Take me back to the moment when the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020. What were you feeling as the owner of a music venue and a concert promoter?
Everything came apart like a house of cards. We had spent the past three or four months booking into the spring. I was already done with the Holler on the Hill lineup, and that was going to be our best group of bands at that festival ever. On March 12, I drove to The Vogue, where the Drive-By Truckers were on stage sound-checking. By that time in the afternoon, we knew we had to pull that show. I came back to the HI-FI and had to cancel the J. Roddy show here. Once we got all that stuff cleared for that day and the next, then it hit me: Oh, shit. We have 200 other dates booked. I called Michael Huber [president of Indy Chamber] and said, “This is going to be way worse than anybody thinks it’s going to be. We need to move right now.” To Michael’s credit, the next morning, he had an emergency Chamber meeting at the HI-FI with local leaders, and they were on it out of the gate. Having that support 24 hours in really helped us start building our alliances and coalitions. We knew we were going to need that to survive.
As things started to look worse and worse with the initial round of pandemic restrictions, what were some things you were doing behind the scenes to get by until you were allowed to start having shows again?
We were just focused on keeping all the plates spinning so we could be ready to go when we were told we could go. But as tours started canceling further and further out, that’s when we started thinking, OK, we’re in March now. July is canceling. August is canceling. We might have six months of no business. We might have a year with no business. We had a lot of support from fan donations. None of us really wanted to do that, but people encouraged us to. So we did, and many nice people helped us out. We did streaming for a little bit. I’m not anti-streaming, but I put on concerts because I want to put people in a room for an experience. Streaming doesn’t do that for me. I feel like people are getting ripped off a little bit in paying the same price for a ticket but they’re missing out on half the reason they bought the ticket. So we did some of that stuff, and it was fine. But it wasn’t something that we focused all of our attention on.
How were the struggles of your industry different from those of the food and drink industry?
Restaurants had it hard, but people still have to eat. And those places have the ability of selling food to go. You can’t sell a concert to go. And on the chain of priorities, food appears before music. The changes smart restaurants made to adapt probably strengthened their businesses a lot.
There are actually very few true concert venues in the state. There are a lot of restaurants where music is a secondary part of their business, but there are very few businesses where music is the primary part. We don’t serve any food. So if I don’t have a band, then I can’t sell a ticket. I can’t sell a drink. We’re not a bar. People don’t just come into our venue to have a beer. They come to see a show, and if there’s no show, they’re not coming.
You started the Indiana Independent Venue Alliance (IIVA) during the pandemic to help keep your fellow concert venues in business. Where did that idea originate?
We were a couple of days in, and my instinct was to just start calling other venues. I called David Allee at the Jazz Kitchen and Dave Kubiak at The Bluebird [in Bloomington] and said, “Hey, what are you thinking?” We all agreed that this was going to be very bad. So I was like, “Well, what if we all join forces?” So we did, and then we started finding as many people as we could that wanted to be part of our group. Once we had a critical mass, I could go to the city and say, “I represent 50 music venues in Indianapolis. Here’s what our problems are, and here’s what we need.” I’m very thankful for Mayor Hogsett’s team at the time. We were listened to. The Chamber and the city arranged for some local grants that kept the lights on until we got the federal grants.
What was the first in-person show you had at the HI-FI after the initial hiatus, and what was that like?
The first show back indoors was Huckleberry Funk in June 2020. We closed in March and were finally able to do a show again in June. But after two or three days, people were like, “This isn’t going to last because another wave is coming.” So while that show was happening, I was sketching an idea for an outdoor venue on a napkin. Miraculously, we had the HI-FI Annex up and running 30 days later.
How did you go about bringing that venue to life?
We had the parking lot, and I always liked the idea of using shipping containers for construction. It was very hard to find containers at that point, but we were able to get them from a friend of mine who’s a metal fabricator. I went to him and said, “I’m going to buy these. Can you cut holes in them and turn them into a stage and a bar?” He said that wouldn’t be hard. So we bought them and had them shipped to Brooklyn, Indiana. He cut them down there, then we put it on a semi and brought it up here. We dropped a few other containers around it, put a fence around the whole thing, and there it was. The venue and our local bands really relied on each other during that period. I was like, “Look, you can stream all you want and get donations, but people want shows. Here’s a place to do that. We can create new earning opportunities.” The artists were like, “Hell yes.” They really helped us stay in business, and I feel that we helped put money in their pockets, too.
When you first had shows come back on a regular basis, you had to deal with mask mandates. Eventually, proof of vaccination was required to enter many shows, too. What has it been like monitoring all of these new health and safety regulations?
It has sucked. You learn a lot about people. Pretty much everyone on our team has either been spit on, swung at, cussed out, threatened, or called insane names. So we’ve developed some pretty thick skin over the course of this. There was a time when masks were trendy, and it was cool to wear one. That gave way to, “Masks don’t work. You guys are trying to take away my freedom by making me wear one.” That segued into the vaccine era with all kinds of drama. At the end of the day, most people don’t understand that the bulk of our requirements and restrictions have not been driven by us. They’ve either been driven by the local board of health or the artists. There’s no advantage for me to try and keep people out of our venue.
Now that you’re heading into year three of the Annex, can you reflect on the benefits it has brought your business?
Last year was especially huge. There was a little less competition because we were still coming out of the winter and bands were just deciding they wanted to tour. We got a lot of those warmup shows, like Band of Horses—that was a warmup date for Lollapalooza. Bands were rusty and just wanted to get out and play a little bit. So that was fun. We would’ve never been able to do that show inside. If I could pick one thing outside of the grants that has kept us in business, it’s the Annex. For the amount of time we had, the amount of money we invested in it, and just being some containers in a parking lot, it has turned out to be a pretty cool little venue. Would we like to make it crazy with all the bells and whistles? Of course. But we’re still living year to year right now. The likelihood that it’s even there next year is not high. All of that forgiveness with permits kind of goes away after this year. The city has already told us, “You either need to make that permanent, or it’s not going to happen anymore.” So we’re grateful for what we got. The good news is I can pick that up and take it anywhere.
Will your summer this year be as busy as it was last year?
Yeah, but it’s different things. We have some park shows this year. Indy Pride is going to be back, and we’ll work with them on their ticketing and concessions. We have WonderRoad at Garfield Park. So those are bigger events that weren’t happening before, which is great. But even if it’s not as gangbusters as it was last year, that’s OK. We’re trying to be here for the next 10 years, and we’ve managed to get this far. There have been new opportunities presented that we wouldn’t have had before. Pure Eatery went out of business recently, which was a sad thing for the neighborhood, and I liked going there. But that space next door to the HI-FI is obviously a strategic location for us, so the good that came out of it was that we were able to pick up that space. We’re working on a new restaurant concept in there that will be open to all of our concertgoers this summer.
Looking back at all you’ve gone through over the past two years, what are some things you’ll take with you when it comes to running your business?
I think we have a much stronger business model than we did before, and I’m looking for other things to add to the concert experience so we’re not solely relying on that. I don’t necessarily know what all those are yet, but we’re trying more new things. But we’re still really focused on surviving. A couple of years down the road, we may have some opportunities. We’re talking about maybe expanding in Indianapolis and some other markets. Right now, though, we’re just grateful to exist and be part of the scene.
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