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The slow return of live music on the Western Slope

Live music is returning on the Western Slope, but challenges remain for Colorado’s music venues.

GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. — Mesa Theater has opened their doors to live performances once again. Located in the heart of downtown Grand Junction, the venue once enjoyed multiple sold-out acts per week. But like all entertainment venues, Mesa Theater had to cease operations due to the COVID-19 pandemic — until recently.

> Video above from Dec. 2020: Colorado artist shedding light on struggling music industry.

January 20, 2021 marked the first music performance of the year to a live audience at Mesa Theater, welcoming singer/songwriter Ward Davis to a sold-out show limited to 90 people. Since its last closure on November 7, only the bar at Mesa Theater has been open. Since March of 2020, the venue has not hosted a maximum capacity event of any type on their property.

The inability to conduct business as usual has had devastating effects on the music industry in Colorado. According to Chris Zacher, Founder of the Colorado Independent Venue Association, an estimated 8,000 gig-workers have either lost all their income, or partial income. However, Zacher says there are still people within the industry that are not being counted, and that the real number could be closer to twenty thousand.

> This story is powered by COLab, the Colorado News Collaborative. 9NEWS joined this historic collaboration with more than 40 other newsrooms across Colorado to better serve the public.

Revenue lost from the pandemic hasn’t been fully accounted for, according to Zacher. “It’s difficult when you don’t have any money to take a grant from the government that requires you to bring people back on staff because that money is going to get eaten up rather quickly - by the end of this month we'll be shut down for 52 weeks, so the math just doesn’t add up,” he said.

According to a recent study by Pollstar, the music industry in the US lost an estimated $9 billion in 2020.

For Mesa Theater, the loss of revenue is seen at the ground level. Rick Christensen, General Manager of Mesa Theater is currently working every position and has laid off every non-essential employee, leaving him to tend the bar alone most nights. Although the venue cannot afford to keep a regular staff on payroll, they must bring employees back to work the few gigs they are scheduling. “We're trying to not fall behind while still trying to move forward - we’re all pulling our weight to keep it alive. If we would have brought everyone back we would have lost money,” said Christensen. On January 20, Christensen was accompanied by limited staff, including the owner of the venue, Brett Strong, who was seen working the ticket booth.

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Last year was equally rough for music artists, Ward Davis was no exception. “When this thing happened, I think everyone in my position started scrounging - trying to find a way to make a living,” said Davis. “It was just whatever we could do to not lose our house.” Much of his interaction with fans and search for income has been virtual, utilizing Zoom meet-and-greets and the Cameo app to play his music to virtual audiences and connect with supporters.

Both artist and managers are hopeful for any opportunity they currently have, even facing severe limitations. For many venues, this means trying to stay afloat without expecting profitable business. As the pandemic persists, indoor venues will have to limit capacity depending on usable square footage and appropriate limits in the current county dial level. Mesa County, which is currently at level orange, can see seated events at 25% capacity – which limits small venues like Mesa Theater to shows of one-hundred people.

It will still be a long time until large indoor events will be seen anywhere in Colorado. Even when under Level Green, indoor events can only be conducted at a 50% occupancy limit, not exceeding 500 people per room. Outdoor events, being much easier to mitigate potential risks, could be expected this summer with easier restrictions. However, if other states are not following similar guidelines and opening at similar times, it will be difficult for more popular artists to route tours through the nation, potentially pushing larger shows into 2022.

Even with Colorado’s new COVID-19 dial dashboard, dubbed Dial 2.0, Mesa County remains at Level Orange as several others move to Level Blue. This allows for “blue” counties to operate at 50% capacity up to 175 people per room for both seated and unseated events.

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Dial 2.0 is designed to allow counties to move easier between levels, and therefore enter less restrictive phases. All businesses must still meet additional safety guidelines irrespective of current county dial level. Masks will be expected to be worn when not seated through all summer events.

Mesa County’s own 5-star variance protection program has encouraged businesses to implement safety measures that will help slow the spread of COVID-19 locally and allow Mesa County to move forward with reopening efforts needed to help the local economy recover. Mesa Theater, 5 star certified, is currently allowed to host events with 100 people. The owners, however, limit their occupancy to 90 in their own effort of staying ahead of the curb.

For any venue in Colorado, live events will only happen upon the proven safety of the venue and their ability to enforce COVID-related policies. Hand sanitizer stations, distanced seating and directional arrows located on the floor have all been implemented at Mesa Theater to limit hazardous activity and promote safety. Masks are required upon entry and when not seated at a table or at the bar.

Venue owners hope that compliance with county guidelines will ensure the continued re-opening of venues across Colorado. The next show scheduled for Mesa Theater will welcome Steve Mudflap McGrew on February 13. For now, scheduling at the venue will be severely limited. However, Christensen hopes to continue welcoming artists through spring and summer, providing an opportunity for both the artists, and the venue, to see success as the nation rises from the sharp economic downturn created by the pandemic.

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