Signs Of Hope In Charlotte's Live Music Industry
When all of this started more than a year ago – the spread of the coronavirus, the masking and distancing, the general shutdown of life — the marquee at Neighborhood Theatre in Charlotte’s NoDa neighborhood tried to summarize what everyone was feeling and thinking.
Two little letters positioned in front of “COVID-19” were stuck on the marquee above the doors, an abbreviated signal of universal disapproval and frustration. Photographs of the sign ricocheted throughout Charlotte, often passed along with an anguished chuckle.
For a while over the summer, the sign declared “Black Lives Matter.” And “If you want live music back, wear a mask.”
Now, the marquee above the music venue offers a message of hope:
“WE ARE BACK,” it reads.
“Our marquee has sort of been the bellwether of the Charlotte music scene, I think, over the last year or so,” said Gregg McCraw, the owner of MaxxMusic, which operates the theater.
Technically, Neighborhood Theatre won’t open its doors until June 17, when Grammy winner Graham Sharp of Steep Canyon Rangers is scheduled to perform in the first concert at the venue in 15 months and 10 days. And McCraw is stunned that Neighborhood Theatre has managed to hold on through it all.
It’s taken a GoFundMe, an art project auction of theater parts, the formation of a local independent music venue alliance, some CARES Act funding and the promise of a federal grant, but the Neighborhood Theatre is still above water.
So is the Evening Muse, Amos’ Southend and Visulite Theatre – a handful of Charlotte’s other largest members of the Charlotte Independent Venue Alliance, which organized to help the venues stay connected and informed during the pandemic.
“The fact that Charlotte lost no music venues, no independent music venues — or corporate music venues for that matter — but we lost no independent music venues in the city during the pandemic is a miracle,” McCraw said. “We're a lucky city, because other cities didn't fare so well.”
Shortly after McCraw realized that the COVID-19 shutdown was going to last longer than a few weeks, he “threw up the white flag,” and set up a GoFundMe to help cover basic costs at Neighborhood Theatre, the largest of the city’s independent music venues. Within a week, the fund raised more than $50,000.
“The fact that Charlotte lost no music venues, no independent music venues — or corporate music venues for that matter — but we lost no independent music venues in the city during the pandemic is a miracle. We're a lucky city, because other cities didn't fare so well.”
As the doors remained shuttered, McCraw figured it would be a good time to do some interior work in the theater. He replaced the stage, making it sturdier — but kept the discarded pile of plywood. A group of local artists turned the scraps into art that was auctioned off, and raised another $35,000 for Neighborhood Theatre.
“I can't speak for every venue owner, but for us, every time we thought, ‘We're done. We're down to the very last penny of the bank account,’ something like that happened,” McCraw said.
CARES Act funding allocated by the city of Charlotte subsidized up to $15,000 for rent or mortgage assistance, an injection of funds that McCraw says was vitally important to survival. Now, he and others are still waiting to hear word on a Shuttered Venue Operators grant through the U.S. Small Business Administration, with grants equal to 45% of gross earned revenue. He and most independent music venues fell under what they deemed “First Priority” in the grant application – meaning the business had lost 90% of its revenue from April to December of 2020.
“And none of us had a problem meeting that 90% threshold,” McGraw said. “Most of us were in the 95-98% threshold.”
Every time he clicks the website for a status update on his application, however, it just says “submitted.” Those are funds he needs for upgrades at Neighborhood Theatre to make it a safer venue, he said. He wants to update the bathrooms to include all touchless fixtures, make payment touchless and install an air purification system.
“We have to make changes to the venue to assure that we're operating more safely and so that we don't have another COVID-type outbreak,” he said. “There are things that have sat not running for a year and two months. So, you don't just walk in, flip the switch.”
Oh, but that moment when he can flip the switch and when the Neighborhood Theatre is back is coming soon. It’s feels so close that McCraw can imagine it -- and he's making a desperate plea to ensure it becomes reality.
“Please, God, everybody get out, get vaccinated so we can reopen and stay reopened,” he said. “That's a request from whatever your favorite music venue is in Charlotte. We all are making the same request. The last thing we want is for, you know, to have another spike or something that sets us back. You know, we finally feel like we're here.”
As for what that June 17 concert will look like? McCraw really isn’t sure. Although capacity limits and mask requirements have been lifted in North Carolina, he’s not sure what people attending concerts will be comfortable with – either right now or a month from now.
“It's a challenge to get those people all in one space, as you can imagine, because — just like our politics right now — each side of how you feel about the safety aspects of COVID seem to irritate the other side,” McCraw said. “Which is very unfortunate. And I don't want to get into a political discussion, but I err on the side of safety.
"I can't tell you exactly what that show will look like in terms of masking, social distancing, all of those things. But we are very confident that we can have the show. We just have to wait and see."