An empty stage at Studio5 (Photo submitted by Studio5)

Operators of Evanston’s live music venues expect continued challenges due to the pandemic, but there is hope the music and their businesses will return this year. Outdoor concerts are on the horizon for late summer and club owners are crossing fingers for indoor performances starting in the fall.

“I’m not counting on anything, but we’re hoping for live music in September,” said Steve Rashid, co-founder of Studio5, which shares a performance space at Evanston Dance Center on Dempster Street.

Liz Breslin, who along with her husband Patrick owns the Celtic Knot Public House on Church Street, says live Irish and bluegrass music are missed. “Music is vital to our business. It created a community for us during normal times and is a big part of our identity,” Ms. Breslin said. “It’s been a challenging year, but we’re still standing, taking it day by day.”

The National Independent Venue Association (NIVA), founded at the start of the pandemic, says 90% of music establishments around the country could go out of business. “Venues have zero revenue, but obligations like mortgage or rent, utility bills, loans, taxes and insurance,” said Audrey Schaffer, NIVA communications director. “These entertainment hubs are critical to local economies. They pay taxes to their local communities and are important as revenue generators for neighboring businesses, such as restaurants, retail and others.”

“We shut our doors and it was clear we would be among the last business to reopen,” said Jake Samuels, managing partner and talent buyer at SPACE, a leading music venue in Evanston. SPACE, which shares a once-busy hub with Union Pizzeria on Chicago Avenue, hosted its last live show on March 12, 2020.

“Unfortunately we had to say goodbye to a lot of our beloved staff,” Mr. Samuels said. About 20 members of the service staff, along with sound engineers and others, were let go.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen with live music,” said Mr. Rashid. “The community’s been good to us. Having a place where we can present performances at an affordable price felt like a way to share with the community. We don’t want to lose that,” he said.

Evanston music venues have adapted through the pandemic by turning to outdoor and virtual performances. SPACE launched “to-go shows” last summer, bringing solo musicians to the homes of nearly one hundred Evanston and North Shore residences for backyard shows. From July through October they hosted concerts in a parking lot for up to 50 people, with temperature checks, masks and social distancing for safety. “It was an excellent way to keep musicians working and keep us working. People were thrilled after being deprived of live music,” Mr. Samuels said. “We pivoted and pivoted and pivoted, trying to keep some element of music going.”

Also on last summer’s calendar was Out of SPACE, four nights featuring national music acts on stages at Canal Shores Golf Course and at Evanston’s Temperance Beer Company. SPACE canceled those shows too, but Mr. Samuels is moving ahead with tentative plans for outdoor concerts in August.

Mr. Rashid has shifted to new performance strategies multiple times. They included streaming live concerts and videos of conversations with musicians with clips of past performances at the club. Since January, Mr. Rashid has produced live online interactive shows called “Into the Mist,” which have attracted viewers from all over the U.S., as well as Singapore, Australia and Norway. “We’re grateful to the community for being willing to embrace what we’re trying to deliver and staying with us,” he said.

NIVA, which has three thousand members around the country, has lobbied Congress for financial aid. The industry anxiously awaited release of grants under the Shuttered Venue Operators grant (SVOG) program, part of the stimulus legislation signed in December that’s intended to jump-start the overall economy. The bill includes more than $16 billion for grants to entertainment spaces and promoters and is the largest public rescue of the arts in U.S. history. The Small Business Administration, which will administer the grants, says it has taken time to build the program. Grant applications finally opened to venue operators on April 8.

NIVA says until funding begins to flow, thousands of music venues remain at risk of permanent closure. Paycheck Protection Program loans have been available to some, but the Venue Grants are seen as essential to long-term survival.

The owners of Evanston’s SPACE worked with NIVA by lobbying Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky and Senators Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth for passage of the grant program. “There’s an urgency here,” said Mr. Samuels. “It’s a fragile ecosystem, and we’ve seen a lot of our colleagues around the country shutter their venues permanently.”

Live Music outside Celtic Knot (Photo submitted by Celtic Knot)

Liz Breslin is realistic about the hurdles still ahead, but is hopeful for a recovery. “We’re planning for more outdoor live music and talking about when we might be able to open indoor again,” she said. “We’re social beings and being in the same space with people, experiencing music, is an essential part of everybody’s life.”

“We don’t know what’s going to happen with live music,” said Mr. Rashid, but he does expect performances and audiences to return. “We’re so grateful to the community for being willing embrace what we’ve tried to deliver and for staying with us.”

At SPACE, Mr. Samuels is moving forward with plans for a return to near-normal. “I’m quite optimistic. There’s an understanding that outdoors events can be done safely and we’re seeing that all over the country. As vaccines continue to flow, there’s optimism.”

SPACE has already booked music artists for shows starting in September, although Mr. Samuels knows those events are uncertain. “There’s never been a doubt that people are ready and eager to see live music again. That gives us a lot of faith for the future. If those shows can happen, we’ll have the best fall we’ve ever had. But we still have a long way go.”