St. Louis Live Music Gets Loud Again

Things are looking positive for the live-music industry, which faced devastation during COVID-19

click to enlarge Live music is back, baby. - Max Bouvatte
Max Bouvatte
Live music is back, baby.

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, predictions about the live-music industry were dire.

According to some early estimates, most smaller venues in the United States would close without a financial lifeline. One such warning came from Dayna Frank, president of the National Independent Venue Association, a lobbying group that formed in March 2020 to attempt to get federal assistance for the industry. Frank told Rolling Stone that 90 percent of the group's member venues reported not having enough cash on hand to last more than six months sans federal intervention, with 55 percent not having enough to last more than three months.

Thankfully, that assistance did come in the form of the Save Our Stages Act, which was included in a $900 billion stimulus bill Congress passed in December 2020. While that did stave off worst-case scenarios, the live-music landscape has changed considerably since we all first heard the word "coronavirus."

Here in St. Louis, old standby venues have shut their doors, and new ones — mostly larger ones — have arrived on the scene with a splash. We lament those we've lost — R.I.P. the Way Out Club, one of the best to ever do it — as we celebrate those we've gained.

There's Red Flag, a 1,000-cap Midtown venue that opened in November 2020 across the street from the considerably smaller Fubar, which was under the same ownership and closed upon Red Flag's opening. There's the Ready Room in the Grove, which closed at the top of the pandemic, only to reemerge this year in a new space — that of the former Atomic Cowboy, which never officially announced it would be shuttering, even as its furniture went up for sale in February 2021. The Ready Room's former digs have since been transformed into the Hot Java Bar. Finally, the Monocle closed in October 2020, while Platypus opened across the street a year later.

Notable, too, are the major additions that popped up in the county, including the $9 million St. Louis Music Park outdoor amphitheater in Maryland Heights, which opened in July 2021 as the final piece of the Centene Community Ice Center. Even further west is the Factory in Chesterfield, a whopping $23 million building in the District entertainment complex that has managed to bring in some top-tier acts since opening in July 2021.

Still, even for the big guys, COVID-19 brought its fair share of challenges.

"It affected the artists — they weren't traveling as much," Factory owner Michael Staenberg says of the venue's early days. "That's really what affected us, was the shows. When you have less shows, it's kind of hard to do something."

click to enlarge Matt Stuttler worked hard to keep the Sinkhole open. - STEPHEN INMAN
Matt Stuttler worked hard to keep the Sinkhole open.

But as things have begun to open up, and artists are hitting the road more frequently, that problem has started to sort itself out, and the Factory has increasingly found its footing as a part of the local music landscape.

"Our last shows have been sold out at 80, 90, 100 percent," Staenberg says. "People are really embracing us and really are understanding who we are and what we're about."

Where St. Louis seems most lacking at present is in the smaller, more intimate venues. The loss of the Way Out Club was a major blow, but some of the trouble predates the pandemic. Foam closed in December 2019, and 2720 Performing Arts Center closed a year and a half before that at the same time that Blank Space ceased having regular hours.

Still, there's plenty of room for optimism on the smaller-venue front: 2720 has seen some new life as of late, opening this year as the Golden Record, and the Attic Music Bar made its debut in Southampton in July 2021. Meanwhile, blues stalwarts such as Broadway Oyster Bar and BB's are still going strong, and venues including the Duck Room, Heavy Anchor, Off Broadway, CBGB and the Focal Point are also pressing forward.

Those venues that stayed afloat through the past few years didn't do so through magic. According to Matt Stuttler, owner of the punk venue the Sinkhole, which closed for more than a year, it took a fair amount of work to keep his dream alive through the worst of the pandemic.

"The major thing was getting into grant writing," Stutter explains. "So I spent a lot of time going through all the government assistance grants and the liberal arts grants."

That work seems to have paid off, and Stuttler is cautiously optimistic that his venue has come out the other side — something one hopes can be said about all of St. Louis' long-embattled live-music establishments.

"Everything's back to normal. I think we're looking at 29 shows this month, and I would say since March of this year it's been an average of 20 to 25 shows a month," he says. "Which is pretty much where we were at right before COVID."

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story erroneously stated that Contemporary Productions handles booking for the Factory, but that is no longer the case. We regret the error.