Over the past year, some businesses had to change their model to survive. Others, like music venues, had to shut down completely. Concerts small and large are at odds with social distancing practices, and their future is murky.

Throughout the pandemic, these music businesses have faced many challenges and unknowns. But now, with Governor Roy Cooper easing some restrictions and allowing these businesses to open at reduced capacity, there may be light at the end of the tunnel for live music.

The Ramkat is a concert hall that sits on the edge of downtown Winston-Salem. The 1000-capacity venue opened up just about three years ago and hosts local acts and touring bands from all over the globe.

Concert-going is a communal experience. People cluster together, shoulder to shoulder. But that's been out of the question.

The venue pivoted to an online concert series called Home Sweet Home: Live At The Ramkat, to bring music from the stage into the living room. 

Co-owner Andy Tennille says when the doors closed, he knew the business transformed.   

We're in the social gathering business. And to be in the social gathering business in the era of social distancing kinda feels like you're on the wrong end of the stick,” says Tennille.

Music venues — which already typically operate on the margins — went from bar and ticket sales to essentially no income in the blink of an eye. Tennille estimates they lost 95 percent of their revenue over the last year.

But, thanks in part to a local effort, hope in the form of financial relief is on the horizon.

Ramkat co-owner Richard Emmett played a key role in organizing venues across the state, using strength in numbers to get legislation onto the desks of state representatives. The result is the Save Our Stages Act, part of the federal COVID-19 relief bill passed in December, earmarking $15 billion for the ailing live music industry. 

 “Just constantly reaching out to our senators here; Senator Burr, and Senator Tillis and his team signed on from the beginning. And in the end, Senator Burr was very supportive, and so they both were instrumental,” says Emmett.

But the money isn't here yet. So, it's a waiting game.

Then on February 24, Governor Cooper dropped this news — Executive Order 195.

“The new order will also allow some indoor businesses to open at 30 percent capacity," said Cooper. "These businesses include bars and taverns. It's also important to note here that bars and taverns will be allowed to open indoors for the first time since near the beginning of the pandemic.”

For music venues that have been closed for a year, this came pretty suddenly — we're talking two days of notice. And the possibility of opening the doors comes with a healthy mix of excitement, optimism, and caution.

At a small venue in Winston-Salem called Monstercade, owner Carlos Bocanegra is behind the spot's kitschy and creepy clubhouse vibe. 

“Our capacity level is going to be pretty tight," he says. "Since we're not having people sitting at the bar, currently we have seating for eight in the entire club.”

Bocanegra calls the 48 hours following the governor's announcement “very stressful” as he ramped up efforts to safely accommodate a handful of patrons. And while a few people will be able to grab a drink at Monstercade, there won't yet be live music.

“So we're not going to do any shows, that is so far away from us right now,” says Bocanegra.

In the meantime, he's launching a YouTube channel called Monstercade TV, featuring music videos and oddball arts programming, and he hopes to have outdoor concerts in the summer.

But for bigger operations, like The Ramkat, having live music when they reopen is essential. Under state guidelines, concertgoers will have to be in a chair, spaced six feet apart. That means 128 attendees — about 13 percent of full capacity.

“Operating at nothing less than 100 percent capacity in most cases would seem pretty undoable and kind of insane," says Tennille. "But given the fact that we've been closed eleven months, and are essentially in dire straits — opening at 13 percent now? We're going to figure out a way to do it.”

The Ramkat has a leg-up — an HVAC system that can flip the air in the 14,000-foot space in 12 minutes. 

Tennille says they're sharpening their focus on safety precautions, and while they plan on opening soon, it will happen when the time is right. 

 “We're not going to do this willy nilly," says Tennille. "We're not going to do it in a way that feels half-baked. And we're going to take our time putting those processes in place and make sure that we've got the right people there, and the right artists. It's going to take some time getting everyone slotted and scheduled. I'm hopeful for some time this spring.”

He's also hopeful that while the experience may be a bit different, that people will adapt, as they have throughout the pandemic.

But one thing that's pretty much assured, is when that first chord is struck at venues like The Ramkat, it's going to get emotional — an electric signal that the communal sharing of live music has returned.


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