Kansas music venues should start hosting live shows sooner rather than later

A scene from 2019's Dancefestopia, a music festival Wildwood Outdoor Education Center in La Cygne. (Borda Productions)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Paul Samberg is a second-year student at the University of Kansas studying journalism, Jewish studies and political science.

Every Monday at 5 p.m. during the 2019-2020 academic year, members of the Live Events Committee for KJHK, the University of Kansas radio station, were busy in a fourth floor alcove of the Union, planning concerts. All of us worked hard, the resulting shows always our reward and the product of our love for live music. I still remember the night we settled on the Spring 2020 concerts. Among the handful slated for the end of the semester, I was most looking forward to 100 Gecs at The Bottleneck.

Unfortunately, COVID-19 took over before many of those concerts happened. The Bottleneck was shuttered like thousands of venues across the country.

More than a year later, it’s time for venues to bring back outdoor concerts, and production companies and venues should begin hosting shows sooner rather than later — with limited capacity, social distancing, masks required and a negative COVID-19 test or proof of vaccination for admission.

New COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths in Kansas have been fluctuating over the past few weeks, but the state has not reached the alarming levels we saw between December and February.

While a decline in hospitalizations and deaths is important, Charlie Greene, marketing manager for Kansas-based Borda Productions, a producer of large scale events and parties, said the vaccination rate is the most important factor in determining when they’ll start putting on shows again.

Borda Productions has slated upcoming events for the fall, starting with Dancefestopia Festival on the weekend of Sept. 9.

“The magic number that everyone’s kind of looking for is the vaccination rate. If enough of the population is vaccinated, then we can move forward,” Greene said.

Though he didn’t have a specific vaccination number, Greene said the main objective is to ensure there are enough vaccines readily available for everyone to receive one by the summer. It was projected that 90% of adults will be able to receive vaccines by this week, and 75% of adults are expected to have a vaccine by the beginning of summer. So what is stopping shows from resuming by then?

Considering lower transmission rates in outdoor settings, the ability to safely have outdoor events looks promising. A Chinese study found that of 318 COVID-19 outbreaks with three or more cases, just one came from an outdoor event. Even with the recent occurrence of multiple, more contagious COVID-19 variants, the risk of outdoor events has not increased.

While everyone should be cognizant of the risks associated with any type of person-to-person interaction, it is clear the risk is much lower when outside. And with preventative measures like limited capacity seating, social distancing, masking and proof of recent negative testing or full vaccination, holding outdoor concerts is absolutely feasible.

Reopening outdoor venues sooner rather than later will also help the Kansas economy. Music is a $54 billion global industry, but the pandemic resulted in an estimated $5 billion loss.

Gov. Laura Kelley recently announced Kansas’ participation in the Small Business Association’s Shuttered Venue Operators Grants program, which will provide $16 billion in relief to ailing venues. This will help make reopening outdoor venues possible.

Finding artists to book would not be difficult, either, as many are eager to begin performing again. Rapper Jamel Thompson, better known as his stage name, The Royal Chief, said the pandemic messed up project rollout and revenue streams as performances are a big contributor to an artist’s revenue.

“I had a bunch of stuff lined up for the summer, and it really sucked not being able to perform,” Thompson said. “I definitely think it’s OK to go ahead and start (as long as) you just kind of play by the rules.”

Safety concerns about large gatherings are understandable. However, if restaurants and bars in the state are allowing dining inside and outside, and there is a clear way to mitigate risk for outdoor events, why should outdoor concert venues with preventative safety measures be restricted? For far too long, policymakers have neglected the arts. While federal aid is an adequate start, it is time to appreciate the economic and health impacts of the arts and start allowing outdoor venues to resume their operations.

After my time planning and attending concerts came to a grinding halt this past year, I am itching to see Fleet Foxes as the sun sets at Providence Medical Center Amphitheater in what would be the most magical concert since Tyler, the Creator’s headlining set at Governor’s Ball Music Festival 2019 in New York City.

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