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Northern Arizona’s Live Music Scene Hard Hit By COVID-19

Orpheum Theater

The live music industry has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. With virtually all shows and tours cancelled revenue has come to a halt for thousands of promoters across the country. One of northern Arizona’s biggest music venues, the Orpheum Theater, was having a banner year with sold out shows and packed calendar. But the economic shutdown forced managers to layoff dozens of full and part-time employees. The Orpheum has now joined other independent venues across the country to advocate for their industry. KNAU’s Ryan Heinsius spoke with Orpheum owner Charles Smith and GM Susan Walter about how they’re planning for the future of live music.

Ryan Heinsius: The Orpheum has joined the National Independent Venue Association. What is it and what are you hoping to achieve?

Susan Walter: Yeah, we have become a member along with almost 1,200 other independent music venues throughout the country. They were created within weeks after COVID-19 shut down the industry. It’s unique where competitors, other venues are banding together to kind of take this cause to Washington. They are hoping for revisions in the 4.0 CARES Act that will be coming out soon that will try to redirect modifications to the loans, to the payroll protection program. They’re looking for tax relief. It’s been a great network just to reach our local and state representatives to ask them to help support this legislation. So we’re asking everyone, our local municipalities, our fans, to reach out and let people know how dire this is for the independent music scene.

Credit Molly Baker/Orpheum Theater
Elizabeth Cook performs to a packed house at the Orpheum Theater in 2019.

RH: Obviously live music is so often synonymous with large gatherings. Do you worry that even when the rest of the economy is up and running again that venues will still be feeling the effects of closures and COVID-19?

Charles Smith: I do see it as a prolonged and staged approach to getting back to business as normal, and I do feel that because of the pandemic that we will be as an industry, small venues and larger venues will be the last to recover from this.

SW: We usually have a 1,000-person capacity but we’re anticipating only being able to reopen with a much smaller capacity where we can social distance our ticket lines, our bar lines. We’ll have to kind of really pivot our protocols toward that. How do we reopen safely, because that is our priority. How do we make people feel comfortable?

RH: Could we see a scenario where the theater reopens and there’s this surge of interest in live music because people had been without it and kind of had it taken away? Could a renewed appreciation of live music be in the works?

SW: I definitely believe that pretty much with all my heart, especially in a town like Flagstaff. They’re expecting that we might lose out on some demographics, whether that’s the older demographic that just isn’t feeling it’s safe to come out. But they also fully expect young people to be one of the biggest demographics to come back hard. And in general in our market with the passion of the music lovers in Flagstaff we sure hope so, and that’s why we want to do our part to make it safe, keep the music flowing and hope that people respond to it.

RH: What have you been doing at the Orpheum to try to fill that live music void?

CS: We’ve started a live webcast series we have every Saturday through May and then working on June. And this isn’t necessarily to generate much revenue. It’s more just to keep our presence in the community known. We’ve involved local artists to be on our stage, to play on our PA and be broadcast via Facebook Live. Really, the point is to make the community aware of the fact that we’re just lying low.

SW: Yeah, we’re saying this is just set break.

This week's live webcast from the Orpheum Theater stage features Flagstaff band Sci-Fi Country Sat, May 9 at 8 p.m. More info is on the theater's website.

Ryan Heinsius joined the KNAU newsroom as executive producer in 2013 and was named news director and managing editor in 2024. As a reporter, he has covered a broad range of stories from local, state and tribal politics to education, economy, energy and public lands issues, and frequently interviews internationally known and regional musicians. Ryan is an Edward R. Murrow Award winner and a Public Media Journalists Association Award winner, and a frequent contributor to NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and national newscast.
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