It’s quieter in downtown Gainesville these days.
Residents still filter in and out of local businesses for a bite to eat or a coffee break, and UF students still frequent their favorite spots with friends. But the energy, once electric, has lulled to a low hum.
Pat Lavery, facility and events manager at High Dive, felt the change.
“Downtown is dead,” he said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has left downtown Gainesville, an active area of local arts and culture, at a standstill. A major contributor to the desolation is the absence of live events in local venues.
These venues are still trying to decide how to safely provide entertainment and turn a profit in a time that’s been anything but opportune.
When the pandemic began in March, temporary closures were the immediate responses from venues both in Gainesville and throughout the country. But what was thought to be a weeks-long hiatus turned into a far more significant break in business.
“We were closed completely for over six months,” Lavery said.
Venues like High Dive spent the time finding safer alternatives to standard practices, cutting costs and creating solutions for the fact that “business as usual” couldn’t happen. What ensued was an onset of fundraising initiatives: t-shirts, gift cards, a GoFundMe page and more.
The options for operation were limited, though.
The various fundraisers worked to an extent, Lavery said, and High Dive is still on its feet, but being profitable means selling a product. While restaurants and other businesses could make changes to safely put products into customers’ hands, live venues did not have that luxury.
“There’s not really a takeout menu for live music,” Lavery said.
Other Gainesville stages have experienced similar struggles. Dave Melosh, owner and general manager of Heartwood Soundstage, said the venue is “barely breaking even.”
Heartwood, a venue specializing in audio and video recording of live music, also closed its doors from March to late September, save for one socially distanced outdoor show in June.
The past few months were touch-and-go, so much that Lavery said High Dive was “literally adjusting every week,” but new ventures have kept the venues afloat. High Dive initiated an alcohol delivery service for a short while along with their other fundraising efforts, and Heartwood now hosts a weekly farmers market with live music.
The alternatives provided some financial relief, but these establishments’ ultimate goal was left unmet.
“Our only purpose is to book and produce shows,” Lavery said.
Live entertainment venues exist for exactly that – live entertainment. But with in-person shows no longer an option, the question remained: How does live music start to make its way back?
The answer laid in the art of the livestream.
Heartwood, High Dive and other venues across the country have taken to the platform to distribute local music to their patrons. Bands play remotely or film at the venue, and the content is streamed to users through Facebook, YouTube or other services.
Local artists like Arrows In Action, Driveaway and The Forum have participated in a handful of High Dive’s “Live From Home” streaming benefit concerts, and Heartwood has recruited a host of local singer-songwriters for their “Song From The Heart” streaming series.
For MusicGNV co-founder Brandon Telg, live streaming hasn’t just been the most efficient avenue of operations – it’s been the only avenue.
MusicGNV is a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting Gainesville artists. The business was originally set to launch in May as a booking and public relations organization, among other services, but when the pandemic hit, Telg changed plans.
Instead, MusicGNV officially launched in March and has since served as an outlet for artists to perform live streams with their ongoing “Safe At Home” series.
“That wasn’t our intention, to do livestreams, but that’s what became available,” Telg said.
Current conditions considered, livestreams are the safest approach to providing entertainment, but in terms of filling in for the absence of live shows, Lavery said it’s simply not enough.
Venues like High Dive didn’t just function as flourishing businesses on their own: they were also profitable for the downtown area as a whole, Lavery said. Attending a High Dive show usually meant grabbing dinner at a nearby restaurant, stopping for drinks at a bar after the show or frequenting other local businesses.
“For every dollar that people spend on a ticket at High Dive, they’re spending, on average, another $12 elsewhere downtown,” Lavery said.
Perhaps the more significant impact, though, is the drain on Gainesville’s morale. The lack of energy is palpable, Melosh said.
After months of tightening belts and grasping at straws, of questions unanswered and futures uncertain, of some venues barely getting by and others not at all, Melosh said the lack of energy is palpable.
But the hard work is worth it if it means keeping live events in the Gainesville landscape, the venue officials said. It was impossible for them to overstate the value of live entertainment to local culture.
For Lavery, it “gives us an identity that we don’t really have otherwise.”
For Melosh, it’s “the breadth of what the Gainesville community is.”
And for Telg, live entertainment is the connection itself.
“I feel disconnected from my friends, from my community,” Telg said, “And a large part of that community for me was at events, was at concerts and was at live music.”
What comes next is still uncertain. Government aid, Lavery said, is the only viable solution to the financial crisis venues are experiencing. However, with the Save Our Stages Act, a Congressional bill drafted to provide aid to independent venues, still suspended in the Senate, these funds are not guaranteed.
The next option is support from the community, which the venues have experienced. Melosh said his venue has been kept alive by a loyal group of patrons who have continuously sent donations.
“There’s a pretty hardcore group of maybe 300 to 400 people in Gainesville who’ve supported Heartwood through thick and thin,” he said.
Under Gov. Ron DeSantis’s reopening plans, Florida venues are legally allowed to operate at 100% capacity, but some, like High Dive and Heartwood, are continuing with limitations and distancing guidelines. The approach is a gradual one, with the venues easing back into having a crowd present for live events.
Heartwood’s current plan, Melosh said, is to continue relying on their outdoor space for live events. Streaming events from their indoor space to an audience seated outdoors is also a possibility, he said.
High Dive is reintroducing live events as well, Lavery said, proceeding first with allowing patrons to watch livestreams from the beer garden and continuing with distanced seating inside the venue and a mandatory mask policy.
As for MusicGNV, Telg and his team are taking the next few months to regroup, with a current plan to step away from livestreaming starting in November.
“We are winding down the livestreams,” he said
These are the first of many steps to return to normalcy, which Melosh predicts may not happen for at least another year.
But it’s a return he said he looks forward to despite the potentially lengthy time frame. Though the marquee acts Gainesville attracts are cause for anticipation, Melosh said the real magic of live shows lies in the little moments of connection and community.
“Your scene is only as good as the collection of those moments you have,” he said.
And in Gainesville venues, where Saturday nights bleed into Sunday mornings, and hometown heroes pour their hearts out for a crowd of their closest family and friends, those moments exist in spades.
There has never been a more challenging time to be in the live music industry, Telg said, but if there were a single truth to be understood from the circumstances, he said it would be this:
“There is no equal to live music.”