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Reopening Live Music Right, Right Now

When the pandemic calms down, how do we re-open live music? Lava Cantina, a hangout outside Dallas, TX, is an early example of trying to open up right—and for the right reasons.

While up to 120 patrons are allowed inside Lava Cantina's backyard for concerts, it's the 40-space parking lot livestream that sells out nightly.
While up to 120 patrons are allowed inside Lava Cantina’s backyard for concerts, it’s the 40-space parking lot livestream that sells out nightly. Lava Cantina/Facebook

The United States is edging toward plugging the economy back in, and while a handful of states have begun reopening with mixed results, clearly there is no one-size-fits-all answer for when or how to open up.

Where I live, on the outskirts of coronavirus hotspot New York City, more than 2,000 people in my county have died from COVID-19, hundreds of them at the hospital four blocks from my house, so things are—and should be—closed here. But maybe it’s not like that where you live (I hope not) and maybe the lockdowns are overkill for your area. What then?

Ultimately, there’s no truly safe way to open things back up until there’s a vaccine, but your state is going to open up soon if it hasn’t already, which means the only option left is to do so as safely as possible. Naturally, nobody can agree on how to do that, especially when it comes to live concerts. Case in point: the national headlines over a Travis McCready show in Little Rock, AR, where authorities pulled the venue’s liquor license until the promoters changed their already extensive safety plans. Many in the concert industry were left wondering if that was just a taste of things to come.

So when I heard through the grapevine that a place outside Dallas has been holding two concerts nearly every night for live audiences since May 8, my jaw hit the floor. How were they keeping customers safe but also happy? And—keep in mind what it’s like where I live—how crazy were they? I called up Ian Vaughn, owner of Lava Cantina in The Colony, TX, and let me tell you: not crazy at all.

Lava Cantina's 'backyard' holds 120 people during a show, well below it's 1,800 cap during normal times.
Lava Cantina’s ‘backyard’ is hosting 120 people during a show, well below its 1,800 cap during normal times. Lava Cantina/Facebook

For one thing, far fewer people have died from COVID-19 in Denton County than where I live (25), but even so, his place is reopening right, not only in terms of safety, but also for the right reasons, discovering creative ways to keep the staff working when unemployment figures are spiking, finding partners with which to pool resources and buoy all their businesses in the process, and more.

“It’s better to be safe than sorry in a circumstance like this,” he began, “so we keep everybody far, far apart. Everybody’s wearing gloves, everybody’s got masks on. We are going above and beyond what we’ve been asked to do.” Lava Cantina has more than 100 employees—it’s a big place—and when the venue got Payroll Protection from the government, that meant Vaughn had to find ways to keep them all working.

Eagle AVL/Miller Pro AVL mix six-camera livestreams on an Avid S6L.
Eagle AVL/Miller Pro AVL mixes six-camera livestreams on an Avid S6L console. Lava Cantina/Facebook

He quickly teamed up with locally based Eagle AVL/Miller Pro AVL, which, among other services, provides video production for national tours and events. Now Eagle’s techs keep working, too, shooting nightly six-camera concert livestreams for Lava Cantina’s Facebook page, which is getting nearly a million impressions a week, allowing the venue to sell sponsorships of its streams. Bands, meanwhile, get promo footage that would normally cost thousands to shoot, along with virtual tip jar money. To make sure the jar is stuffed, Vaughn got local restaurants to donate $10 gift cards; fans who tip $20 get $60 in cards, which drives new customers into those restaurants desperate for business.

Lava Cantina's parking lot
While up to 120 patrons are allowed inside Lava Cantina’s backyard for concerts, it’s the 40-space parking lot livestream that sells out nightly.

The venue’s main stage is in the backyard—a “backyard” that normally holds 1,800 people. Local authorities are allowing 25 percent capacity audiences, but Vaughn’s keeping it to 15 percent, 120 customers, ensuring there’s an excess of room. For those who aren’t comfortable yet with a full-fledged evening out, there’s the parking lot which hosts the venue’s own take on the increasingly popular drive-in concert concept. Here, up to 40 cars can drive in and watch the livestreams on LED screens, hearing the show via Omega Corps line arrays. Each car gets 20 feet to itself, along with a table for four that’s been cleaned and sanitized. “The drive-in sells out every night,” said Vaughn.

The arrangement is a hit, but it’s not a long-term solution. “If we were paying retail on this right now, it would not be feasible,” Vaughn admitted, but it’s keeping people working and giving customers a much-needed break. “This is not a money-making play by any stretch of the imagination. It is a goodwill opportunity. We see it as a great partnership with the community that’s just turned into something much bigger.”

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