to rewrite that and strongly recommend masks. We have masks at the door that security hands out. We do have some bands right now who are asking us to require masks at their shows. I’m talking to agents and managers in Chicago, in New York, and trying to explain the cultural aspect to this. Not much has changed from where we were last summer in Nashville and the South and red parts of the country.
It’s noticeably different in Tennessee than in some regions?
I just came from the grocery store and half of people were in masks and half weren’t. It comes down to an enforcement issue. At the venue, you can’t force someone to put something on their face. It’s not physically possible. So what do you do? Are you going to try to forcibly remove an individual from the show because they’re refusing to put their mask back on? You can make them put them on to get inside, but you can’t keep them on their faces.
What about requiring proof of vaccination or a negative test. Has that policy changed?
The policy hasn’t changed. But we’re watching it closely because some countries have changed the definition of what “fully vaccinated” is. Depending on where you are, fully vaccinated may mean booster. Our policy says you have to have received your second shot at least two weeks from the show date. We’re considering what to do about boosters and having conversations with other venues around the country that are starting to write policies that have booster requirements.
The thing with the booster is you have individuals who aren’t yet eligible for the booster because they got vaccinated late. That’s going to make it really challenging to manage this type of a policy at your front door. Requiring vaccinations is already hard enough. With boosters, you’re basically going to have to create a chart for our door staff and they’re going to have to take every [vaccination] card for anyone who’s not boosted and do the math quickly to determine whether or not that person’s eligible. Or are you saying, “You’re not boosted, you can’t get in” — eligibility be damned? I don’t know.
Are bands canceling shows at your club because of Omicron?
We had two cancelations recently. I made some calls to agents and friends to take their temperature and try to figure out what we need to brace for here. And the conversations I had were basically, “No, we’re not recommending to our clients that they don’t tour.” But if your band or crew get sick, at some point are you losing enough dates on your run that financially it makes more sense to [cancel] because someone got sick? That’s a real potential. If you lose New York City, Seattle, Chicago, D.C…. does it make sense to go?
Is the amount of shows you have booked for the winter on par with “normal” times?
We’ve got 20 on the books in February right now, but I’m planning for some of those to go away. I’m planning to lose some for fear of Covid or actual Covid within a crew. But right now the calendar looks like how I’m pretty used to it looking. The issue is the attendance numbers are still so far off. We lost well into six figures as a business last year. I think Covid is going to wreak havoc on Q1. Then in late Q2, it already starts to slow down for the clubs as you get into festival season. It’s always late Q3 and Q4 where we turn the corner and get into the black. But I don’t expect to be in the black this year.