As Vito Rinaldo, an avid concert goer from New York, watched the pandemic wreak havoc on the live entertainment scene, he began devising solutions. Rinaldo sent out a message to friends with one simple request: to each send him $5.
Nearly 40 friends sent cash, and after a concert over Zoom, The Tree Nightclub (TOF), a virtual venue, was born.
“You know, it was okay, but we didn’t care. We were just like, this is great. We’re all together enjoying live music,” Barry Brandow, the vice president of artist acquisition for TOF, said.
The creation of TOF coincided with a series of concerts, festivals, and other events being cancelled, postponed, or altered as a direct result of COVID-19 restrictions.
Although venues struggled to keep their doors open, national initiatives continue to work relentlessly to help those struggling in the industry. The National Independent Venue Association, an organization of independent venues, promotors, and festivals, has spent most of the year advocating for the passage of the Save Our Stages Act.
After picking up bipartisan support in the Senate, the Save Our Stages Act passed along with the most recent stimulus relief package. This act paves the way for small venues, producers, and other individuals in the entertainment industry to apply for grants to help provide relief from the economic impacts of coronavirus. Now, venues nationwide await for the disbursement of the $15 million grant program.
According to a report from the National Endowment for the Arts, the arts remain vital for communities, and contribute 4.5% to the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP).
“When COVID struck in March, and everything closed, it kind of caught us looking at each other like what do we do now? What happens if we can’t come back for a long time? You know everyone is struggling, but there’s no replacement for live music,” Jordan Grobe, the communications coordinator at NIVA, said.
As more musicians pivoted towards virtual shows, Rinaldo wanted to make sure artists dependent on concerts could still find a venue.
“This club came out of that whole idea to help musicians who are struggling right now because there’s nowhere to play,” Rinaldo said. “These guys were living gig to gig. They got no revenue, no income…I just wanted to do something.”
It’s been eight months since the debut concert, and musicians continue to join audiences at TOF almost every Thursday night from across the country. With its unique platform, audience members congregate like they would on venue floors, but instead, in the comforts of their home, over Zoom. What ensues is a display of adaptation in the time of the pandemic. Friends and newcomers exchange conversation, toast drinks from across the screen, and more importantly, discuss the performer of the night.
“I just love being able to be with others who appreciate the music and musicians, and I can just be myself, and be in the crowd. Part of the show is the energy of the crowd,” Lily Anderson, an audience member based in Illinois, said.
Unlike the average concert, the musician of the night jumps in to join the audience before performing. This unique opportunity allows time for the musician to call out to friends they may see in the Zoom gallery, or hear from a fan who wants to talk about a show from years past. By the time the show starts, audience members can stay on Zoom to chat, or they may exit the crowd to only watch the show through Stellar, a streaming service.
Yet, many people stay on Zoom, where images of bobbing heads and dancing bodies are on full display for the performer to see.
“With TOF they could hear us and (we) made the artists feel closer to a live experience,” Tom Horowitz, a regular audience member from Pennsylvania, said.
When the encore finishes, some disperse as they would at the climax of a show. Others await in Zoom for the return of the band, so everyone can deliver the round of applause they deserve. To date, TOF has helped raise over $35,000 for artists and charities through ticket sales and tip jars at each show.
TOF continues to make modifications to improve show quality, and Rinaldo sees a future for this virtual venue even after the pandemic.
“We’re going to continue post pandemic, whatever that is. And I think in the real world there might be a place for us as well,” Rinaldo said.