The Show Must Go On: How Cincinnati’s Music Venues Are Still Surviving Challenges Brought On By The COVID-19 Pandemic

Business booms — and margins slim — as big Cincinnati concert venues push onward.

click to enlarge MOTR Pub, 1345 Main St. in Over-the-Rhine - Photo: Aidan Mahoney
Photo: Aidan Mahoney
MOTR Pub, 1345 Main St. in Over-the-Rhine
This story is featured in CityBeat's May 31 print edition.

In March of 2020, music venues across the world were forced to temporarily close as cases of COVID-19 began to rise. For the first time ever, Cincinnati’s music venues had to think outside the box to give locals the one thing they desperately needed amid the isolation of a global pandemic: community. No matter what they had to do to bring music and community to Cincinnatians — virtual performances, limited-capacity concerts and major career pivots — local venues, producers and musicians were willing to take a chance.

In a survey conducted by the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) in June of 2020, 90 percent of independent venue owners, promoters and bookers said that they would have to permanently close in the following months if they did not receive additional funding. Despite the unprecedented threat, none of Cincinnati’s independent music venues have permanently closed since the COVID-19 pandemic first halted operations in March of 2020. In fact, Cincinnati gained two new venues out of the pandemic — MegaCorp Pavilion and the Andrew J Brady Music Center.

To get a sense of how Greater Cincinnati’s music scene is bouncing back and overcoming obstacles presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, CityBeat spoke with local music venues, musicians, producers and tour managers who are working to keep the heart and soul alive in the local music scene.

Business booms — and margins slim — as big Cincinnati concert venues push onward

If you thought 2021 was a hard year for you, imagine trying to open a major new music venue in it.

Both MegaCorp Pavilion — once known as PromoWest Pavilion at OVATION — and The Andrew J Brady Music Center opened that year as the COVID-19 pandemic continued to drag on. Located in entertainment districts along the Ohio River, the venues were in prime positions to host big-name acts with large crowds of concertgoers who could spend money at nearby businesses — but they found themselves navigating what it meant to promote and host concerts in a market that was vastly changed by the pandemic.

As more established venues learned as well, it was a matter of adjusting to new regulations and expectations almost on the fly. Maximum capacities had been stripped back, masking requirements were the new normal and proof of vaccination or recent COVID testing was common. Parlay these uncharted protocols with fluctuating case numbers that put virtually any show at risk of being canceled, along with buyer hesitancy spawned by increased ticket prices and health safety concerns, and Cincinnati suddenly had a music scene that needed to get its swagger back.

When MegaCorp Pavilion opened that August, they faced the risk of shows being canceled even while grappling with the challenges of building a reputation in a new city. It didn’t knock them off track.

Even so, a few shows that were canceled for various reasons muddied operations during the first few months that the venue was open to the public. Some concertgoers were wracked with hesitancy, doubting if a given show would actually happen, and others were uncomfortable entering crowded and confined public spaces — even as the venue aimed to establish itself as a power player in the local music scene, Marissa McClellan, the marketing director for MegaCorp Pavilion, tells CityBeat.

“We started building the venue before anyone had ever heard of COVID, so we definitely weren't planning for something like that to happen…We opened to a completely different world than we were used to,” McClellan says.

The learning curve was steep. But as both MegaCorp Pavilion and the region’s other big venues soon realized, with new challenges came new opportunities.

New, post-pandemic norms

As live music returned, venues scrambled to design new strategies to accommodate fans’ safety concerns about attending live events, while artists’ increased asking prices narrowed profit margins, often resulting in additional fees being passed on to ticket buyers.

The months following the height of the pandemic proved unpredictable. MegaCorp Pavilion and Madison Theater report surging attendance at shows in the backend of 2021, outperforming pre-pandemic expectations, presumably because of fan fervor to re-engage with events and rituals that had been halted during the first year of the pandemic, according to both McClellan and Frank Hulefeld, programming director at Madison Theater.

Todd Duesing, chief operating officer and vice president of Cincinnati Arts Association, which manages Cincinnati Music Hall and the Aronoff Center, says following the return to full capacity in late 2021, venues noted an unusually high number of paying no-shows. Although there’s no exact science to identify the reasons for increased no-shows, Duesing believes that people decided last-minute not to attend the concerts that they had purchased tickets for after thinking over the potential threat of spreading COVID. This trend has tempered in the past year-and-a-half, says Duesing, although concertgoers generally continue to be more wary about spreading and catching illnesses than they were before the pandemic.

In turn, venues have modified their strategies to adapt to new consumer habits and COVID-related health standards.

Cincinnati Symphonic Orchestra first offered livestream shows in September 2020 when in-person concerts were prohibited, transitioning into hybrid format shows with online and limited capacity in-person attendance options in January 2021. Hybrid format shows are now a mainstay in CSO’s concerts at Music Hall, according to Duesing, balancing the brightness of live music with inclusivity for those who can’t get in the room physically.

This model has been especially helpful for sharing the symphony experience with schools around the city that are typically unable to transport children to see CSO shows at Music Hall, says Duesing.

Increased competition

An abundance of big-name shows heightened by the expanded network of major venues in Greater Cincinnati has created a crowded concert market with plenty of opportunity for fans. However, fans often have limited income that they are willing to spend on concerts. With venues trying to optimize profitability through ticket sales, they’ve had to consider how to draw people to their shows instead of their competitors’.

“Let's say you're some 25-year-old and you've got 100 bucks to spend every six months approximately on concerts — you get one or two shows. Well, now, there's so many shows going that the likelihood that one or two [shows] that person is going to attend is at your venue is greatly diminished,” says Hulefeld.

To cope with the tenacious competition in the Cincinnati market, Hulefeld sets his sights on shows he knows will turn heads and draw crowds, sacrificing some shows to other venues in order to get the ones he’s confident will be profitable.

Some fans are struggling to keep up with the cascade of shows. “We're competing with our own dollars with how many shows we're putting through the market. You know, the general person only has so much money that they can spend on their ticket,” McClellan says.

At the same time, artist fees have risen, with many demanding higher “artist guarantees” than before the pandemic. That forces venues to operate with tighter margins and pass on bloated ticketing fees to consumers.

“We tend to not make a ton of money, but the money we make through shows or through small, incremental revenues are enough to really keep our venues operating,” Duesing tells CityBeat. “It’s a challenge, particularly with more and more that artist guarantees increase.”

Stubborn inflation gives artists a rationale for demanding higher guarantees, Duesing says. While this slims the monetary wiggle room for venues, they are left with limited alternatives — meeting artist demands is necessary to keep the venue programmed, he says. Music Hall has experimented with new streams of revenue to compensate for some of this loss, such as VIP and pre-show exclusive ticket package options, says Duesing.

The competition can be fierce. Hulefeld recalls stout bids for sought-after shows getting outbid by other local venues.

During the bidding process, musical artists scheduling tours solicit proposal offers from multiple venues within the markets they want to play in. If an artist expresses interest in playing a show in Cincinnati, tour agents will usually reach out to multiple venue promoters in the area to shop for the most attractive offer. Beating out offers by Madison Theater’s competing venues has been a challenge, says Hulefeld.

Madision Theater joined D Tour, a national collaborative of independently programmed venues that works with artists, to get a piece of the bustling action in touring. D Tour acts symbiotically with artists by connecting partnered venues with artists. Artists who schedule shows at partnered venues are referred to other D Tour venues around the country, helping venues land touring acts and also helping musicians simplify the task of booking a series of shows.

Even with plenty of big venues, Jonathan “Jon Jon” Curl of Kiss 107.1 FM says Cincinnati is often an overlooked destination for artists making on-air appearances and performing at shows promoted by iHeartRadio syndicates. Many artists will opt for fewer stops in larger markets along the iHeartRadio trail, leaving Cincinnati off their travel plan, he says.

But not all. Duesing says the variety of venues catering to different audiences and different musical styles makes Cincinnati an alluring destination for touring acts. The ecosystem of venues supports musicians’ career trajectory, boasting both places for artists to perform when they’re a nascent star and steps up in venues to host visits as their fame climbs.

“We can have somebody play in a 400-seat room, and they can jump up to 1,000-seat rooms, and then they can jump to 2,700, and then they can get to 4,000,” says Duesing. “So it's nice to have all those different levels because we can follow the progression of an artist.”

Cincinnati: A musical city

Music venues around the city have seemingly arrived at the consensus that competition is a healthy aspect of the business that empowers the music scene and gives concertgoers a good problem to have: choice.

A total of 932 concerts and performance arts events were held in Cincinnati in 2021, rocketing to 1,461 in 2022 and currently sitting at 870 through August of 2023, according to data collected by PredictHQ and provided by Randie Adam, vice president of marketing and visitor experience at Visit Cincy.

“Competition is good, right? That means the area is going to get a lot of shows, especially with two very new venues. A lot of shows are coming to the market that maybe wouldn’t have before,” says McClellan.

Any given night serves up a diverse offering of things to do, from live music, sporting events, bars and restaurants. While increased entertainment options pose exciting opportunities for many, the emergence of new sites has posed some issues for long-established venues.
click to enlarge Cincinnati Music Hall, 1241 Elm St. in Over-the-Rhine - Photo: Aidan Mahoney
Photo: Aidan Mahoney
Cincinnati Music Hall, 1241 Elm St. in Over-the-Rhine
Since opening in May 2021, TQL Stadium has heightened traffic and parking concerns for its neighbor, Music Hall, whenever the venues host events at the same time.

“We’re just now feeling the effects of having a stadium and a historic theater next to each other, and the audiences are trying to adjust to being at the same place at the same time. We’re making it, together, as neighbors and partners,” Duesing tells CityBeat.

But logistical hurdles don’t detract from the real prize: the city’s entertainment industry is booming.

Options for entertainment are again cementing Cincinnati as a tourist destination. In 2021, a year that was at least partially dampened by the pandemic, Cincinnati’s overnight visitors spent $182 million on recreation and entertainment — 14% of their total expenditures, according to data provided by Adams. This figure is inching steadily toward the $223 million high achieved by Cincinnati in 2017.

Curl, contemplating how the ecosystem of large music venues in Cincinnati has changed since the pandemic, recalls a night in May 2022. The Who played at TQL Stadium in front of a packed crowd, while Paycor Stadium filled up to see Garth Brooks. Two crowds, each containing tens of thousands of people, convened at separate locations on the same night. Curl believes this example is a testament to the big potential for business that exists in Cincinnati. Despite the new, unexpected obstacles presented by the pandemic, the results speak for themselves: give the people what they want, and the crowds will come.

Local artists — and indie venues — found ways to survive, and even thrive, when facing uncertainty

A little over three years out from the start of the world-halting global pandemic that led to a seemingly ever-extending period of uncertainty, local venues and musicians recall their experience.

The Cincinnati music community has been a constantly developing and largely thriving group of creative circles influencing each other — and at times, even the world — for decades. The city is filled with bands, singers, rappers and musicians from all walks of life creating and entertaining in bars, venues and clubs nightly.
That came to an abrupt stop in March 2020.

Northside Tavern owner Ed Rush tells CityBeat how it felt in the beginning. It was becoming obvious that COVID-19 would be a national issue, but, as Rush says, “No one really expected how wide-ranging the outcome would be.” He recalls the last days of being open before the statewide shutdown: “We were open, but people were getting scared, and then we had to absolutely close at 9 p.m. March 15, 2020.”

MOTR Pub and Woodward Theater co-owner and proprietor Chris Schadler tells CityBeat, “We closed down March 2020, so it was like ‘OK, let’s see what happens,’ and things just got worse and worse and worse.” After ten full months with the doors closed, Schadler says he began to really feel the uncertainty when they reached the point where they had to start getting rid of expired food and drink inventory. “The possibility crossed my mind that we would not reopen again.”

The sudden stop was no less jarring for artists. Siri Imani, a local hip hop artist, poet and community organizer, spoke with CityBeat about her experience in that first year. “It was a rough time spiritually and financially,” she said. “Everyone was disconnected and it really didn’t seem it would ever end.”

Drummer Rob Stamler of local acts such as The Harlequins, Grotesque Brooms and Ernie Johnson from Detroit also felt the abrupt change.

“My favorite aspect of music is playing live and going to see live music,” Stamler said. “With that being said, I was super depressed that none of these things were going to happen for a while… Honestly, it was brutal. I had some really pivotal musical opportunities that were going to take shape in the summer and fall of 2020 but were obliterated by the virus.”

Peyton Copes, a Cincinnati-based tour manager for artists including Waxahatchee, was on the road when he said he got a call from a Live Nation representative saying that shows would be canceled that day and for the next five days. That, of course, turned into the rest of the year. Copes says he didn’t get back on the road until August of 2021.

On the other hand, the pandemic offered some musicians a reset. Vacation frontman Jerome Westerkamp says things shut down after the band’s tour ended on March 7. With his newfound free time, he settled into producing music for himself and others at his recording studio, Checkered Flag.

“I remember thinking, ‘Finally, this feels like the job I want to be doing — wait a minute, why can’t this be my job?’” He went on to complete three records during the height of the pandemic in 2020. “The music and creativity only blossomed during this time period, and I’ve tried to keep that freight train running ever since,” Westerkamp said.

“I figured if it wasn’t an option to be actively pursuing music, I could at least start chipping away at some deeply settled insecurities so that I would be ready to hit the ground running as my most confident self when the world opened back up,” Sullivan said.

Cincinnati transplant Sam Richardson said the pandemic forced him into a “sink or swim type moment” when his unemployment initially didn’t get approved and he made the move to turn his then-hobby label, Feel It Records, into a full-time operation.

The pandemic also brought a handful of new bands. Singer-guitarist Will Ross says that though it wasn’t apparent at first, “having all the time in the world to just practice away was a blessing.” He recalls writing around 50 new songs over the pandemic. “I got a chance to just reimagine what kind of music I could make, and think it really paid off.”

It seems it has, as Ross’ post-pandemic band Willie and the Cigs has emerged as one of the city’s most sought-after acts coming out of the first year of the pandemic, along with peers such as Spoils, TV Art and CLEÖCRT among others.

Finding alternatives to connection and expression

Both venues and artists found ways to keep moving forward and try to come out the other side of the pandemic intact. One integral part of this for venues was government assistance offering much-needed lifelines to help keep venues from disappearing from the cultural landscape — in some cases, by way of grassroots organizing.

NIVA (National Independent Venue Association) was formed by a group of industry members who were largely responsible for advocating for the Save Our Stages Act, now known as the Shuttered Venues Operators Grant Program (SVOG). The program earned approval and became the largest U.S. federal investment in the arts, allocating $16 billion in funds administered by the SBA (Small Business Administration) to preserve arts organizations, including venues. Schadler likened the SBA’s help to a jumpstart.

Through all of this, with doors literally shuttered in some instances, things felt increasingly uncertain. Musicians and audiences alike had a need for distraction and continued creativity. DIY instincts kicked in and a handful of forward-thinking individuals helped get things moving again, at least a little bit.

It was during this time that the music community went online, outdoors and underground. Steve Schmoll, owner of West Side record store and venue Black Plastic, used equipment he had from doing live sound and bought webcams to broadcast live-streamed performances from the shop starting in June of 2020, when bands and audiences had no outlet for live music. “We got a lot of positive feedback. The song would end and there is silence, but you look at the Facebook feed and see that 100 people are watching, and that is the applause.”

In Northside, Liz and Josiah Wolf opened their home to musicians and audiences in August 2020. They called it Hexagon House, and at the now defunct personal residence/venue, musicians would perform from the home’s stylishly decorated deck to an audience spread across the back lawn.

The DIY ethos took a similar path at Lambda Research, an artist collective, studio and gallery where organizers Blake Lipper and Drew Christman explain they realized the potential of the space they had occupied with friends and fellow artists through the worst of the pandemic. To help preserve a place for independent, underground culture, they added “music venue” to the space’s list of purposes as things started loosening up in the early winter of 2021.


Just like a ghost light on a theater stage always staying lit, Cincinnati venues held on and, luckily, never fully went dark. On May 21, 2020, Ohio allowed venues to reopen. Kentucky soon followed, allowing music venues to host limited-capacity shows beginning June 29.

Northside Tavern reopened on a Tuesday after Memorial Day weekend. Rush says they had to close no later than 10 p.m. until February of 2021, so the bar didn’t have live music until that spring. Woodward Theater opened for private events in spring 2021 and they held off for the smaller, MOTR Pub until June of that same year.

“I remember sitting back by the lamp (at the far corner of the bar looking on to the stage) and I was just filled with kind of joy, like, ‘My god, this is so nice, there’s somebody on stage, and the lights and glow,’” Schadler said of the feeling he got when MOTR Pub finally reopened.

Reopening was by no means without hiccups. The celebration was cut short briefly for MOTR Pub when someone contracted COVID-19 from a wedding held at the Woodward within the first few months of hosting live performances again, and they had to shut down, following CDC guidelines, for two weeks, canceling bookings from local and touring bands.

Other CDC guidelines and reopening orders required venues to follow protocols such as maintaining distance between both employees and patrons and using physical barriers when distancing wasn't possible, as well as encouraging surface cleaning, masking and hand cleanliness, among others. Jessica Rusch, a longtime bartender at Junker’s Tavern, tells CityBeat about throwing out the compact bar’s booths in place of much smaller tables to make space, in addition to the plastic barriers and hand sanitizer that became a regular sight at the beginning of the reopening phase of the pandemic.

In addition to health concerns, the reopening process wasn’t without its own set of obstacles. Supply chain issues were an after-effect felt by many. Staffers at Somerset and Alice have a unique perspective, having opened during the pandemic. Creative director and partner James Fisher tells CityBeat about the many delays and setbacks the Lost Hospitality group, which owns both Somerset and Alice, experienced preparing to open during a global pandemic that were even more magnified since the ambitious establishments include materials sourced from all over the world. The stone used for their bar tops was delayed from Sri Lanka arriving two weeks before opening day after being stuck in the news-making Suez Canal backup in 2021. Fisher also says, “Sourcing some booze was weird, we’ve had some supply chain hiccups even this year.”

Northside Tavern’s Rush recalls, “Any item could be out for any number of weeks, reappear, then be unavailable again.” He adds, “Customers were, and are, very understanding about this.” Watts says Schwartz’s Point even had to change the menu at times due to supply issues.

Rising costs were yet another obstacle. Somerset and Alice were hit hard with shipping container costs going up. Also, Fisher mentions with a laugh, “The cost of lemons goes up 300% and I need to buy 700.” Venues are dealing with these rising costs and trying to shield customers. Fisher says, “I don’t think we really passed on any price increases, we tried to keep it affordable.” Watts says the same, comparing it to a “balancing act” trying to keep prices down when costs go up.

For musicians, reopening was a breath of fresh air, returning to normal and getting back on track. Stamler talked about understanding some people’s hesitancy to return to live shows, but he was more than ready for “something normal.” As for hiccups in the process, Imani recalls, “Audiences had to relearn concert experiences, artists had to brush up on performances. And all while being anxiety-ridden about catching COVID.” Jeff Seeger, frontman of Stallone N’ Roses, remembers crowds being “so stiff” at first. “They’d get up then sit right back down,” Seeger said. “It felt like you almost had to have permission to have a good time.”

This seems to reflect in the gradual recovery experienced by venues as well. Venue owners explain that things didn’t snap right back, but recovery has been gradual. Things seem to be leveling back out, as they all seem to agree that things are getting back to normal, with business improving each year consecutively and now getting back to pre-COVID numbers.

The Queen City is getting her groove back

As the pandemic seems to have mostly drawn to a close, it looks like we’re on the other side of darker times.

"Things are basically back to normal. It’s less and less common to have to present vax cards and/or negative tests, shows are selling to full capacity, attendance rates are higher than when we were deeper in the pandemic, basically no one is wearing masks,” Copes says of the international touring scene.

Locally, they may even be better. There are a ton of new bands, singers and talent adding to the already stellar music community and lineage that helps make the city what it is. Also, in addition to not losing any venues during COVID, new venues have opened up, and with them came new opportunities.

The stage lights are warmed up, bars are restocked, venues are open for business and the varying music communities are alive and well.

“I'd say the music scene has gotten 110% stronger since the COVID experience. Folks have moved to this city from elsewhere (for the first time ever?), great bands and labels have formed, show attendances have been exceptional and people have really taken notice of music coming out of Cincinnati,” Westerkamp says.

On any given night, audiences have the opportunity, once more, to experience one of the most significant parts of their city, buzzing again with life and sound.

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