Stone Church joins effort to 'save our stages'

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BRATTLEBORO — In an effort to stay alive since COVID-19 forced performance spaces across the country to close their doors, The Stone Church has joined an estimated 1,800-plus venues involved in a national initiative to share resources and ideas for sustainability.

Robin Johnson, owner of the business running The Stone Church, said the National Independent Venue Association has been holding a series of seminars. One town hall meeting is assembled weekly, with about 200 participants, by Johnson's count. Meeting participants discuss lobbying legislators and efforts to get artists to sign on to help the cause and seek changes to federal funding programs aimed at relief for venues during the pandemic. According to a survey of association members, 90% of independent venues report they will close permanently in a few months without federal funding.

The downtown venue is exploring ideas such as a paywall or ticketing system for its online performances. Johnson and others expect performance spaces to be part of the last group to reopen its doors. He said the association's efforts are connecting a lot of venues that would not have otherwise.

"They're looking at things like pooling resources for insurance so we can get better rates on insurance, both for liability and possibly health care benefits for employees," he said. "So it's cool that on one hand, they're lobbying and bringing this kind of unique sector of the economy to the forefront to the people in the Capitol and looking at ways to improve the industry in the future."

The Stone Church sent out an email on May 19 thanking respondents to a recent survey and saying more than 400 responses came in with "overwhelmingly positive feedback."

"The primary takeaway is that a strong plurality of respondents would be uncomfortable at live events until there is an acceptable treatment or vaccine available," the email states. "We will continue to explore the possibility of smaller size events, but the reality is that it will most likely be a considerable time before we are able to host events of 50-plus people. As a result our first focus will be on livestream performances, and perfecting that product."

The venue said it will livestream concerts on Facebook pages for Quarantunes and The Stone Church, and plans to host more.

Some of the association's members are beginning to look at reopening with limited capacity. Johnson does not believe anyone will break even with that scenario, but it will at least start the process.

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For his venue, it would be difficult to practice social-distancing protocols.

"We just have so much free-flowing movement. It's probably not worth it," Johnson said, suggesting that it might be better when the state permits 50 percent occupancy in public establishments. "Even with that, the social distancing and sanitizing in our situation is a little bit onerous."

Livestreaming at The Stone Church continues to improve as shows with no audience at the venue are recorded and broadcast live.

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"I think the last couple of livestreams have been pretty high quality, both the video and the audio," Johnson said earlier this month. "We're trying to get that down first then set up some more bigger-name shows."

Johnson said prices for online shows would be kept low and tipping the artist or venue would still be encouraged. He described the free streaming model as unsustainable.

Johnson noted that spectators are more engaged when they're watching a show in the building rather than watching on a phone or computer. Sets have been shortened and Johnson is exploring the addition of an emcee and other components to make the performance more interactive. He suggested the possibility of setting up a screen so musicians can look and talk with their audience. He expects livestreaming to continue when the venue reopens.

A project spearheaded by the association provides links to The Stone Church's website for different music documentaries that can be rented for two or three days for $4. The venue gets 30 percent.

"It's a nice partnership," Johnson said. "They're all good movies. We're just trying to spread it around."

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For now, Johnson is not seeking to book any new events. Performances canceled in the spring are now on the schedule for the fall.

Having talked with booking agents, Johnson said they seem to be "really confident" with booking dates in spring 2021. He believes major cities nearby need to be open and functioning before scheduling more national acts at the venue. More than half of The Stone Church's clientele is often from outside of the state, he said.

The venue is selling gift certificates online for when the doors reopen and donations can be made to the association. Tips can be sent while events are livestreamed via Venmo or PayPal.

Johnson also is exploring private options for fundraising. Fans of the venues are encouraged to visit and let members of Congress know they "want them to act to save independent venues."

Reach staff writer Chris Mays


and at @CMaysBR on Twitter.


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