Keeping the music alive: The Stone Church explores future in virtual shows

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BRATTLEBORO — Closed to the public since March due to the coronavirus pandemic, the crew putting shows on at The Stone Church is now focused on hosting streaming musical performances online and exploring ways they might reopen the venue to small gatherings in the future.

"It will be tough before there's some kind of treatment or vaccine," said Robin Johnson, owner of the business running the venue. "We might be able to do the hybrid model if we can figure out how to make that work financially. But if we hit a point where everyone feels safe, I think we will get a nice bounce back. People will be extremely excited to get out."

The last day the venue opened to the public was March 10. Johnson recalled the weekend before being "the first time people were really kind of buzzing" about the coronavirus.

Three shows that were scheduled the following week were then canceled. No local or state order prevented the venue from staying open but it tends to draw performers and audience members from the larger tri-state region.

Johnson said bands agreed it did not make sense to hold the events. Within a few days, "everyone was cancelling," he added.

Around that time came Gov. Phil Scott's declaration of a state of emergency, closing non-essential businesses. Spring shows at the Stone Church were rescheduled to the summer and the fall.

"But it's all up in the air for everyone," said Johnson, who is now receiving another wave of cancellations.

Part of Johnson's job involves booking talent, which happens about four to six months in advance. So it would take some time to prepare for hosting shows with audiences again, especially if it involved non-local acts.

Johnson expects nightclubs or music venues to be the last group that can open their doors again under the governor's phased-in approach to reopening the economy. He said The Stone Church breaks even when an event draws about 100 people — so if gatherings of 50 and less were allowed, it would be difficult to make money. He suggested the possibility of having higher priced tickets paired with streaming options if crowd sizes were required to be smaller.

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The Stone Church joined a partnership of regional venues and arts hubs streaming live performances via the Quarantunes page at facebook.com/quarantunesforyou.

"It's kind of cool to get crossover," Johnson said. "But at the same time, the quality is really up and down."

Many of the performers are streaming from their homes. Johnson said it is "much nicer" to film the shows at the venue.

The Stone Church has only organized one show in which the artist performed from home, and Johnson called the sound and quality of the stream "great." He said streaming events from the venue is a lot more work than a regular show — not only are the technical professionals dealing with sound and lighting, they also have cameras and computers to consider in order to get a

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high-quality stream.

Jason Scaggs, a local musician who runs audio and lighting at shows in The Stone Church, said the venue is basically turned into a television studio with no audience. He commended Dan Richardson, another technician, for his role in ensuring the quality of streaming audio and video.

Johnson expects more virtual shows will be hosted at The Stone Church as stay-at-home orders ease up and bands feel more comfortable traveling together.

On April 16, Scaggs and Derek Sensale of Pinedrop became the first musicians to perform at the venue for an audience in cyberspace.

"It was really nice to play in the room, for one," Scaggs said. "It was really awesome to have such professional tech assistance. I'm not really into virtual shows and streaming because I particularly thrive off a real audience's interaction and response. So as a performer, it's tough to really do your thing and perform when you have crickets when you finish your song. You can't really improv off your audience because no one's there. But regardless, it's nice to perform."

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Johnson said he thinks other artists would be in complete agreement. As someone who hears bands sounding great during soundcheck but even better when feeding off an audience during the performance, he said the difference can be "night and day."

A carpenter in his day job, Scaggs said he has many friends who are musicians, tour managers and technicians who are in "such a tough spot." He sees friends streaming live performances from home and not making a lot of money in donations.

"I feel really bad for them," he said.

Federal assistance aimed at keeping staff at businesses on payroll did not really fit with the Stone Church, which is open for about three or four hours at a time. Johnson said the venue's biggest expenses are property taxes, insurance and heating. His business-related loans have been deferred through the end of June.

Johnson said he is emailing state and federal lawmakers about challenges his industry is facing. He also issued a survey to see what patrons of the venue are interested in.

One idea being floated would see the Stone Church continue to stream via Facebook but have a website where paid subscriptions provide access to higher quality productions of the shows.

For now, Johnson plans to go with a "trial and error" system. He said he is watching other streaming performances to learn more.

Throughout the week, Johnson will continue sharing the survey via social media and email. He said he will look at the results by the end of the week then share them publicly.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com and at @CMaysBR on Twitter.


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