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'We've been screwed': Local music venues struggle as state restrictions carry on

Local 506, a music venue in Chapel Hill, pictured on Sunday, Oct. 4, 2020.

The rush of the crowd, the energy of the performer, the applause after the encore. With an extended pause of live music events, Chapel Hill music venues are navigating ways to provide entertainment in a socially distanced world. 

Local 506 is one Chapel Hill venue that has been closed since the start of the pandemic, according to bar owner Rob Walsh.

“We shut down in the last week of March, before the state mandated us to do so, just because a lot of the bars in Chapel Hill were shutting down,” Walsh said. “But then the state closed all bars, so we can’t even open in a limited capacity because we don’t serve food. So we’ve been shut down, effectively, since March.”

On Wednesday, Gov. Roy Cooper announced the state will remain in Phase 3 of its COVID-19 reopening plan. This means indoor bar facilities remain closed, and non-bar nightclubs and lounges are subject to mass gathering limits. 

Walsh said that he and his fellow bar owners have not received information from the state about when things are going to change, and he doesn’t anticipate reopening until at least January.

Jody Kidney, the owner of The Kraken Bar, is also discouraged by the lack of support from the state government for the countless individually owned music venues in North Carolina.

“We’ve been screwed,” Kidney said. “There are a lot of bars that are not getting any sort of government assistance whatsoever, and we need it, we desperately need it.”

The federal Paycheck Protection Program is closed to new applicants, but the state is accepting applicants for the Mortgage, Utility and Rent Relief Program (MURR), which will not guarantee funds. 

Kidney said the rules will allow a certain percentage of the bar’s indoor capacity to attend outdoor events, but with no mention of grants or monetary relief for venues.

The two bar owners said they have not given up. 

“We're keeping the lights on and we’re trying to figure out ways to generate some revenue right now,” Walsh said. “Livestreaming seems to be kind of hit or miss, but we’re trying to see if we can maybe have private events.”

The Kraken Bar has also found success with virtual performing, Kidney said. Every Wednesday, they livestream a band called "Jonathan Byrd & The Pickup Cowboys" from The Kraken’s stage.

For Kidney, weekly livestream performance has been a mutually beneficial arrangement for both the band and the venue, as both parties are unable to provide live entertainment.

Cat’s Cradle, another popular Chapel Hill venue, is also livestreaming bands while focusing on preventing the technical difficulties that are often associated with livestreams.

On its website, Cat’s Cradle said it is using “amazing sound and multi-camera HD video” to stream live performers from its stage. 

In addition to livestreaming, Kidney also said many local bars have resorted to GoFundMe to keep their venues in business. 

“Like every venue in Chapel Hill, we have got a GoFundMe, it’s called 'Love The Kraken,'” Kidney said. “We have been so incredibly fortunate, people have just been coming out of the woodwork to help us.”

Although desperate to return to life as normal, both bar owners emphasized the importance of safety and community during this time. 

Walsh’s venue is working with other local businesses to initiate some sort of outdoor event, but he doesn’t see a way to keep indoor events safe until the state allows it.

“Being shut down has been kind of life-altering, so I take it seriously,” Walsh said. “I would hate for anyone to get sick.”

Kidney believes local businesses and musicians need to support each other now more than ever before. 

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“Bars and music venues are getting screwed, but I’m not going to be angry that restaurants get something good,” Kidney said. “We are all in this together. I want all Chapel Hill small businesses to succeed.”