SPRING LAKE — Gary and Michelle Hanks have spent the last nine years building a niche business and bringing a variety of singer-songwriters and rising musicians to Seven Steps Up.
But COVID-19 has Gary Hanks worried it could all fall apart — permanently. Independent performance venues across the country were some of the first places to close and likely will be the last to reopen.
On a good day, Hanks remains hopeful concerts scheduled this summer or rebooked for the fall will actually happen. On a bad day, he thinks the 2020 schedule is a goner.
“We go from one extreme to the other, almost hourly,” he said. “We’re not managing it. We’re totally shut down. We really have nothing to sell other than the concerts we do.”
The venue had a solid lineup of concerts scheduled this spring, but it has been closed since mid March after the governor’s first executive orders limiting group gatherings and closing nonessential businesses.
Even as people adjust to a new way of life and the economy starts to reopen, the question remains: Will people want to gather in close quarters and listen to live music?
Seven Steps Up is located in the former Spring Lake Masonic Temple, a renovated historic landmark that dates to 1919 and can comfortably seat up to 130 or so concertgoers.
The venue offers concerts both in a listening room as well as club-style setting. However, Seven Steps Up was designed to be an intimate performance space, meaning social distancing rules or reduced occupancy limits would make it nearly impossible for the venue to turn a profit.
“One of my guesses is they may let us reopen but with restrictions that don’t make it economically possible,” Hanks said. “We bring in national touring artists and they are not cheap.”
Hanks said a 100-person limit would be viable if the venue doesn’t have to comply with the six-foot social distancing requirement.
“Like probably every independent small venue, it’s packed tight to get those people in,” he said. “I tried to do an estimate. If we had to do six-foot separation and let couples sit next to each other, we could hold 44 people. I looked at the economics, and we would lose money.”
Initially, artists and their agents started calling to postpone or reschedule shows planned for this spring. Most of them have committed to performing at a later date rather than cancel.
“Logistically, it’s tough for everybody,” Hanks said. “They may be coming from anywhere in the country. They have to put together a string of shows. If only a couple venues are open, it doesn’t make sense for them to come.”
Hanks recently joined the National Independent Venue Association, which is lobbying Congress for financial assistance for independent music venues. His wife, Michelle Hanks, works as a CPA, which is helping sustain the couple. Seven Steps Up did not apply for a Paycheck Protection Program loan, and although they closed the venue, there are ongoing expenses such as the mortgage, insurance, music licensing fees, liquor license, health department permits and building maintenance.
Seven Steps Up tried hosting a couple of virtual concerts, including one featuring Ruth and Max Bloomquist, but there were some technical glitches. The owners invested in technology that can broadcast the concert on multiple channels simultaneously and continue to post live videos of artists on the venue’s social media channels.
Gary Hanks said they have considered various reopening scenarios and could react quickly, but so many unknowns remain around artists’ and patrons’ safety. In addition, heavy restrictions on crowd size could force many venues to close or increase ticket prices.
“I will say we have the world’s greatest fans and, in most cases, we haven’t given several thousands back to people asking for refunds,” he said. “The majority have said hang onto our money, we’ll use (the tickets) for the new date. Our No. 1 concern is that everyone be safe and stay alive, including us and our staff.”