COVID-19: Restaurants, Bar Owners, and Musicians are Figuring Out When and How to Bring Live Music Back

Sprinkles is not a music venue, but owner Emily Reich was happy to hire jazz musicians to perform on weekends at her ice cream shop to help drum up business.

Emily Reich, has owned Sprinkles Ice Cream Shoppe in Elkins Park for the past seven years. The early months of the pandemic were anxiety-inducing for her and her staff.  

Employees were uncomfortable working and customers were apprehensive about going out. Even as summer began last year and there was an easing of some restrictions, there was still fear and uncertainty. Reich resisted closing for as long as possible.

“Ice cream is a comfort food,” she said. “I did not want to take that away from people.” 

Reich ended up closing temporarily before opening the shop about a month and half later, with caution and outdoor seating. To help drum up business, she hired jazz musicians, mostly high school and college students, to perform on weekends. Customers were able to sit, eat ice cream, and watch the bands perform. 

Sprinkles is not a music venue, but Reich was happy to offer an opportunity for musicians to perform.

“The kids were dying to get out and share their gifts in a live setting and I was very happy to accommodate them,” she said. “Our customers embraced it too.” 

In Philadelphia and the surrounding suburbs, a lot of restaurants faced tough times with multiple reopens and shutdowns over the past year. But for the musicians who relied on these bars and restaurants for regular gigs, the constant shutdowns have been disastrous. 

New restrictions made it harder for restaurants to survive, let alone continue to hire musicians.  

“I listened to everything they told us to do,” Rhonda Nancy, who has owned the Platinum Grille in Chestnut Hill for 16 years, said. “We never shutdown, but we followed all the new guidelines.”  

Before the pandemic, the Platinum Grille featured live music regularly, but Nancy is unsure whether there will be as much music once the pandemic settles and everything opens back up.  

“We couldn’t hire any bands,” Nancy said. “Usually, I’ll have a 6–7-person band to play, but we couldn’t afford it and haven’t since. I only hire single artists now and then.” 

New establishments, like Attic Brewing Company in Germantown, have had to drum up buzz and revenue without relying on popular, well attended live music shows. Attic opened in January 2020, but closed its barroom in March 2020.  

“Our whole business was shut down eight weeks after we opened,” owner Laura Lacy said.  

The brewery opened an outdoor beer garden last summer, and now features regular music and events.  

“There were constant COVID restrictions,” Lacy said. “We were constantly changing and adapting to stay in business and keep our employees working. We never closed.” 

Lacey added that keeping the business afloat was a huge expense.  

“There were lots of costs like outdoor seating, lighting, fencing, umbrellas, disposable glassware, PPE, signage,” she said. “When the weather got cold, heaters were out of stock. We finally got some and had to constantly purchase propane and wood for fire pits. The costs were high, and we didn’t make any profit.” 

Despite these costs, Lacy kept hiring bands. 

“We’ve tried to keep live music during the whole pandemic and paid musicians the same rate we did before the pandemic,” she said. “The live music has been very popular, and we were happy to help keep musicians working.” 

Hatboro’s Crooked Eye Brewery had a contrasting experience to Attic Brewing Company.  

“We were allowed to slowly start increasing our capacity,” owner Paul Hogan said. “When we first opened back up, we had a lot of difficulties upholding all the restrictions placed on us and where customers could be seated.”  

Hogan had to make tough decisions for musicians. 

Paul Hogan, owner of Crooked Eye.

“We had to explain to musicians that, being held to only a portion of our capacity, we couldn’t afford to pay them like we could before,” he said. “Most understood, and we were able to come to an agreement.” 

Local musicians who rely on weekly gigs at restaurants and bars, like drummer Christian Smith from North Philadelphia, found themselves searching for ways to play music and make money after COVID-19 shutdowns. Some of Smith’s regular restaurant gigs have yet to come back, but he’s been able to play every Sunday at a local church for the past few months. 

“The pandemic has affected my ability to get gigs,” he said. “It has taken away most of my inside and large restaurant jobs. I thank God for the church.” 

Patrick Robinson is a GRAMMY winning musician who has played keyboards and guitar for almost 50 years, though the past year has probably been the least he’s ever played.  

“I went from over a dozen gigs in the month of February 2020 to zero gigs for almost half a year,” he said.  

Still, he was able to make ends meet with music.  

“I was fortunate enough to be able to remotely record several CD projects, as well as teaching lessons via Zoom,” Robinson said. “It kept me afloat.”  

Miguel Vela, 19, plays drums, guitar, and bass and has just started his music career. He has been playing live for about two years and loves traveling to play music. The shutdown put his shows on pause.  

“The gigs weren’t there,” he said. “So, no money unless you did streaming. The only ‘gigs’ were recording.”  

Vela has made use of the time not being able to perform as frequently. 

“I’ve been writing more and recording more,” he said. “I put out an EP and I went to school for musical theatre in the meantime. It put me in NYC. And now I’m learning, and I’m on the music scene.”

Smith had to take side jobs just to survive. 

“To deal with not being able to perform as much, I’ve continued to play in church, and I began to drive for Lyft much more,” he said.  

He’s just started playing in bars and restaurants again, but has been its own adjustment, Smith said. 

“Wearing the mask was hard and different,” he said. “Everything is more intense because we want to keep people safe.” 

Robinson has also noticed a real change in what it is like to play in restaurants now. 

“The venues are much more careful,” he said. ”And the patrons are much more appreciative.”

Vela has performed a few times in restaurants over the past few weeks, including outside Sprinkles, and has noticed a real change among crowds. 

“Everyone listens more,” he said. “They’re more grateful than before. They love to see us doing our thing. Everyone, especially those with non-musical families, missed the joy of live, communal music.” 

Even restaurant owners seem more appreciative. 

“It also seems restaurants are more excited to have us in,” Vel said. “If music wasn’t already a draw for business, it is now and more so.”

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