By Xander Norris
It’s a sunny Wednesday afternoon in early November on the Square. College students and locals converse as they meander along the intersecting streets that branch out from the trunk of Oxford’s historic courthouse; friends meet for lunch and revel in old memories.
At times, it feels like a sense of normalcy has returned to the Square. However, that feeling quickly fades as you pass under a large milky white tent and look back to see the light bounce off the steel sidewalk barriers of South Lamar Boulevard, fortifications that now guard the entrances of institutions like Proud Larry’s: a small-town pizza joint, bar, and music venue that has been in business since 1993. During its time on the Square, Proud Larry’s has hosted live performances by renowned artists like John Mayer, The Black Keys, Elvis Costello, and Warren Zevon. However, the business of making memories through melodies was paused when the pandemic lockdown forced Proud Larry’s to close in March.
“The music industry was really banging when things came to a screeching halt,” Said Scott Caradine, owner of Proud Larry’s. “It was busy; we were selling more tickets here for shows than we had ever sold.”
Typically, Proud Larry’s hosts around 200 live shows a year and averages $100,000 — $200,000 a month in revenue generated from those performances. But, after being shut down for three months and going through a fall without a proper college football season, Proud Larry’s has taken a 25% hit in live music revenue; a blow that Caradine said could take years to recover from.
“I think from a business perspective we are very fortunate at Proud Larry’s that we are a full-service restaurant,” Caradine said. “We typically, over our 27-year existence, have done about 65% food business and 35% bar business, just you know: beer, liquor, and wine; we’re able to break even, we’re able to keep our head above water right now, it’s tough, but we’re doing it… but we missed the live music side of things.”
Since re-opening in June, Proud Larry’s hasn’t had live music for about nine months. But, that all changed on Nov. 6 when Proud Larry’s staged a 40-table reduced capacity concert featuring Will Griffith — known musically as The Great Dying — a local folk-rock singer-songwriter and bartender at Proud Larry’s. The Great Dying has a rotating roster of Oxford artists, but the act usually involves Griffith on vocals and guitar accompanied by Craig Pratt on guitar or Kell Kellum on slide guitar. Born in the Mississippi Delta, Griffith describes his music as “dark country” because it’s an amalgamation of punk rock and country.
After having his tour canceled by COVID-19 earlier this year, Griffith said the experience of playing in front of a live audience again was the ultimate high for him.
“I haven’t played in front of a crowd in about 244 days, and I was just stoned,” Griffith said. “I was so high on the feeling of performing again; excuse my language, but everybody there was so horny for live music, people that were there were music fans and fans of The Great Dying, so it just could not have been a better situation.”
Caradine said The Great Dying’s concert was such a success in terms of people adhering to Proud Larry’s COVID-19 guidelines during the show. As long as fans play by the rules, Caradine thinks he now has a good template to follow for future shows at Proud Larry’s.
“Since that worked out, we said okay this model will work,” Caradine said. “It’s not the same as packing kids or people, in general, in here for a concert, but it’s an outlet for live music, for the fan experience, for the artists experience and for the business model that we can do business this way, our bar can sell some drinks, and it’s not the same as it was before… but, it’s a start.”
Caradine has spoken with some friends who are still hesitant about attending live performances at venues, but for the most part, he said a lot of people he’s talked to are really excited to have live performances back, even if it’s in the form of an hour and a half, limited capacity indoor show with masks when standing.
“A lot of people are really itching to go see live music,” Caradine said. “They want to go in a safe space and see live music; they want to go outside and see it, where they can space out from people and get the experience.”
However, Oxford’s bigger concert venues like The Lyric are not taking any chances right now with limited capacity performances.
“Certainly, limited capacity would be a big help in a lot of respects,” Said Lindsay Dillion-Maginnis, general manager of The Lyric. “But it’s also the hardest to enforce because if you cut the capacity of The Lyric down to half, you’re still going to have half of those people who are going to want to be as close as possible to the band; so for all the solutions that we have, we seem to have a new set of problems that will arise.”
Live music is a huge part of The Lyric’s business; according to Dillion-Maginnis, it’s included in 99% of the venue’s events. In a typical year, The Lyric hosts anywhere from 50–75 ticketed shows — not including other events like sorority formals and weddings that also feature live music — but this year has been far from typical for the venue.
Dillion-Maginnis said after having a record-breaking year in 2019, The Lyric has pushed all of its ticketed shows to next summer. Since its last show on Feb. 29, The Lyric has done a handful of contracted events, but Dillion-Maginnis said for all intents and purposes the venue is closed right now.
“We’ve been around now for 12 years and the business is solid, but it can’t sustain this forever,” Dillion-Maginnis said.
The Lyric is not alone; according to a 2020 survey of independent concert venue owners conducted by the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA), 90% of independent music venues could close forever if they don’t receive significant financial aid soon. NIVA is a non-profit group that supports over 2,000 independent live venue owners and promoters in all 50 states.
Formed back in April when the pandemic shut down live music, NIVA’s mission is to use its resources to sustain the country’s “ecosystem” of independent venues and promoters; this includes advocating for the passage of the Save our Stages Act (SSA), which is part of the $2.2 trillion Heroes Act, a relief package passed by the House of Representatives in October. If the Senate and the President approve the Heroes Act, it will provide over $10 billion in funding for independent venues in the form of loans and non-repayable grants.
“If real support comes, we can have the strongest independent ecosystem that we’ve ever had coming out of this,” Said Stephen Chilton, vice president of NIVA and owner of The Rebel Lounge in Phoenix, Az. “If we can get aid, we’re going to see a great thriving community after this, but if we can’t get aid it’s going to be devastating; we are going to lose venues by the thousands.
The stimulus bill’s funding will help cover six months’ worth of payroll and operating expenses, which is a big deal for an industry, that according to the trade publication Pollstar, could lose as much as $8.9 billion in revenue this year. But, as Variety Magazine points out, that figure “doesn’t include the losses of income by musicians, technicians, dancers, and others in its sprawling supply chain.”
“There are tons of artists out there that would normally be working and gigging back and forth making money, and that work is just not there,” Said Damein Wash, a local singer, songwriter, arranger, and pianist. “So, anything to put people back to work would be great; not to mention to just save the performance industry because we are needed, absolutely we are… people work all week and to have a nice concert to go to or somewhere they can breathe free and not have to worry about the stress of the mundaneness of everyday life; that’s super important for everyone, not just the musicians.”
The loss of independent music venues, concert halls, and theatres is also a major blow to the U.S. economy and to local artists like Griffith and Wash who make their living performing in front of crowds. According to a 2017 study by the National Endowment for the Arts, the value added by arts and culture to the U.S. economy is “five times greater than the value from the agricultural sector.” The study also points out that in 2017 the Arts and Cultural Production Satellite Account found that arts and culture contributed $877.8 billion, or 4.5%, to the nation’s gross domestic product.
As much as they help fuel the national economy, independent venues like The Lyric and Proud Larry’s are more than just a business. They are also a form of secular community where all walks of life can come together, and that’s important in and of itself.
“It’s all about creating a community with people, and there’s a real integration of the fan, the artist, and the business model that’s helping produce it,” Caradine said. “Whether it’s for-profit or not, it’s really important that those things happen together and if people want to see it continue to grow and slowly get back to a life of doing business with real music with shows on a bigger scale… It just takes everybody’s patience, it also takes everybody’s commitment to doing it safely.”