Friday, February 12, 2021

Kenny Mercer on Booking Concerts Safely During a Pandemic

When COVID hit, and music venues were forced to close, it left a kick drum sized hole in the souls of musicians, and live music fans. Because of this, it wasn’t long before artists, and venues, started doing live streams of performances. These streams have ranged from solid, to “who on earth did the sound for this?!?!” but even the best streams can’t fully replicate the live show experience.

Recently, videos have started appearing of some fairly big name artists performing in packed clubs, COVID restrictions being totally ignored. Every time these artists and venues have been caught, fines have been levied, and apologies have been issued.

Can we, however, have concerts safely during a pandemic? Kenny Mercer, who is the founder, owner, and operator of Full Blast Booking, has found a way.

Having thrown both outdoor, and indoor, concerts since the fall, Mercer and his team have been doing an incredible amount of legwork to create live music events that abide by all guidelines … even the ones most folks are totally unaware of until they find themselves on the wrong side of them.

I caught up with Mercer to find out what goes into putting these shows together, all the extra work that must happen before a single ticket can be sold, and the underlying role mental health plays in all of this.

 

You have managed to do something pretty impressive – you’ve been booking concerts during a pandemic. First off, what kind of challenges have you had finding venues, or spaces, willing to have shows during this time? 

I was so fortunate to be reached out to by The Klein (in Bridgeport, CT) when they put that outdoor series together, The Main Stage at The Klein. That was really just a matter of having a solid reputation of someone who books shows in the area. A few great people gave me great recommendations, and they reached out and we made it happen.

If not for that luck of the draw who knows if I would have been able to say that I’ve booked six shows in the last calendar year, which is way less than I’m used to, but (after the pandemic hit) it was those four at The Klein, and then I rented the Prospector Theater in Ridgefield because they were allowing private events, so technically that was a private show.

There are a lot of angles you gotta take, and I’m reluctant to use the word “loopholes” because it’s not like we’re trying to cheat, there is still a moral factor here, and doing it the right way is very important, but you definitely need to think outside the box on ways to do this at a time like this. 

 

 
 Flyers from Full Blast Booking’s most recent shows
 

You mentioned doing it the right way, and I know your shows involve reduced capacity, requiring masks, and having temperature checks. This isn’t like what Trey Songz, and some other artists have been seen doing with full nightclubs. 

I’ve seen some videos from clubs down in Atlanta, and Florida, and it’s like there’s no pandemic to them down there. They have hundreds of people dancing close, no masks, no social distancing, I’m sure they’re not taking temps at the door. It’s even trickling into some promoters out here. I’ve been seeing some videos of that. It’s really risky. Not only is it just bad to be exposing people to a potential virus – you know, the moral part of it – but it’s also the fact that I’m a business owner, a legit business owner, and I don’t want to have any negative reviews, or people calling the Attorney General, or any of those kind of situations.

I’m proud of the fact that of the few people who have been doing shows I have a good reputation for doing it right. So that’s been good.

Other than the three things I mentioned – reduced capacity, requiring masks, and having temperature checks at the door – what are some of the other differences between traditional booking, and pandemic booking? 

Firstly, for the outdoor series … a lot of people don’t realize the things that have to go down. We actually spent an hour on the phone with the city in Hartford going over what we could do, because (The Klein) thought they wouldn’t be able to sell drinks. As it turned out, they could sell drinks, but they had to actually bring the drinks to the person’s seat. It was reserved pod seating where you had to stay in a square, and in order to even get a drink you had to go through bells and whistles, but they figured out a way to make it happen.

No more than parties of four together. So if you have a large group of people you can’t sit together. That’s something a lot of people were bummed out about, but it is what it is, and it’s just the things you gotta go through at a time like this.

 

 
Socially distanced fans enjoying an outdoor show at The Klein

When you really think about it, if you’re at a show with 20 friends you’re not really talking about things until after the show anyway. 

Yeah, that’s true.

I think for this kind of setting, with the outdoor shows, it was bring your own chairs, bring your own blankets, so I think a lot of people had the vision that they could just set up shop like they were at a festival, with all their friends around, but it’s pods, you can only fit four chairs in one pod, and all the pods have to be spaced out by six feet, so to have a whole group of people like they’re used to at a festival setting, that just wasn’t gonna happen.

You mentioned you spent an hour on the phone with the local government. That’s something I’m guessing you don’t normally do when you’re throwing a concert. 

{laughs} No. Definitely not. There’s a lot of headache involved. You gotta go the extra mile, not only to make sure that you’re ensuring the safety of everyone in attendance, but to make sure you’re going about it the legal way.

If (The Klein) had never found out about the drinks (issue), and they just had people coming up buying their own drinks, and someone from the state happened to go by, and see it – bam you got a $10,000 fine on your hands. So you gotta make sure that you take it upon yourself to research all of these little laws, and make sure you’re doing it right before you do it, or else you could have a big problem on your hands.

 

 
Sgt. Scagnetti rockin’ a socially distanced show
 

For these shows you obviously have to drastically limit the number of audience members. How does that affect booking bands, and ticket prices? 

It definitely affects it. For this last show that I did at the Prospector Theater I had four indie acts that would normally be a $5 to $10 show, but I had to charge $20 a ticket, and that’s because I had to pay for the space. I had to rent the space, which was not cheap, and I could only sell 40 tickets, because it was a 50 (person) cap, so if you count the performers, I only had 40 tickets (I could) sell. In order to even make your money back from the rental I had to charge $20. It’s double what I would normally charge for a lineup like that, but it is what it is, and we still sold it out, so people understand.

How many people does the theater normally hold? 

It’s a 100 seat theater, so they were operating at half capacity for a private event, and they had enough space where we could space everyone out. We were taking temperatures at the door, and if people came together they could sit together, but other than that we kinda kept everybody at least six to ten feet away from each other.

Do bands understand that for now they’re gonna have to play in front of 40 people instead of 100, or 150? 

Yeah. It’s all explained to them ahead of time, but they know the deal.

To be honest, most local bands don’t draw that many people. I think this kinds of puts things in a realistic perspective.

In order to put everybody on the same page you just have to communicate everything, and you need to let all the performers, and the audience members, know what they’re doing, and when the venue owner says, “I’m a 400 cap club, but I can only have 100 people here,” it’s like cool, because that’s pretty much what we’re used to working with anyway. For once I can actually be realistic.

We all know what we’re dealing with right now, it’s reduced capacity, and it’s only for the people that really want to be there. This isn’t a situation where I can guilt trip somebody for not coming to the show. If you’re not comfortable, that’s totally 100% fine.

We’re doing this for the people that need it, because for mental health, for many people’s sanity, they need live music in their life. Even at a time when it might be less than optimal, or less than safe even, certain people need it, others can go without it. If you can go without it, I still recommend doing so. I’m usually that guy who’s begging people to come out, or even trying to guilt my friends – if they’re telling me they’re coming, and then they don’t, I make ‘em feel bad about it {laughs} – but not now, this is not the time for that. This is just for those that need it, and I think it’s worked out well. 

 

 
Pat Walsh of Chaser Eight shreddin’ safely
 

I’m glad you mentioned mental health, because I was about to ask what you feel are the most important aspects of bringing live music back into people’s lives. I’m guessing that’s the biggest one. 

That's absolutely the biggest one. It’s something that I’m tied into heavily since I partnered with Mental Health Connecticut in 2019 to present a big charity tour that’s had to be postponed twice now. What I’ve been doing in the meantime are fundraisers.

Mental Health Connecticut has been great with standing by my side throughout all of it. They’re sending out digital care packages to everybody. We’re showing videos at the events from them. It’s very important, and it goes both ways.

I think it’s kinda weird that before this pandemic hit, people like myself, who are more introverts, we deal with all of that anxiety and stress when we have to be in big crowds of people, or we have to be social, but all the extroverts, for the last year or so, have been dealing with that same anxiety just from having to be home, just from not having that social outlet in their life.

For music, or whatever a person’s outlet is, maybe it’s sports, maybe it’s theatre, so many of these industries have been shut down to a standstill through this, and a lot of people need them. It’s their release, it’s their outlet, it’s their source of sanity. I’m definitely one of those people when it comes to live music, and I know all those that are out there that feel the same way as me appreciate having at least limited options now. It’s something.

 

For more info on Full Blast Booking, you can find them on Facebook.

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