SOLANA BEACH — Concert venues across the country have gone quiet, as the premise of mass gatherings remains remote due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But some are learning to adapt to the challenging climate — presenting music in ways that are perhaps less intimate but ultimately more global.
The Belly Up, one of the most iconic and beloved concert venues in San Diego, is among those dead set on not “hanging (their) heads,” said Chris Goldsmith, president of Belly Up Entertainment.
Since closing its doors in mid-March and canceling about 200 shows slated for 2020, the famed North County venue has shifted its focus to releasing archival content, as well as bringing fans new livestream shows from the Belly Up’s stage.
In early May, the club released 40 live concert recordings on its website through the “SharkBelly Festival,” a limited-time offering that will allow fans access to past shows from the English Beat, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, and Rufus Wainwright — to name a few.
The venue was able to get licensing permission from the artists and release the show recordings as albums about six weeks after the start of quarantine — what Goldsmith called a “gigantic effort” that has now prompted thousands of downloads.
“It maintains the connection with our audience,” Goldsmith said. “and it provides them with quality entertainment while they’re sheltering at home.”
And in an effort to bring fresh performances to Belly Up supporters, the club is homing in on live-streamed shows, having converted the venue into the likes of a television broadcast facility.
“On our dance floor, we have a bunch of cameras … It’s kind of like you’re watching a TV show,” said Goldsmith.
Local band HIRIE kicked off the experiment in mid-May, attracting about 5,000 viewers — an obvious step-up in “attendance” from the venue’s 600-person capacity.
And according to Goldsmith, this is the real upside of the live show concept. Although it clearly can’t replace the energy and ambiance of an in-person performance, it allows for a greatly expanded reach.
On top of bringing in revenue for the club, the shows also allow artists in the area to earn an income through the crisis and stay connected with their audiences throughout the country — given that most tours have been canceled and the idea of stepping on an airplane is taboo at best.
The venue hosted two more live shows this past weekend — with local band Electric Mud playing on Saturday and the White Buffalo coming on for a show Sunday. Donavon Frankenreiter will be playing a live show next week — livestream tickets cost $10.
Goldsmith said the venue is planning to do 20-30 such shows over the course of the summer. The venue is also looking to help local charitable organizations that had planned fundraisers at the club to go digital, holding live silent auctions, for example.
“All of that can happen here as well, and we’re seeing that there’s a real need for that,” he said.
Times are tough, but the industry is adjusting — and Goldsmith hopes to keep many of these changes alive even in a post-pandemic world.
“That’s one of the things about this, it’s very challenging and it’s hard not having our club running the way it normally runs, but we’ve definitely discovered some really cool things to do and things we’ll still do even when we get back to full capacity,” Goldsmith said.
But for music lovers and habitual concertgoers, digital performances will have to suffice for now. Goldsmith said the venue won’t be opening anytime soon.
“It’s a bit of a roller coaster ride trying to figure out what we might do,” he said. “I don’t think we’ll get back to full capacity for a while — best case scenario in fall, and more realistically into 2021.”
The venue will likely first open at 25% capacity and move up from there, in keeping with social distancing standards. Goldsmith said the venue’s team has been considering a “hybrid model” of live entertainment — keeping the current broadcast setup for viewers at home but also opening their doors to a smaller audience.
Plenty of fall concerts are still on the books, and according to Goldsmith, enthusiastic audiences have still been buying. But the club isn’t actively promoting any shows right now. Many of the artists who had shows scheduled for 2020 shifted their concert dates to exactly a year later.
Goldsmith said the live entertainment industry will probably take a while to fully recover due to its dependence on band tours, which are coordinated to pass through 40 to 50 cities.
“You can’t turn that back on at a dime like you can if you’re a restaurant,” he said. “When we open, it’s going to take us months to reconstruct our ‘menu of items.’”
But whatever comes next, Goldsmith said the club will make sure it’s unique for the venue’s supporters.
“We’re chomping at the bit to be able to (open), but we’re also very comfortable waiting till the time is right,” he said. “And when the time is right, we’ll have a very good plan, it’ll be very safe, very comfortable, and a cool experience.”
For more information on the SharkBelly Festival and the Belly Up’s livestream concerts, visit: https://www.bellyuplive.com.