On November 16, San Luis Obispo County shifted into the most restrictive tier of California’s reopening guidelines. This reevaluation of COVID-19 emergency restrictions does not change anything for San Luis Obispo’s music venues because gatherings for traditional live music performances have not been permitted since March.
However, the new restrictions are damaging to the historic Fremont Theater. The venue’s only source of regular income has been supplied by Active Church’s Sunday services. The county’s reassignment to the purple tier only allows religious services to be held outside with constraints.
The Fremont Theater has served as a movie theater, music venue and event center since its opening in 1942. Uncertainty about the future is not new to the Fremont, as there have been proposals in previous decades to transform the downtown landmark into a multiplex.
The Fremont has ushered in an assortment of diverse acts not previously seen in SLO thanks to the partnership of booking agencies that includes Ineffable Music and Otter Productions.
Jennings Jacobsen, the General Manager of the Fremont and the Stage Manager of the VINA Robles Amphitheater, is responsible for all the theater’s general operations and taking care of the vast array of acts featured at the theater.
“It has been cool to bring a variety of acts that you would have never seen in SLO five years ago … from EDM to reggae, to jazz to folk to rock. We’ve got top of the line sound, lighting, staging – all that new infrastructure just sit[ting] there waiting to go,” said Jacobsen.
Jacobsen has been a member of the local music community since the mid-90s when he started out as a musician. Since then, the city has evolved and refined in part to the Fremont’s renaissance. Unfortunately, the local music community’s unseen heroes can only wait for everyone to take things seriously so that live music can return.
“Within the last seven years, our area has stepped up in quality and in [the] variety of artists that come through our town. People take it for granted. Our area is a great place to be… Sadly the music industry here and abroad will be the last things to return to society,” said Jacobsen.
Live music provides a potent remedy that unites and aids communities through the most difficult of times. However, due to COVID-19, the Fremont, and nearly every other music venue in the country, cannot serve as beacons of healing during this tumultuous time of unrest and uncertainty.
“Music brings a sense of camaraderie between our community. You see many familiar faces. You see people you wouldn’t necessarily see on a daily basis, but the music brings everyone together. We’re missing out on that human interaction of seeing people, having a good time and experiencing the happiness that music brings,” said Jacobsen.
Other local venues are trying to maintain the joy that live music brings. SLO Brew, located ten minutes away from downtown, is still utilizing their event center for high-quality live streams available to watch on Facebook. SLO Brew’s productions are crucial in keeping the music alive in San Luis Obispo.
Ryan Orr, the Entertainment Director of SLO Brew Rock, has witnessed the power of the live stream productions put together by the crew and owners of SLO Brew.
“I see smiles. I see sparkles in people’s eyes. I’ve had people walk up to me and start crying and tell me how important it is for their mental health,” said Orr.
The brewery recently hosted virtual performances featuring the soulful funk band The Vibe Setters, the uplifting soul and R&B band Próxima Parada and the power-folk duo Bear Market Riot. SLO Brew has also put on benefit events for wildfire disaster relief and veterans.
Audio by Amanda Wernik
The event center is separated from the brewery’s outdoor beer garden by windows. Patrons enjoying a beer and meal in the beer garden could see the performers and hear the concert’s live stream audio. SLO Brew had found the sweet spot of safety, separation and experience for live performances given the current health restrictions.
“We’re pretty militant about the way that we present this because there is technically no live music in California as part of the COVID state mandate. We’re trying to play by the rules, but still keep the arts alive in any way that we can, knowing that it’s so important to people’s mental wellness,” said Orr.
Orr planned and promoted SLO’s first socially distant drive-in concert at Cuesta Ranch in celebration of Día De Los Muertos. Two weeks before the event was to take place, the SLO County Health Department shut it down.
“It was going to be a legal battle if we went forward with the event, which was wild because I covered my bases with the mayors, the code enforcement team, the liaison for the EOC, Jordan Cunningham, and SLO County Sheriff,” said Orr.
The carefully planned drive-in concert’s shutdown was disappointing for Orr and everyone hungry to experience live music. Orr’s efforts were not in vain, however. On November 6, SLO County announced that outdoor live performances for drive-in audiences that follow the official regulations would be permitted.
Orr and the rest of the crew at SLO Brew have kept the music going throughout the pandemic. However, just like the Fremont Theater, performances at smaller, less traditional venues have been suspended.
SloDoCo, a favorite donut shop and an essential cornerstone for SLO’s DIY music community, has remained open for business through the pandemic. However, its live shows featuring musicians of all backgrounds, styles and experience levels have paused.
Jake Schoonmaker, frontman of the local bedroom-fi, psych-rock band Depressed Specter, cut his teeth organizing shows for the local scene by starting Shabang with friends and serving as the festival’s music director.
Being a part of the SLO music scene since 2012, Schoonmaker has assisted in developing the local music scene through his more recent endeavors at SloDoCo.
“SloDoCo is accessible for everyone to enjoy music from any type of musician no matter their skill level. On Sundays, we would have elementary school music students perform for their folks. Then, we would have bands that come through town and play to a packed house of crazy college kids – and everything in between,” said Schoonmaker.
SloDoCo, like the Fremont and SLO Brew, provided the community an outlet for sanity that everyone is yearning for right now.
“We see everybody online, but there are so many acquaintances or friends that you only see at shows. Without having live music, we are missing out on a bunch of fun people to be around,” said Schoonmaker.
Everyone wants live music to return as soon as possible. Still, the prospects of that happening before summer are next to none.
Australia curbed infection rates during their winter, allowing them to have full capacity shows and even music festivals for their summer. Americans will have to make do with virtual and drive-in performances for the foreseeable future, since wearing a mask to slow the spread of COVID-19 and keep fellow community members safe is now seen as a political statement.
This past December, Congress passed a COVID-19 relief bill that includes $15 billion in funding for “live venues, independent movie theaters, and cultural institutions.”
The National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) has implemented a task force to ensure its members receive the help it needs efficiently. Concerned patrons of live venues can also contribute to the NIVA Emergency Relief Fund to assist facilities at the greatest risk of closing permanently while they wait for grants to be issued.
If you can spare extra income, and want local venues to stay in business, pay for virtual productions (SLO Brew) or donate to the venue (Fremont Theater).
“Really, it’s about instead of putting that money into going to see a show, it’s putting that money that you set aside to see a show into supporting specific people, specific bands, and specific venues,” said Jennings.
This legislation and roll-out of COVID-19 vaccines bring much needed good news for venues that have fought tooth-and-nail to stay open at the cost of furloughing or laying off employees.
Many unknowns surround the music industry’s future. One thing is for sure: musicians, producers, organizers, and the staff of every music venue will put on spectacular shows well worth the price of waiting.
“Oh my God, the day they’re back and here to stay is gonna be one for books!” exclaimed Schoonmaker.
Check out the NIVA #SaveOurStages website to get involved.
The Fremont Theater just opened up an online merchandise store here.
Listen to what SLO’s local musicians have cooked up recently here.