Welch introduces ‘Save our Stages’ bill
By Jason Starr
The Brick Church Music Series is going dark for the 2020/2021 season.
The series, sponsored by the Town of Williston and produced by a group of volunteers, puts on about nine concerts each season in the Old Brick Church in Williston Village, often packing the house for its monthly performances.
Organizers had discussed the possibility of live-streaming concerts to keep the series going through the coronavirus pandemic, but ultimately decided to cancel the season and plan for a return in the fall of 2021. The last two shows of the 2019/2020 season were cancelled when the pandemic began last spring. The season typically begins in October and continues through April.
“We don’t think we can bring our patrons, who tend to be older, out. So the series is on hold until the fall of 2021, and we have every intention of coming back normally at that time,” said producer Dave Yandell.
The producer group has dwindled to three people, all retired men, Yandell noted. He hopes it will grow to about six people and be more diverse in age and gender by the time the series returns next year. He also hopes to re-establish the town’s support, which included ticket sales on the town web site.
Former Town Manager Rick McGuire had been a liaison between the town and the music series. While he continues to help with the series, he has retired from town government.
“We are committed and we are going to continue to do it, but we are going to try to reconfigure. We are actively looking for younger people who are committed to the performing arts,” Yandell said. “It can’t be just a bunch of old, gray-haired guys doing this.”
The pandemic has been particularly hard on the regionally touring acts that the series usually showcases. Yandell has talked in recent months with some of the artists who have played the Brick Church series in the past. Some are streaming performances online without pay, some are teaching music virtually, some are focusing on recording and others are “working at the bank and the supermarket,” Yandell said.
“When we contact them it’s kind of sad. Most of them are full-time professional musicians and they are dying to get out and play,” he said. “The vocalists are really frantic because it seems like singing is going to come back last.”
Series organizers had a lengthy discussion about the possibility of inviting a performer to live-stream a virtual concert from the Brick Church this winter, but determined they didn’t have the expertise to pull it off.
“We just weren’t sure we could do it at the quality level that you would like to be able to do it,” said Yandell. “It’s not something you can easily do by Zoom or just with a phone. You need a little more equipment than that … And how do you monetize it? We are committed to paying performers. We don’t like the idea of having performers play just for exposure.”
Vermont’s live music industry is in dire straits as it faces the prospect of a silent winter, where large gatherings continue to be banned. Performing arts venues were the first businesses to close in March, and expect to be among the last to reopen once the pandemic wanes. But some worry they won’t be able to make it that long.
“Great shared experiences are an endangered species right now,” said Alex Crothers, co-owner of Higher Ground in South Burlington. “The entire performance arts sector is in an existential crisis.”
Crothers said that, in March, Higher Ground canceled 187 shows and many more have been canceled since. He expects it to be another full year before reopening is a realistic possibility.
“We’re completely shuttered,” he said. “There’s no takeout business, there’s no partial opening. Being partially open is not a business strategy; it’s just a way to lose more money.”
Other venues across the state agree. Nearly all of the big names in Vermont performing arts spaces have closed their in-person operations indefinitely, with only a smattering of online or outdoor shows to try to fill the gaps.
And their owners are worried that the federal relief money they received from the CARES Act won’t last long enough for them to get by.
U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt, held a press conference last week to talk about a bill he introduced earlier this year as part of the HEROES Act, called Save our Stages, which would provide $15 billion in relief funds to performance spaces nationwide. “At some point, we’re going to get to life that’s normal, where people are going to want to go back downtown,” Welch said. “But if we don’t provide an economic lifeline to places like Higher Ground, my fear is that we get to the other side of COVID, but we’ve left those institutions behind.”
The House passed the bill in early October, but it has stalled in the Senate. Welch said that with a changing political landscape, he’s confident the measure will eventually become law.
Grace Potter, the rock star from Waitsfield, said that during the pandemic, she’s tried everything under the sun to replicate a live performance. But she said drive-ins and Zoom concerts don’t really come close to the real deal.
She said helping concert venues stay open “feels more powerful than anything else” she’s done during the pandemic.
“Live music is such a powerful force; it’s something that can only be felt and understood in that moment,” she said. “And a stage is the only place it can happen.”
— Ellie French of VTDigger contributed to this report