By early July, it seemed like the artistic and economic engine that is the live-music industry — which had spent more than a year in an uneasy state of suspended animation — was running at full steam in Nashville. Eager audiences filled concert venues of all shapes and sizes across the city. Then the highly contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus began to spread, and COVID-19 case numbers began to increase sharply. In this new phase of the pandemic, unvaccinated individuals make up the vast majority of people suffering serious illness, but it is still possible for fully vaccinated people to get sick or spread the virus. Across Tennessee, hospital facilities for treating COVID patients are at capacity. At press time, the Tennessee Department of Health reports that only about 41 percent of adults are fully vaccinated statewide.
Over the first two weeks of August, a broad swath of Music City’s independent music venues responded to the changing conditions by announcing vaccination protocols. To get into more than a dozen of the city’s clubs, musicians, venue staff and fans now need to show proof of a full course of a COVID vaccination or a recent negative COVID test administered by a health care professional. It’s always a good idea to check with venues for the most up-to-date policies, but most will not accept an over-the-counter test that you perform yourself.
“Most of the people being angry about it have been online,” says Sam Polonsky, marketing manager at City Winery Nashville. The combination venue, restaurant and winery, which has eight locations around the U.S., instituted a companywide policy that went into effect Aug. 2, requiring proof of vaccination or a negative test timestamped no more than 72 hours prior to entry. City Winery’s Nashville location was the first venue in the city to take this step. “I think a lot of the people who were the most vocal were not actually our customers, and we’ve had a better time than we expected in the building with people coming in and being really receptive to the policy — being willing to take a rapid test if they need to. I think that the other venues following suit shortly after we did this was really helpful as well.”
By Aug. 13, a total of 15 local venues — from intimate rooms like all-ages club Drkmttr and legendary songwriter showcase The Bluebird Cafe to the three-venue Cannery Row complex — had announced similar policies. Though policies vary slightly from venue to venue and may change on a show-by-show basis, the standards put into place by City Winery and the other clubs generally resemble the ones used at Chicago’s Lollapalooza. The festival, promoted by ticketing and touring giant Live Nation, took place July 29 through Aug. 1 and required proof of vaccination or a negative test less than 72 hours old. It’s worth noting that rapid tests don’t tend to be as accurate as the tests that have to be sent to a lab. But as of press time, Chicago’s health department has confirmed only 203 cases of COVID-19 among Lollapalooza attendees; an estimated 385,000 people went to the festival. Bonnaroo and Pilgrimage, two of the many festivals set to take place in our area in September (which are both also produced by Live Nation), have announced similar vaccination protocols. After this story went to press, AmericanaFest announced a policy, as well.
On Aug. 12, concert promoter AEG, second in size only to Live Nation, announced that proof of vaccination — no negative test allowed — will be required for entry into its venues and events beginning Oct. 1. On Aug. 15, Live Nation announced a policy that would apply to all of its events and the venues it owns or books exclusively, such as Nashville’s Ascend Amphitheater and Bridgestone Arena. Beginning Oct. 4, all patrons must show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test to enter, and all employees must be fully vaccinated to come to events or work in the company’s offices.
The Scene reached out to representatives of three local venues for this story, and all report that the vast majority of fans have been arriving to their shows with proof of vaccination rather than a negative test result. Exit/In co-owner Chris Cobb, who’s also president of the trade group Music Venue Alliance Nashville, explains that the variety of formats that negative test results come in can slow down the process to get into the venue.
“I’m already seeing artists, promoters and venues around the country moving to proof of vaccination only, and removing the negative test options from their policies,” Cobb says. “I can tell you that’s certainly the most challenging part of the policy to implement. I understand why people are moving away from it. We like that option for people who are unable [to get vaccinated], so that they can come to shows.”
Cobb notes that about 10 percent of fans who lined up outside Exit/In on the weekend of Aug. 13 through 15, when the venue’s policy had just gone into effect, brought neither proof of vaccination nor a negative test. City Winery is currently offering rapid COVID tests — for $15, which Polonsky says is basically at cost — to guests who arrive at their doors without either credential. Cobb and his fellow MVAN members are investigating options to make on-site testing more widely available.
Erin Gameson is an MVAN board member and general manager of the Cannery Row venues Cannery Ballroom, Mercy Lounge and The High Watt. She notes that a future rapid-testing option at venues might have to be made available throughout the week, rather than right before shows on weekends. When she spoke to the Scene, there hadn’t yet been a show in the complex’s biggest venue, the 1,500-capacity Cannery Ballroom. But during a handful of shows in 250-capacity room The High Watt and two sold-out concerts with much-loved rock band Bully in the 500-cap Mercy Lounge, Gameson estimates her staff served fewer than 10 guests who brought negative test results instead of vaccination cards. Still, she wants to keep the negative-test option open for fans, and doesn’t expect the Cannery venues to eliminate it anytime soon.
“We’re doing what we consider to be the best possible thing to keep the music playing, keep the artists to where they feel safe and comfortable playing, keeping our staff safe — and then trying to cover all of our fans and patrons as well,” says Gameson. “Is it a foolproof thing? Absolutely not. But what is these days?
“We do recommend still that people wear masks,” she continues. “That’s not something that we’re mandating for our customers, but we do have artists that request it. Bully was a perfect example. [Bandleader Alicia Bognanno] requested that their guests wear masks. So we sent that out in the email, and had signs posted, and I would say 90 percent of the room Friday and Saturday had masks on. That wasn’t a mandate, that was just a request from the artist — and because they’re her loyal fans, they did it, which was awesome.”