It has been a year since crowds gathered before the one-foot-high stage at Kilby Court, dancing and scream-singing along with local and national acts, from indie rock to dream pop.
But Sartain & Saunders – which owns Kilby Court, Urban Lounge and Metro Music Hall – has stayed afloat during the pandemic by taking music acts outside. Recognizing that social distancing measures and uncrowded venues would be commonplace for months to come, Sartain & Saunders launched bike concerts with pop-up performances around the city, outdoor shows on a newly built stage, and low-capacity indoor shows to maintain distance.
“The biggest difficulty was abruptly canceling almost two years’ worth of planning in a single weekend and having to start over from scratch,” noted Nic Smith, director of revenue for Sartain & Saunders. “On top of that, we lost all of our staff who were both coworkers and close friends.”
On March 15, 2020, days after former Utah Gov. Gary Herbert declared a state of emergency due to the pandemic, co-founder Will Sartain said the company was forced to cut its staff of 70 to just seven people. Sartain & Saunders received a federal Payback Protection Program loan designed to help small businesses through the pandemic. When funds ran out a few months later, they were forced to limit their staff even further to just four people.
“Completely closing for an extended period of time is not something we ever prepared for,” Sartain said, noting he and co-founder Launce Saunders continued to work as staff through the pandemic. “Being the source of uncertainty for so many people was really hard.”
By May, Sartain said the remaining staff began brainstorming ideas that would follow safety measures while still supporting local talent and offering live music across the city. Sartain noted he pitched the idea of a “concert cruise” that stationed five artists in various locations throughout downtown Salt Lake. Concertgoers grouped together with 12 or fewer people and rode bikes to each stop for 10-15 minute performances.
Masks were required, and concertgoers who attended with friends and family they live with were separated by 10 feet from the others in their group while watching the shows, according to the ticket page.
“It took a little time to iron out the kinks,” noted Saunders. “It takes a lot of work to produce something like that, but we weren’t doing anything else at the time, so we put all of our time, effort and energy into it. I think that’s why it was as successful as it was.”
Half of the concert cruise shows they put on from late spring to fall last year sold out, with about 3,000 tickets purchased, Sartain said.
Another reason Saunders felt the cruises were a success was their connections in Salt Lake City as fellow business owners.
“A lot of the parking lots we were using were our friends’ businesses,” he said. “They had a lot more trust in us.”
To hold more traditional shows, Sartain & Saunders built an open-air stage behind Urban Lounge. When temperatures dipped last fall and it became too cold for outdoor concerts, they put on indoor shows at Urban Lounge as well as Metro Music Hall and all-ages Kilby Court, where social distancing and masks were required.
“We haven’t had any COVID cases connected to anything we’ve done,” said Sartain, who noted he was proud the restrictions kept concerts from becoming super-spreader events.
Though they feel good about the success of the shows they were able to pull off in the pandemic, Sartain & Saunders by no means thrived in these historically challenging times for live venues.
“The concert cruise shows have been a great help at cutting down some of our total losses, but it definitely wasn’t an end-all solution,” Sartain said. “As for the other shows we are putting on, it’s mostly just a way to cut into our losses somewhat. It definitely wouldn’t be sustainable.”
Salt Lake City has not allowed full-capacity concerts for a year, but Saunders is just as worried about how this affects the community as it does the company’s financial stability.
“It’s not just us losing money, it’s also the community not having that outlet,” Saunders said. “When it comes down to it, it’s in the benefit of everyone’s mental health to be able to have something like this to engage with other people and culturally to have that outlet.”
Sarah Nagel, a web and graphic design major at Salt Lake Community College as well as a music lover, said she is especially missing concerts.
“I’ve definitely felt a lack of community interaction because of this inability to go to shows,” she said.
Saunders related to that sentiment of missing the community aspect of live music.
“I feel like we’re in the same part of the community as the people that go to shows,” he noted. “It’s us trying to stay sane as well.”