Unlike most music venues, at the Blue Jay Listening Room, silence is welcome. But for the popular Jax Beach establishment, the incessant quietude of the new-normal has been disturbing.
Owner Cara Murphy is used to packing ‘em in, using every bit of her rustic listening room’s 1400 square feet to house Blue Jay’s fervent following. She’s designed the space for a distinctive live music experience–one predicated on an attentive audience.
Even before finding this permanent location for her dream venture, Murphy built Blue Jay’s reputation by bringing in local, regional, and international artists who, aside from earning acclaim for their efficacy in American art forms such as jazz, blues, and folk, are also renowned storytellers. In 2017, Murphy moved what was a kind of DIY venture from a raised-entry home in Jax Beach’s antique alley to an arched-entry and terracotta-roofed strip mall off Third Street, bringing Blue Jay’s modus operandi with it: The conversational shouting and commentary that’s commonplace in typical venues or concert halls is discouraged. Audiences offer their full attention to the performers, mindfully hearkening the music and intra-set banter.
And Blue Jay was thriving.
But success as a live music impresario, like a falsetto vocal run or an improvisational guitar solo, is a tightrope walk. Small venues mean a lower volume of ticket sales. Booze can be a boost, but margin-enhancing liquor licenses are prohibitively expensive, or–as is the case in Jax Beach–nearly impossible to acquire. So Murphy, night after night, packed ‘em in to Blue Jay. Until March, when s*** hit the fan.
“These past few months been one weird-a** blur,” says Murphy of the coronavirus and subsequent economic restrictions-induced chaos wrought upon her business. In mid-March, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis dropped the hammer on live music venues in the state, ordering bars and nightclubs to shutter.
“I had some really incredible shows coming up that I had been looking forward to for months. I had to issue refunds, manage cancellations and I just thought, ‘This will only last for like a month, right? What if it lasts for two months, or even three?’”
Blue Jay hasn’t hosted a show since March 14th. Nearly half a year since she closed the doors, Murphy’s venue sits empty. For Murphy and other venue-runners and impresarios in Northeast Florida, the silence is painful. And the hurt could get worse.
According to a survey by the National Independent Venue Association, an advocacy group for music venue owners and promoters whose members include The Bowery Ballroom in New York, the Troubadour in Los Angeles, 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C. and Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, 90% of independent venue owners say that they will have to close permanently within the next few months without help from the government. Most musicians make the bulk of their income through live performances and touring, something they won’t be doing for the foreseeable future. And many experts and industry leaders are now assuming that they won’t be able to reopen before 2021.
In Northeast Florida, businesses like Blue Jay play a vital role in a relatively small but mighty ecosystem of venues–from sizable ones like The Florida Theatre, Ponte Vedra Concert Hall, and The Amp to midsize clubs like Jack Rabbits,1904 Music Hall, and smaller-capacity spots like Rain Dogs., Shantytown Pub, and Sarbez. Meanwhile, music promotion outfits like Flying Saucer Presents, Jax Live, Winterland, and a handful of music-focused nonprofits like Avant work concurrently with these venues to bring in national acts, and hundreds of local artists, bands, DJs, and other creatives make use of them as a platform and–occasionally–a decent payday.
Music venues are also reliable employers, providing steady income to an incalculable number of locals who engineer the sound for bands, manage or tend the bar, work the door, and more.
As a local employer, as well as both launching pad for locals and draw for outsiders, Northeast Florida’s music venues are invaluable. Like in the natural world, each part of the region’s live-music ecosystem is dependent on the others. And a loss of even one venue could be devastating to the entire metaphorical biome.
Faced with the uncertainty of an open ended global pandemic, Jack Rabbits braintrust Tim and Anne Hall launched a GoFundMe campaign in an effort to ensure their legendary San Marco venue sees its third decade.
One of the region’s premier live music venues, Jack Rabbits built its own rep on the eclectic tastes and locally minded booking of venue founder Tim Hall. For two decades Hall’s been foreshadowing the kind of genre-averse curation that’s now the taste of Millennials and Gen Z, opening up the house for everything from hip-hop, ska, and surf rock, to emo, pop-punk, hardcore, and everything in between. Jack Rabbits has not only been a place to see popular contemporary acts at their peak, but also one for legends like Dick Dale, Lee “Scratch” Perry, and Jonathan Richman to continue to burn bright rather than fade. Beyond that, upstart local bands have always been welcomed onto the Jack Rabbits stage with open arms (and quality sound!).
“It’s not the first time we’ve ever had to postpone shows. But we’ve never had to do it on this large of a scale,” says Tim. The Jack Rabbits campaign raised more than $30K, money which the Halls say will be used to “pay fixed expenses and other time sensitive bills so that Jack Rabbits can make it into 2021.” But even that timetable looks optimistic.
In a head-snapping podcast interview, Lollapalooza cofounder Marc Greiger–who’s considered a luminary within the live music industry–said he doesn’t see in-person concerts or festivals returning until 2022.
“It’s going to take that long before what I call ‘the germaphobia economy’ is slowly killed off and replaced by what I call the ‘claustrophobia economy’–that’s when people want to get out and go out to dinner and have their lives, go to festivals and shows,” Geiger said, on the The Bob Lefsetz Podcast.
Even if venues were allowed to reopen sooner, public health restrictions such as limited-audience capacity make businesses like Murphy’s and the Hall’s economically unviable. So what’s a small music club to do? Like PPE, aerosols, and a handful of other terms, livestream is part of the new coronavirus-argot. And both Blue Jay and Jack Rabbits have taken a swing at livestream concerts, with uneven success.
“It started out really well and we were getting donations left and right,” says Murphy of “Songs From Another Room,” a series of live shows recorded in artists’ homes and streamed on Blue Jay’s Facebook page. But enthusiasm for the series eventually fizzled after just two months. “I know that people can only donate so much money. We’re all broke right now.”
Jack Rabbits hosted “Jack of All Streams” during Phase One of the pandemic. Curated by Hall and friends like singer-songwriter rickoLus, the livestream was, in Hall’s eyes, something worth replicating, though certainly not a viable alternative to in-person shows.
While it’s been a boon for access to music, the boundless connectivity of our modern world has undoubtedly hindered engagement for local artists and local venues who try to make use of livestreaming. When Phoebe Bridgers decides to jump on IG live from her Los Angeles home, or Nicole Kidman dances through the frame of her husband Keith Urban’s impromptu stream, or Diplo sets up his ones-and-twos in his living room and goes live to Facebook, there are few eyeballs remaining for Jacksonville bands performing at Jacksonville venues. And lately, venture capital has been flowing to emerging livestream platforms like Patreon and Maestro, as well as established services like Pandora jumping into the game. Whatever experience a small, regional venue might have been able to offer will surely be eclipsed by the capabilities of more well-heeled operations.
That’s not to say that Jacksonville-based musicians aren’t prepared to test their own novel ideas. Avant, a local nonprofit that brings in renowned artists from wildly disparate genres, is leading the way. In September, Avant will host two nights of performances of a collaborative piece created by three regional artists: choreographer and Jacksonville University faculty-member Glenn Morgan and his team of dancers (G Morgan Choreography) will present three new works of dance, while Jacksonville musician John Touchton (Severed+Said) and St. Augustine poet Kevin Mahoney provide auditory support. The artists will perform on an outdoor stage in front of no more than 40 people, with seating spaced in such a way to allow parties of up to four people to sit together in designated areas.
A logistical feat, to be sure. And potentially profitable. Is it a model for the future? Musician Cory Driscoll, “Family Threads” impresario and longtime Avant volunteer isn’t so sure.
“Well, that’s the million dollar question,” he says. “And I don’t know. For ‘Family Threads’ we are limited to around 40 people with the socially-distanced, open-air seating. So, while we can do the show, there is very little budgetary wiggle room.
“It’s what we’re doing with this show because it’s the only viable option, but there will be difficult decisions to be made about admission price versus artist compensation, artistic vision versus budgetary restrictions. A limited audience means a higher ticket price or less revenue. Basic math says something’s got to give.”
The bipartisan “Save Our Stages” bill, which would allocate $10 billion in grant money to venues around the country has been lingering in congress for weeks. But the federal government’s mismanagement of the pandemic response, in general, doesn’t offer much confidence that help may be on the way in the near term. So do venue runners hold their collective breath? What choice do they have?
Uncertainty is the default position of the new normal–variability pervades everything from healthcare to the economy, education, and politics. And while he’s never seen anything like the coronavirus pandemic, Jack Rabbits’s Tim Hall has seen a lot in his more than 22 years running shows in Jacksonville. He sees a stable future for the region’s live music scene.
“Making music and listening to music together is something humanity just does and has been doing for millennia,” he says. “The pandemic will spark a flurry of new options and structures for artists, agents, promoters, venues, and fans to establish new expectations. What we [Jack Rabbits] do have going for us is that, as a small company, we can adapt quickly. We plan on being here for another twenty years.”
This feature originally appeared under the headline “Painful Silence: The pandemic and subsequent economic restrictions have hit Jacksonville’s live music scene especially hard; and the city’s most-beloved venues are at risk” in Void Magazine’s September 2020 issue.