Shutdowns leave Utah’s musicians, concert bookers and club owners hanging

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) "Wash your hands, see you in April," reads the marquee at The State Room in Salt Lake City on March 19, 2020.

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Soon after it was revealed that Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert had tested positive for COVID-19 and that the NBA season was shutting down, the idea of social distancing became firmly embedded in the national lexicon, which meant that Salt Lake City-based musician Talia Keys had five or six gigs canceled pretty much immediately.

Then five or six more were lost the next day. And the day after that.

“I’ve lost over 20 gigs, lost my only form of income, and it was scary,” Keys said. “… Finding I’m unemployed completely was definitely a blow to both me and my partner — she runs all of my sound, does engineering and video work. The two of us make our living 100% off of live music.”

It was almost as bad for Neal Middleton. On the one hand, his wife is still working; on the other, not only did the singer’s band, Royal Bliss, see all their upcoming concert dates “postponed,” he also saw the music venue/bar/restaurant that he co-owns, The Royal, effectively shut down by a governmental decree limiting mass gatherings.

“It’s like the double-whammy of, ‘Ah, man— now there’s zero income coming from either source,’” Middleton said. “And, you know, you’re worried about the employees of Royal Bliss, and you worry about the employees of The Royal. And so it was like, I just counted up how much money we lost in a two-minute period. But there’s nothing you can do about it.”

(Courtesy photo) Neal Middleton, center, and Utah-based rock band Royal Bliss have had all of their shows postponed indefinitely due to the COVID-19 outbreak, while their music club/bar "The Royal" is also unable to host concerts or seat customers.

Indeed, Utah’s musicians and concert bookers and club owners are all mostly in the same boat these days on account of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

“Pretty much everyone’s eating a piece of the s--t pie,” said Chris Mautz, co-owner of First Tracks Entertainment, which runs The State Room, The Commonwealth Room, and Park City’s OP Rockwell.

That about sums it up.

They’re not going to complain. They all recognize the vital importance of people staying at home as much as possible, of flattening the curve, of doing whatever is necessary to stem the tide of infections, which have resulted in about 15,000 deaths in the United States alone. And so of course they will do their part.

Still, that doesn’t make it any easier to see their livelihoods threatened.

A grim view of the future

Park City Live’s Dustin Esson said late March and early April were absolutely crucial to his club’s bottom line, calling the resulting losses from the shutdown “significant.”

“There’s a short window in Park City where, in our business with our revenue model, that tourist clientele’s imperative for our yearly economics,” he said. “So, we’re hurting.”

And Will Sartain, co-owner of entertainment booking group Sartain & Saunders, which runs Kilby Court, Urban Lounge and Metro Music Hall, can’t help but have a grim view of what the future might hold, of how long he and those in his line of work might be on hiatus.

“Our businesses are at a standstill, which sucks, obviously. And everybody’s out of work,” Sartain said. “… The outlook is very uncertain. I think it’s foolish to make too many plans. It’s just very uncertain. So saying, ‘We’ll be open by June 1’ is pretty silly. I think even saying, ‘We’ll be open by July 1’ is … I don’t think that’s even remotely predictable. My outlook is we could be closed for a year and a half. That’s my realistic thought.”

With the full scope of the pandemic still unfolding, Esson, Sartain and Mautz all recalled similar hopes at the time that the disease could be quickly contained, that the shutdown would be a short inconvenience.

Likewise, they all recounted fast coming to the realization that probably wasn’t realistic.

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) Darin Piccoli, left, and Chris Mautz formed First Tracks Entertainment in 2008 and are co-owners of Salt Lake City music clubs The State Room and The Commonwealth Room, part-owners of Park City venue O.P. Rockwell, and production partners for the Live at the Eccles series at the Eccles Theater. "Very quickly, it was pretty clear, you know, within the first couple of days, I think, that we began to really have to take a larger assessment of what was going on, kind of prepare to be closed," Mautz said of the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Soon after the governor and the county and city mayors made that first move to close things down for the first two weeks, that mid-March to March 30-April 1, at that moment, we kind of were in the mindset that maybe there was a chance that it that it could stick to that that type of a timeline,” Mautz said. “But very quickly, it was pretty clear, you know, within the first couple of days, I think, that we began to really have to take a larger assessment of what was going on, kind of prepare to be closed — I don’t want to say indefinitely, but knowing that there wasn’t going to be a specific date for a while that we’d be able to target.”

They’re all taking different tacks as to how to proceed for now. Esson believes club owners and bookers will be trying to project out further than they ever have before. Sartain, meanwhile, is of the opinion that doing so is a fairly pointless endeavor for the time being.

“We’ll be able to make this through. It’s just hard. What does it look like when we open? Do our staff have new jobs? Are the summer events going to happen? Yeah, I don’t know,” he said. “I feel like everyone in my industry is consumed with becoming a COVID expert, and we just don’t know.”

That said, he vowed that he and business partner Lance Saunders “will do whatever it takes to get through this, even if it takes 18 months. … I’m willing to go into debt to do that if I have to.” Esson added that “Park City Live intends to reopen. We’re moving full-force ahead with every intention of reopening.” And Mautz made it unanimous, saying he and First Tracks partner Darin Piccoli are “gonna do all we can to be in it and stay in it.”

Seeking normalcy and support in uncertain times

In the meantime, there’s not a ton they can do but hurry up and wait. They are trying to fill the musical void in any small way they can. Every Wednesday, The State Room’s website “will post a ‘classic’ recording from The State Room over our 11 years of making memories.”

The Depot’s Instagram page, meanwhile, is doing some live-streaming of local artists’ shows, a series dubbed “Concerts from the Crib.”

Up first on Friday at 7 p.m.: Talia Keys.

Actually, Keys has been doing about three live-streamed shows a week of late, after a computer-savvy friend showed her how to bolster her audio quality from home and do some multicamera broadcasting.

“The silver lining is I am still able to work because of my privilege. I have instruments, I have internet, I have cameras,” she said. “And so we saw a huge outpouring and support and love and tips. And it’s been really helping me survive mentally.”

There’s been enough of an outpouring of public support into her Venmo and PayPal accounts, actually, that she has been able to pay it forward.

“We’ve been making enough money that I’m able to donate — we’ve been donating to the Utah Food Bank; we partnered up with KRCL and donated our entire proceeds from one of our performances — raised over $800 for KRCL during their radiothon; we partnered with the [Volunteers of America] Youth Homeless Resource Center; and then this weekend we partnered with The Road Home,” Keys said. “And so I’ve been able to donate at least a hundred bucks, if not even more, to each of these organizations.

“And so, you know, it’s been a way for me to be able to pay my bills, but then also pay to other people’s livestreams, donate to other local musicians, and also touring musicians that just lost their entire summer tour,” she continued. “So, yeah, it’s been able to help us, but then we can help others.”

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Talia Keys, shown performing at the 2016 Salt Awards, has been doing three livestream shows a week to bring in some income, and has been donating extra proceeds to local charities.

Middleton, Royal Bliss and The Royal are going a similar route, trying to find new and sometimes creative ways to bring in some revenue.

Three of the band members have taken on part-time jobs. Middleton is filling out unemployment paperwork for his bartenders, some of whom have been set up with sprinkler-installation or landscaping gigs just to bring in some money. He’s also been applying for Small Business Administration loans, which he calls “a pain in the ass.”

But when not doing all that, Middleton and his bandmates are getting together on The Royal stage — a few feet apart from one another, of course — either weekly or biweekly and playing gigs, streaming them on the internet for fans, and pointing some big speakers out toward the parking lot for people who come to eat some of the takeaway cheeseburgers, club sandwiches, fries and bottled 5%-or-under beer they’ve started making available, which they hope has the added benefit of giving fans some small sense of normalcy.

They’ve also auctioned off an autographed guitar, and started designing and selling new merchandise: “We actually just made Royal Bliss masks, and within 30 minutes, we sold 155 of them, which was amazing,” Middleton said.

“Realistically, our fans have been keeping our head above water right now,” he added. “Luckily, we had a little bit of money saved up to get us through the first month; if it goes into June, we’re gonna be in trouble. … I’m just trying to be positive and hope that everything works out, and that maybe we’ll get one of these SBA loans to help us make it through. Or else, worst-case scenario, I’m going to be cruisin’ down the street to Walmart or Home Depot and applying for a job.”

With that in mind, Keys made a plea for music fans to continue supporting musicians — however they can.

“Being able to play music has been my saving grace by far. And I never expect anything from anyone, but if they like it, I would love for them to like my Facebook page or subscribe to us on YouTube, or listen to us on Spotify,” she said. “And that can that can be said for any artist. Any artist you love right now is struggling. Every single artist has lost their gigs until [at least] July. So I would just say, if you don’t have money, simple things like subscribing to their YouTube channels and sharing their art with other people is huge.”