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Bloomington-Normal Music Planners Optimistic About Return Of Live Music

Most music planners in the twin cities said they remain optimistic live music will return this summer or fall but moving parts could change those plans at any time.
Most music planners in the twin cities said they remain optimistic live music will return this summer or fall but moving parts could change those plans at any time.

The COVID-19 vaccine rollout has many optimistic a return to something resembling “normal” is approaching. That includes a Bloomington Normal live-music scene gutted by the pandemic. Most music organizers in the Twin Cities said they are shooting for summer and fall performances. 

Edward David Anderson’s live performance on March 14, 2020 was the last live show at Nightshop before the pandemic changed everything. Owner Chris Golwitzer finally closed the food side of his downtown Bloomington restaurant and music venue at the end of the year. He said he couldn’t meet expenses and obey safety orders.

“We take the pandemic very seriously,” said Golwitzer. “We followed all safety guidelines, almost went overboard with them just to protect my team but especially the customers. We are nothing without them.” 

Golwitzer said he’s optimistic live music can resume at least on his outdoor stage by early June.

“It will randomly snow in April. It won’t on June 1,” he said.

"We want to make sure we're doing what's expected out of us by protecting our staff and our patrons."

Federal funding also is a factor. The Save Our Stages Act distributes money to venues, booking agents, dinner theaters and other performance spaces. Golwitzer said “restaurants with music in the corner” won’t qualify, but he’s confident Nightshop can prove it is a “music venue with food in the corner.” 

“I spent over 10 hours this past weekend compiling an organized list of every act that has played Nightshop, including how many times (they played). The list is well over 800 acts,” said Golwitzer, then stressed the early June date is just a target and that circumstances could change that at any time. 

It will be easier for the Castle Theatre in downtown Bloomington to prove eligibility for federal aid. Music is all they do. Promoter Nick LeRoy said the Castle also is waiting for Save our Stages money. He said the bill passed in December under the Trump administration.

“No help has come yet," he said.

The National Independent Venue Association, or NIVA, has been working with the Small Business Administration to determine who is eligible for that grant money. 

“They wanted to make sure there wasn’t any fraud with regards to doling out the funds. And it’s been kind of too slow a process for a lot of people,” said LeRoy, adding that safety factors into reopening the Castle to live music. 

“We don’t want to do the wrong thing,’ said LeRoy. “We’re in a different culture and society these days, and we want to make sure we’re doing what’s expected out of us by protecting our staff and our patrons.” 

LeRoy said the large crowds needed to meet expenses pose a different challenge to holding concerts. And singing has proved to be a great way for an infected person to spread the coronavirus.

LeRoy said artists and managers also are mindful of safety issues and the Castle hopes to open in early summer. He said they are working on some outdoor shows at the Corn Crib in Normal where safety rules will be easier to follow. 

The Normal Theater and civic arts manager for the Town of Normal said the No. 1 driver for a return to live music in Normal is state public health guidelines. Adam Fox works on events, including the Loungeabout the Roundabout series in the Uptown circle and the Make Music Normal festival. Fox said the rules are moving target.

“We don’t want to wholesale say we’re not going to book things -- because right now we can’t. We would rather try to be as flexible and scalable as we can be with events,” said Fox. 

One example is Make Music Normal. It used to draw thousands of fans to multiple stages in Uptown over two days in June. Fox said IDPH guidelines likely would not allow for those large crowds at that time this year. The town has now targeted Sept. 10-12 at the Connie Link Amphitheatre. 

“With the hope then that if we are able to increase capacity, to add more stages, and to bring people into Uptown as well as Connie Link that we have that potential later to do that,” said Fox. 

He said planning for Loungabout is a little different. The series normally begins in mid-May, but there are no firm plans because Uptown circle is not a traditional venue and guidelines are murkier. 

“But as we get more clarity through the spring, our hope is that we’ll be able to do that in a format that is very familiar and very recognizable to people,” said Fox. 

The Sugar Creek Arts Festival has moved to October from its traditional early July weekend in Uptown Normal. It is primarily a vendor-based arts event. But Sugar Creek does have a music component on a couple stages. 

McLean County Arts Center Director Doug Johnson runs the festival. He said the October date came from working around a possible Make Music Normal event in the summer and ISU Homecoming. He said other arts festivals in the region also moved dates.  

“So, it seemed like that was the best option for us,” said Johnson, adding state and local COVID guidelines were a factor in the decision. So was the large number of artists. 

“That last thing we want to do is put all our eggs in one basket for an August or even early September date, and have to tell these artists that we’re pushing it back again when they’re already making commitments,” said Johnson. 

The City of Bloomington said it has no signed agreements for music acts at the downtown arena, but has booked acts beginning in September at the Bloomington Center for the Perforing Arts with an out clause should health conditions change. The city is cautiously optimistic music can return to the Farmers Market in late summer or early fall. The Town of Normal will restart its Sounds of the Connie Link Amphitheatre series May 2 with COVID precautions.

One venue already has returned to live performances. Six Strings Club in downtown Bloomington has had live music with in-person audiences since early February. It's not clear how big that audience is. They haven't responded to numerous requests for comment.

Bottom line: Most music planners in the Twin Cities said they remain optimistic live music will return this summer or fall, but moving parts could change those plans at any time. 

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Jon Norton is the program director at WGLT and WCBU. He also is host of All Things Considered every weekday.