In early March, just before South by Southwest organizers canceled their festival over COVID-19, New Yorkers Amber Mundinger and Kevin Condon had a grim realization: Hundreds of music venues around the country were likely to be closing for good.
Mundinger, the chief operating officer of Artists Den Entertainment (the company behind the television music series Live From the Artists Den), and Condon, a photographer who'd just had a year’s worth of jobs canceled within a week, talked about how they should document the shuttering of bars, clubs and theaters. They recruited Tamara Deike, who has worked in the music industry for two decades, to help with the project. “The three of us talked about it, and we literally just kind of agreed that we were going to cover the people and places in music that were so rapidly being shut down,” Mundinger says.
Dubbing the project Bring Music Home, they started in March, shooting and interviewing in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Austin, Nashville and New York, covering roughly ten venues in each city. Since then, Bring Music Home has grown into a team of more than sixty collaborators in thirty cities who've documented the effects the pandemic has had on 200-plus music venues. In Colorado, local music photographer Lisa Siciliano joined the effort, shooting the Boulder Theater, the Fox Theatre, Seventh Circle Music Collective, the Oriental Theater and Local 46 (which is slated to close at the end of October) for the series.
Nearly 400 portraits, as well as interviews and histories of the venues, will be part of a podcast scheduled to roll out in November; a coffee-table book set for release in 2021 (pre-orders start in December); and a docuseries that debuts early next year.
“We feel an urgency for people to hear the stories in a deeper way,” Mundinger says. “We just want to be a small help, sharing the voices and the stories of the places.”
Bring Music Home has also partnered with artists to create unique posters for every city the book covers. Local multi-disciplinary artist Mike Graves designed the Denver print. Proceeds from the limited-edition silkscreened posters — which celebrate the spirit of each community and can be purchased through custom printers Fine Southern Gentlemen — go to support the National Independent Venue Association’s emergency relief fund. The authors will also donate some of the money from book sales to NIVA.
The cause, as they tell it, is urgent. Many music venues around the country,including 3 Kings, Live @ Jack's and others in Denver have already closed for good. Others have shifted their business model away from concerts, while still more are waiting for government aid.
On October 6, President Donald Trump tweeted that he was breaking off stimulus relief negotiations until after the election, something that worries Chris Zacher, CEO and executive director of Levitt Pavilion and Colorado co-captain for NIVA.
"Five months ago, NIVA announced that [based on] surveys of our 3,000-plus member venues, 90 percent of the independent venues across the U.S. would permanently be closing their doors in six months without federal relief," Zacher says. "The reality is that even when a stimulus package is passed by Congress, it will take somewhere between thirty and sixty days for the funds to reach the venues. Simple math shows us that we are already outside of that time frame that was laid out by NIVA months ago. Unfortunately, Washington has decided that partisan political issues are more important than the livelihoods of American taxpayers."
The team of collaborators that Bring Music Home has built includes artists, photographers, producers, videographers and others working in live music. Like most in the industry, they have been hit hard by the pandemic and are currently out of work.
"Being able to not only support NIVA directly — which supports the people at the venues who are currently out of work — but also supporting these people is much more strategically a really big win for us," Deike says.
Through interviews and photography, the Bring Home Music team documented three to six venues in most of the thirty cities. They tried to capture the dynamic and individual nature of each place, along with the people involved. “This is their job," Mundinger points out. "This is their lifestyle. This is something that they're passionate about and have dedicated their livelihood to.”
The interviews included a common set of questions about the fate of live music, which led to deeper discussions.
“Every location and personality is different, and we want that to shine through,” Mundinger explains. “We really use the questions as a guidepost, but let the conversation and the people weave their story.”
While the Bring Music Home book and docuseries will include thirty-minute interviews that have already taken place, the podcast will give the team a chance to follow up with people they talked to.
“There's so much more story to be told, which is why I think we personally are very excited about the podcast element," Deike says. "There are people we want to go back to and talk to more about the way that their venue specifically has impacted the music culture of the community in which they sit. What does that mean? What does that mean when we're in a normal world where venues are open, and what does it mean when venues are closed? How does the culture change, and how has it impacted them when these spaces are either closed or no longer with us?”
Some of the venues they’ve covered have found temporary ways to generate income. Austin’s Empire Control Room now offers production and media content so bands can make music videos. Far Out Lounge, also in Austin, is using a shipping container for its outdoor bar.
Here in Colorado, venues continue to get creative. Last month, the Boulder Theater reopened with 100-person shows (a tenth of the venue's maximum capacity). In July, the Larimer Lounge was able to extend its front patio into the street with a reserved outdoor seating area. Red Rocks Amphitheatre has been hosting 175-capacity shows.
Mundinger lauds the work of these venues, and hopes the Bring Music Home series will offer a heartfelt look at their contributions, in good times and bad.
“I think...these conversations are really cathartic for people because they're just going through so much,” she says. “To be able to talk about what makes your venue so special...is really important right now, because these places are part of local culture and ultimately our national culture in our industry. We need these places to be a part of our community.”
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.