FORT SMITH, Ark. — Travis McCready sang “Riders,” a song about perseverance, on Monday in a former Masonic Temple as Americans returned to hear live music in a concert hall for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic pulled the plug on the nation’s entertainment industry.
“I think this means hope to a lot of people,” said Lance Beaty, the president of the company that owns the venue in Fort Smith, Temple Live. “This is an experiment, though, on how does that work.”
The concert offered a preview of what music fans may expect from an industry struggling to find a path forward in the age of social distancing. Forget arenas roiling with sweating, screaming fans. Here, concertgoers were required to buy seats in clusters, or what promoters call “fan pods” — presumably a group of friends comfortable being in proximity — with scores of empty seats roped off on all sides to ensure space between strangers. Of the 1,100 seats available, just 20% were available for sale.
Planned tours of superstar acts like Taylor Swift, the Black Keys and Bob Dylan remain mothballed, but Dave Poe, a New York-based concert promoter and a co-founder of the Independent Promoter Alliance, called Monday night’s event “a great jump-start to the industry.”
Outside the concert hall, LaLisa Smiddy and Marcy Randolph, best friends from Duncan, Oklahoma, embraced the return of live music. Smiddy and Randolph, both 53, drove almost four hours with a homemade sign to hear McCready. It read “Okies (HEART) Travis and Van,” a reference to the musician’s Great Dane. The sign whipped in the wind as they stood in their face masks and waited for their temperatures to be taken.
“We’re happy to be here,” Smiddy said. “I’m one of the more paranoid ones out there, and when I saw everything this venue has done, I was ready to come. I think they’ve done an outstanding job.”
Many fans said they were ready for some semblance of regular life, even though the coronavirus pandemic had made this concert unlike any they had ever attended. For Daniel Neathery, 33, of Benton, Arkansas, the new normal meant having to buy six tickets — at $20 a pop — an entire fan pod, even though he came alone.
“For me it was worth it to have some normalcy,” he said.
Texas, Missouri and other states are also gradually reopening entertainment sites and bars, with restrictions. Poe predicted it would be smaller venues like Temple Live that are the first to reopen because of lower operating costs, fewer staff members and the hesitation of some top-billed artists who work the larger arenas to expose themselves and their fans to the coronavirus.
“With the economy being the way it is, and ticket prices the way they are,” he said, promoters “are going to aim for smaller capacities to start out. It’s a regional, slow process at this point. I don’t see national tours happening.”
The economics of a show that prioritizes social distancing played out here, as a full staff of nearly 30 employees worked a house that was 80% empty. Ushers, wearing masks, guided patrons through the hallways to enforce one-way traffic flow. Others monitored the bathrooms to enforce social distancing. Two bartenders worked each service station — one to exclusively handle money, the other dedicated to food and beverage.
Even with the show selling nearly all its available tickets, Beaty said he lost money on the night. “It’s clearly not a financial decision that we did this,” he said.
At the door, fans received not only a temperature check, but also a mask if they did not have one, and they were required to wear them throughout the show. Yellow caution tape partitioned the red velvet seats. Bathroom sinks and urinals were taped off so that patrons never got too close. Arrows on the floor guided one-way traffic. Dots indicated 6-foot distances.
Monday’s concert was the culmination of a showdown between the operators of Temple Live and Gov. Asa Hutchinson that drew national attention to Fort Smith. The McCready concert was originally scheduled for Friday, three days before the date the governor set to reopen indoor venues such as theaters, arenas and stadiums in Arkansas — and then only with audiences of 50 people or fewer.
Temple Live representatives argued that, with appropriate safety measures, they should receive the same, more lenient standards of houses of worship.
“If you can go to a church and it’s a public assembly, there is no difference,” said Mike Brown, a representative for Temple Live. “How is it OK for one group to have a public meeting, and it’s not OK for a music venue to have the same opportunity?”
State health officials argued that a concert was more dangerous because it was likelier to attract out-of-state visitors and soon issued a cease-and-desist order. When promoters refused to back down, authorities seized the Temple Live liquor license last week.
At a news conference Thursday afternoon, Beaty argued that his constitutional rights had been trampled but said he was helpless to fight.
“I guess the governor wants me to say … ‘We will move the show,’ ” he said. “Is that what you want to hear? We will move the show. I hope you’re happy.”
Apparently, the governor was. After conceding defeat, Temple Live had its liquor license returned and the seating capacity of 229 approved for the Monday night show.
The McCready concert doesn’t mean the entertainment industry will come roaring back any time soon. Audrey Fix Schaefer, a spokesman for the nascent National Independent Venue Association, said she did not know of any significant concerts planned by its 1,600 members.
“There are some folks in places where they could restart shows but they don’t feel ready, because they want to make sure it’s done in a way that’s safe,” Schaefer said.
The industry generally remains fearful of its financial health because of widespread closures, bills to pay, and millions in revenue lost in refunds to customers for canceled shows.
Schaefer’s organization, formed in March, hired the white-shoe lobbying firm Akin Gump to lobby Congress for financial support. “We were the first to close,” Schaefer said, “and we will be the last to open. We have zero revenue right now.”
In Fort Smith at times on Monday night, the monitoring and safety precautions designed to comfort health officials and music fans gave the rock concert an elementary school feel.
Fans, though, said it didn’t affect their experience. “I don’t think that would discourage anybody who’s a fan of live music,” said Jake Lung, 24, of Marked Tree, Arkansas.
Lung, a McCready fan, said he drove six hours to see the show. He was like many who said that, for all the hoopla about the virus and the first concert and the hurdles it had to clear, they had come for the music, not to make any statement about reopening the entertainment industry.
“He’s a genuine sweetheart,” Randolph said of McCready, whom she said she had met at a previous show. “His voice is amazing and he has the best heart.”