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'Save Our Stages': The future of live music in the home of Rock and Roll

Mike Polk Jr. on the challenges facing the live music scene during the pandemic

CLEVELAND — There's not a lot of boppin’ at BOP STOP this summer. 

It’s pretty quiet most nights at Nighttown.

The pandemic has been a problem for all small businesses. but it’s been uniquely challenging for independent music venues. But it’s not like music is a big part of our city’s identity or anything...Oh wait.

If you own a pizza shop right now, with some adjustments you can keep selling pizza, and if you have a book store you can still sell books.The problem for live music venues is that the product they’re offering is fundamentally incompatible with COVID-19.

Live music is, by nature, intimate and communal, and as we know, those are ideal conditions to spread the virus. According to Sean Watterson, owner of the iconic Happy Dog in the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood, it’s not that Cleveland’s music venues want to be quiet right now, but they feel they have little choice.

"Health is the first and the most important [thing]," he said. "We don't have outdoor space to kind of expand our footprint, and we just didn't feel safe putting musicians and our staff and our customers at risk."

Local musician John Ponza of the band Hiram-Maxim understands why performances are at a standstill right now.

"It's just not considered safe at this point," he said. "You don't want to overcrowd the club...but if you don't have enough people there, no one makes any money."

So many bands and venues are experimenting with alternative ways to present live music. Some are streaming their performances online, or commandeering drive-In movie theaters, or separating fans into individual boxes that, due to the limited number, unsurprisingly come at a steep price.   

Many club owners like Watterson are hopeful that newly introduced bi-partisan legislation could help rescue independent music venues across the country. For more information on that effort, visit SaveOurStages.com.

Hopefully, with time and a little help, the Cleveland music scene will return to greatness. And hopefully, for those of us who desperately need a polka fix, that day will come sooner than later.