Concert venue

Iowa concert hall operator grapples with COVID and cancellations

The live music industry is in a state of uncertainty. On the one hand, artists like The Weeknd, Harry Styles and Dua Lipa are preparing for their tours around the world. Coachella is also set to take place this year – without a mask or vaccine mandate. However, the omicron coronavirus variant has not completely disappeared. Artists like Doja Cat and Adele have had to cancel recent appearances due to COVID-19 concerns in their squad. Additionally, many fans buy tickets but don’t show up, leaving money on the table for concert hall operators who are still in dire straits.

We spoke to Tobi Parks, owner of xBk, a music venue in Des Moines, Iowa, in April. Parks had just applied for the gated venue operator grant, which began as part of the Save Our Stages Act. At that time, she told us that income would mean “the difference between death and survival.” Now xBk has reopened and hopes to kick off concert season.

“Marketplace” host Kai Ryssdal spoke to Parks about the challenges of managing a concert venue through the ups and downs of the pandemic. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Tobi Parks: You know, things were going pretty well. I mean, as you probably know, we worked very closely with the [Small Business Administration], with the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program, and our venue has been a beneficiary of this program – which has really helped us through the most difficult times of the pandemic. And we had a pretty strong fourth quarter until the omicron wave passed, which kind of got us back to what almost felt like square one, where we were in March 2020. We just reopened after having been completely closed for the month of January. We reopened last weekend with some success. We therefore look positively to the future.

Kai Rysdal: One of the things I learned about the gig ecosystem, I guess, when we spoke a year ago was, you know, Des Moines as a physical location is between, like, Chicago and Denver and Minneapolis, you know, bigger cities. And when they had problems, you also had de facto problems. Is this still the case?

Parks: Absolutely, it still does. I mean, you know, the hard part about it is that even though the whole industry has done a lot to do its best to keep artists on the road and to keep our businesses open, you know, we can’t do a lot if someone on tour gets sick, right? So we are still a bit in that space. You know, local and state restrictions aren’t as daunting as they were at the start of the pandemic. You know, almost everything is open, but now it’s really about trying to deal with, you know, artist cancellations and trying to protect artists. So, you know, they don’t get sick, and so they can stay on the road and keep us all going.

Rysdal: How did you manage to sustain that as a business proposition? ‘Cause I’ll guess – well, first of all, you were closed most of January, weren’t you? So you don’t receive any income, but you still have to pay the rent. So I guess it comes from any reserves you have or possibly out of pocket. I guess those crowds, you didn’t pack them I’m sure last year. So, I mean, is this all on your credit card? What is happening?

Parks: You know, like I said, we were very lucky to be able to access the closed site operator grant program through the federal government, and that really kept us afloat. And, you know, without the support of our legislative allies and the support of the SBA, sending that money to places like ours, you know, we would have been shut down. We’re lucky to have had a little cushion to handle the crash, you know, in late December and January, but it’s still something we’re dealing with. And you know, even though we’re open now, and we can be open and, you know, consumer confidence is still a little bit down, we hope that in the next few months, as you know, we’ll go through some kind of a bit of omicron thickness that things will get better, but it’s still difficult. So, you know, we take it day by day.

Rysdal: Have you ever thought about closing it and walking away?

Parks: You know – me personally – no. You know, if you might remember, xBk opened in September 2019, so we were only open for six months before the pandemic hit, and, you know, when you put your savings in, your love and your heart in something, it’s hard to let go. So, you know, no, I never considered closing it. And, you know, I’ve always been confident and I’ve had the support of, you know, the team of allies, other independent promoters and places around me to keep me going.

There’s a lot going on in the world. Through it all, Marketplace is there for you.

You rely on Marketplace to break down world events and tell you how it affects you in a factual and accessible way. We count on your financial support to continue to make this possible.

Your donation today fuels the independent journalism you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help maintain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.