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Virus puts local musicians on desolation row

By Paul Srubas

GREEN BAY – Coming soon to a venue near you: It’s Cathy COVID and the Pandemics!

It’s not the only band in town, but anywhere you go these days, they are definitely the headliner.

Most Green Bay area musicians are just scraping up the leftover gigs as social distancing, masking and self-isolation continue to overshadow people’s desires to forget about their troubles, forget about COVID-19 and head to the bars for a good time.

“I had a lot of stuff booked and got a lot of stuff cancelled,” said singer/songwriter Kurt Gunn of Green Bay.

“Before COVID, I’d play four times during the week and then the weekend,” said Green Bay guitarist and singer Eddie Biebel. “There’s just nothing out there anymore.”

Both of them are exaggerating. But only a little.

Both report their band gigs have all but dried up, but that they are still able to find work playing solo or in various duet formats.

But like them, musicians all across the area report gigs they had booked early in the year were cancelled one by one, as the pages of the calendar turned and the coronavirus continued to rage.

Venues that were always up for a last-minute booking aren’t calling so much, and, while things have opened back up a little, many are shying away.

Frets & Friends, at 2105 University Ave., was always a place you could count on for live music, but not these days.

“We haven’t done anything since March,” said co-owner Henry Gille. “We’re not doing it. I’ve got to pay BMI, ASCAP, SESAC. I just don’t see that it’s worth it yet.”

BMI, ASCAP and SESAC, the companies that hold the rights to most of the cover tunes that cover bands want to play, demand their annual pound of flesh, to the tune of around a grand a year each, Gille said.

The bar has always paid it, but Gille said he needs to know he can count on large enough crowds to make it worthwhile, and he just isn’t seeing it yet.

Frets & Friends is in the middle of the concrete jungle part of town, so there’s no option for holding outdoor concerts, like some bars are doing, so Gille’s place is just waiting and watching to see what crowds appear and are willing to do.

“We may start it up again at the end of September,” he said. “We’ll see.”

RumRunners, another popular music venue at 715 S. Broadway, has been doing live music ever since reopening in late May following the spring COVID shutdown.

“But everything is different,” co-owner Jeff Hunter said. “Nothing is the same. Crowds are different, not just for events, but for everything. They come in more sporadically.”

And the bar is doing its best to encourage mask-wearing and social-distancing, as much as either are possible in a bar setting.

It’s not ideal for live music, but Hunter said RumRunners is committed to supporting local musicians, many of whom depend on playing for their sole livelihood and consequently are strapped even tighter than the tavern industry.

“There are certain musicians we’ve been associated with for a long time, and they’ve given us deals when we needed them,” Hunter said. “So we’re committing time to the musicians and paying them full price and supporting them.”

RumRunners has space for musical performance inside and outside of the bar, and both are being used much as they had been in pre-COVID times, with the weather dictating where the show will take place.

In general, COVID has been tougher on bands than on solo and duo performers.

“We pretty much would play every weekend, at least four times a month, but COVID really took a hit on us,” said Nate Smith, bass player for the Dirty Martinis, a local rockabilly band. “We were on a roll, too – just released a new album and had a record release party March 7. Now we’ve not been able to promote the new album, because we’re not playing shows.”

Not many, anyway. There have been a few outdoor car shows that hired them, but many of the gigs the band had on its calendar, booked since January, have cancelled.

“It’s a good thing they’re concerned about the safety of their patrons,” Smith said. “We don’t want people getting sick… But it’s been hard. You never realize how much you needed the money until you don’t have it.”

Smith’s band has an upcoming indoor gig, only its second since the COVID outbreak, and he admits, the band members are a little leery about it.

“I tried a mask, but I can’t do it,” he said. “And it does seem people are not paying as much attention,” to personal safety. “I’m concerned about my dad; I don’t want to get sick and compromise him, and the drummer has older parents.”

Biebel, who plays in a rock band and a bluegrass band as well as doing a lot of solo work, absolutely refuses to play indoors, and his workload has suffered accordingly.

His band work has all but disappeared, and his solo work has suffered.

He was particularly hard hit because he plays a lot of assisted-living homes for weekday solo gigs, and many of those cancelled or remain in danger of canceling.

“Maybe a half-dozen or so of them had booked me bi-monthly and just filled up the calendar for 2020,” he said. “It was quite a blow to have all that work evaporate.”

One positive note: Biebel noticed people in the audience at his weekend gigs have been a little freer with tip money, almost as if they know musicians are struggling.

“I don’t know what it is,” he said. “I did a patio gig at the Blind Horse Winery (in Kohler), and it was one of the best tip jars I ever had. And it’s not like I was up there (complaining) about not getting my unemployment check, which I’m still waiting on.”

Gunn’s two band projects, the Kurt Gunn Band and Kurt Gunn & The Poor Town Proper, are practically dormant, but, like Biebel, he has been getting a lot of solo and duet work these days.

Poor Town Proper “just had an album release show and we were starting to gain steam” when COVID happened, he said. “We had some bigger shows booked, ticketed events, and that all got cancelled.”

“It’s harder and there are less places for a full band to play,” he said. “I think what you have is more people fighting for less spots to play. And then when you take away the indoor shows, you’ve got even more bands fighting for what’s left of the outdoor venues.”

There have still been small festivals and private outdoor parties, so his weekend work is still going strong.

As tough as it is, it’s even worse in other parts of the country.

Nick Gonnering, a former Green Bay resident and musician now living and playing in Ashville, North Carolina, said bars remain shut down in that part of the country.

He said he found more work coming back for a visit to Wisconsin last month than he’s been able to get in North Carolina.

“Wisconsin is much more open, has a much different vibe,” he said. “For the most part, Ashville businesses are shut down. The whole town is on lockdown. A lot of the venues that I play at regularly for my bread and butter are closed, some of them permanently.”

On the other hand, COVID has provided a new opportunity for livestreaming.

Gonnering has brought his one-man-band folk, blues and soul music to Facebook and pulled in enough money on Pay Pal to keep up with his rent.

It’s tough, but he predicted a silver lining, these struggles will lead to a musical renaissance of sorts.

“Musicians have more time on their hands, and what are they going to do? They’re going to write music,” he said. “Coming out of this, we’re going to have people with different tastes in music, because in these times of need, they go back to the spiritual realm. The post-effect on the world is, we’ll have lots of new music reflecting on this time.”

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