Dave Deibler remembers the last pre-pandemic show at Octopus: It was in mid-March, a fundraiser for the annual Cedar River Festival Group’s concert and kayak raffle, and Deibler had been watching the coronavirus pandemic slowly infiltrate other areas of the country with ease.
Yet here, in Iowa, the owner of The Octopus in Cedar Falls’ College Hill district was still able to host a packed house for live bands.
“I just remember feeling a little uneasy, ’cause there were quite a few people there. Which was a strange feeling,” he said.
Days later, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds announced that bars and restaurants would have to shut down as the coronavirus pandemic began to infiltrate the state, and all other events were limited to very few people or were canceled outright.
Even then, bar owners and festival boards used to providing live entertainment for the Cedar Valley thought the plug would be pulled temporarily.
“Like most people, I was watching the news and, of course, not really understanding the scope or the size of what was headed toward us,” said Deibler.
As the weeks wore on, and as music purveyors watched coronavirus surges and two separate bar shutdowns rattle the Cedar Valley in May and November, some pivoted to online shows. They were trying to recoup some of their financial losses as well as help struggling musicians and acts, and keep their patrons happy.
Nearly a year later, as the COVID-19 vaccine rollout is underway, owners of live music venues across the Cedar Valley are working through the best ways to bring live entertainment back to the area, though they differ on how much and how fast.
“People were scared — they weren’t going to bars,” said Andrew Robeson, who owns Kings and Queens as well as The Loft in downtown Waterloo — the latter of which opened a month before the first shutdown.
Now, he said, that’s changed: “We’re definitely seeing an uptick in business. But at the same time, we’re definitely not close to being normal.”
The day the music died
Robeson opened The Loft on Feb. 1, 2020, and saw good crowds for the four to five bands that played there that month and the beginning of the next. Business was buoyed by an influx of customers coming to play in the state dart and pool championships held at nearby Five Sullivan Brothers Convention Center.
“We were opened for literally five weeks ... then shut down for two months,” Robeson remembered.
Even after Reynolds lifted restrictions, Robeson worked to get his other bar, Kings and Queens, reopened first, though the gay bar’s popular drag shows weren’t added back for a while.
Even once The Loft reopened, live music wasn’t a part of it. Social distancing requirements, plus some musician unease, were factors.
“I had no bands booked at the time,” he said. “I think we pretty much ran that way until the second shutdown.”
The Brass Tap in downtown Cedar Falls had a band booked every Friday night before the pandemic hit, plus on special events or holidays, said owner and manager Walter Burtis.
“When we first opened, we had so many comments on how nice it was to have music in downtown Cedar Falls,” he said.
Besides the weekly entertainment, customers could come in for bingo or trivia night, “congregating in large amounts,” Burtis said.
Now, The Brass Tap no longer has a stage. Burtis removed it to comply with social distancing requirements to keep his bar running.
“To be honest, it was very difficult,” he said. “But the most important thing is the safety. We just decided it was better safe than sorry.”
Deibler agreed that the shut down was necessary, but said he still needed to pay the bills and save for his son’s college fund. In the year leading up to March 2020, The Octopus had put on 95 shows, trivia nights, salsa nights and other events, he said.
“That was really at the core, the function we served as a neighborhood bar,” he said.
He initially thought coronavirus would be eradicated and life would go back to normal within a few months.
“When something like the pandemic happens, you don’t know anything — there’s nobody you can talk to that’s still alive that can tell you what that’s like. There’s no reference for it,” Deibler said.
Outdoor live entertainment series, like Cedar Falls’ Live to 9 and Waterloo’s Friday’loo, canceled show after show until late July, when it was clear restrictions on outdoor gatherings would persist.
Sturgis Falls in Cedar Falls tried postponing their multi-day festival, but finally canceled in early August, noting the board was “heartbroken.” Iowa Irish Fest, held annually in downtown Waterloo as one of the largest festivals in the area, similarly held out as long as they could before canceling.
“The factors for cancellation are not unlike the many reasons everything and everyone else had to in 2020,” said fest director Chad Shipman.
Some venues, like Gallagher-Bluedorn Performing Arts Center, were able to pivot to streaming and summertime outdoor shows in pods.
That’s also what Deibler tried at first, bringing in solo acts or socially-distanced bands to play in front of a camera, and charging ticket fees for those who watched the streams.
“What I learned about streaming is that I don’t really care for it,” he said, calling it “so removed” from an actual live show. “It’s one thing to be sitting on your couch and stream. It’s another thing to be streaming an empty club.”
It made him realize what got him into the business in the first place: The “live” of live music.
“I’m not interested in shows without the audience component,” he said.
Deibler said if it weren’t for generous patrons kicking in money for a GoFundMe at a critical time last year, plus small business grants from the government, The Octopus might have gone under.
“Never up until this happened had I received any government money,” Deibler said. “I certainly reflected on it. I believe there’s a role for government in times like this.”
Robeson said even though Reynolds lifted alcohol restrictions and allowed bars to serve cocktails to go, he didn’t think it would work.
“Who wants to come to the bar and buy a six-pack of beer when you can go to Walmart?” he said.
And Robeson said he was glad to see, when restrictions were lifted on bars, that customers came back in an “outpouring of support” for his places.
“We’re very lucky,” Robeson said. “I don’t think we would have survived if we would have gone much longer, for sure, being shut down.”
Music of the future
Festival organizers remain hopeful, particularly in light of Reynolds removing all social distancing guidelines in February, that events will go on this year — and that festival goers will also return.
Shipman said Iowa Irish Fest would hold its first organizing meeting in March; they last met in June. But he said it wouldn’t be clear for a few months if the festival would go on as planned.
“I think by May 1 we would be better prepared to understand moving forward for 2021’s Fest on how it affected us economically, entertainment and attendance challenges, and how we are going to move forward,” he said.
Venue owners like Burtis, who haven’t yet brought back bands, are similarly optimistic.
“Most certainly, it is our hope that we can bring back live music,” he said. “But I will not move forward until more people are vaccinated.”
Others are taking their cues from patrons.
“I would say a lot of people are more comfortable going out now,” Robeson said. “There was this really big surge where it seemed like everybody had it at the end of the year, and everybody kind of said, ‘Well, everybody had it — let’s go out.’”
The Loft is back to a “normal show schedule,” said Robeson, though chairs and tables are still few and far between. And Kings and Queens has gone back to hosting two drag shows once a month on Saturdays.
“We’ve gotta protect our employees, protect our customers, and I think we’re doing the right things there,” Robeson said. “We need money.”
Even though he doesn’t personally care for streaming to an empty club, Deibler is looking into streaming all of The Octopus’ shows, when shows do start to happen again, for people who are far away or unable to come to his bar.
And, he said, the pandemic has given him the opportunity to reinvest in things like rebuilding his stage, improved lighting and PA system, and more outdoor seating — if he can navigate the red tape that goes along with such seating.
“I think it’s an extremely dangerous time right now to be spending a bunch of money, but I do see a need to maybe refocus a few things,” Deibler said.
He noted he was just glad to be “paying our bills” by keeping the bar side open.
“That’s a success right there,” he said, noting other businesses didn’t fare as well. “I have really tried to not be too hard on myself.”
Burtis thinks Reynolds lifting restrictions on places like his “makes businesses the bad guys, rather than her,” noting he thought it was a bad idea to tempt people to gather when coronavirus was still so widespread.
“We all know COVID’s not gonna go away this year or for some time, but there will be a point in time when people don’t have to live in — and I think ‘fear’ is the wrong word — but they won’t be so cautious,” Burtis said.
And when they do, Deibler hopes they come back out for shows.
“We’re close to the end of times for live music venues — we’re dropping like flies,” he said, noting even big, regionally known places like The Mill in Iowa City closed after almost 60 years in business. “That’s a gut check.
“My hope is we can take a deep breath and say, ‘Yeah, this is worth saving.’”