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Arts & Culture

Famed New Orleans Live-Music Venue Adapts To Pandemic

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We've been thinking about how the pandemic has affected the arts world this year and whether there could be a lasting impact, so over the next few weeks, we'll be talking about what that future could look like for people who make their living in the arts world. We're going to start today with a club owner who is also a musician with a look at how the months-long shutdown of music venues is playing out.

ROBERT MERCURIO: I'm Robert Mecurio. I'm the bassist and co-founder in the band Galactic. And also, we are the current owners of Tipitina's in New Orleans.

MARTIN: Tipitina's is one of the Crescent City's best-known venues, founded in 1977 as the performing home of the blues pianist Henry Roeland Byrd, also known as Professor Longhair.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TIPITINA")

PROFESSOR LONGHAIR: (Singing) Tipitina, tra-la-la-la, whoa la-la-la, tra-la-la-la (ph).

MARTIN: But when the coronavirus pandemic hit in March, Mercurio and his co-owners had to shut down the club and cancel a slew of live shows their band was set to play all over the country.

MERCURIO: You know, we were in a unique position where we're - been doubly hit by the situation or on both sides of it, being club owners and musicians. So it's been very difficult. We've had to let - lay off, you know, most of our staff at the club and all of our touring staff. And the - just the uncertainty as to when things will get back to normal is making it more and more difficult to kind of get our heads around.

MARTIN: Although they did receive some money from the CARES Act, Mercurio and his band have had to figure out a way to keep themselves and the club going while the pandemic continues.

MERCURIO: We've created some streaming services called Tipitina's TV, where we're bringing in bands. And we've basically turned Tipitina's into a TV set where we're trying to create just a very great fan experience to put somebody in the seat of being in the first row of the club, which is not an easy position to get into for normal shows.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: One more time y'all - I don't think they heard me out there. I said clap, y'all.

MARTIN: Mercurio says they've also launched a vinyl record club for their fans featuring out-of-print reissues and new recordings made during the pandemic.

MERCURIO: Pre-COVID, it was always something that we'd thought about, but it became on the forefront of something that we wanted to do when we knew the club was closed. So that's a great positive that's going to come out of this that we had the time to be able to put together. And that is something that we really do hope to last for decades.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: Don't play with them, Jeff (ph). Don't play with it. Don't play with it, Ben (ph). One, two, three, four. Clap your hands. Clap your hands.

MARTIN: And while Mercurio and his team have been able to adapt to the pandemic, he knows other venues in New Orleans and across the country that have not been as lucky.

MERCURIO: I mean, we've already seen it in New Orleans. A lot of these smaller bars are closing and/or selling. And we are seeing so many small venues drop off that, in the long run it, could have a major, major impact.

MARTIN: Mecurio says that even after the pandemic is over, it may still be harder for bands to tour as venues like his are left with little to no money to actually book and pay musicians. And as clubs and concert halls continue to shut for good in cities across the country, he worries about the impact that may have on the future of American music.

MERCURIO: Without those launching pads for young artists to be able to try out their music or perform in front of a small audience or get their legs of performing on stage, it's going to be a huge loss in the creation of new bands. And without having venues for musicians to play in, you're basically creating cultural extinction.

MARTIN: Mercurio and his co-owners are part of a coalition of hundreds of small venues lobbying for passage of the Save Our Stages Act, a congressional bill that would allocate grants to help keep them from permanently closing. And while the future for his venue, his band and for live music around the world remains unclear, Mercurio is trying to stay positive.

MERCURIO: My hope is that once music does come back, it'll have this effect where you never know how much you miss something until it's gone. And I think that maybe not being able to go see live music for so long that, when it does open back up, there's just this mad rush and excitement to go see live music again.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing) Yeah. You got me going, going straight crazy. My head was so messed up, full off your love, man.

MARTIN: That was Robert Mercurio, co-owner of Tipitina's and bassist for the funk band Galactic. You can see him and other New Orleans musicians perform live at tipitinas.tv. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.