Josh Turner performs before a socially distanced crowd of 1,000 Sept. 18 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (Courtesy U.S. Cellular Center)

Iowa event appears to be first paid arena show since shutdown

The U.S. Cellular Center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, has held what appears to be the first paid arena concert in North America since the COVID-19 shutdown, bringing some hope to the decimated live music industry. 

The arena played host to country artist Josh Turner on Sept. 18, the first such event since live entertainment venues closed down in March, according to Pollstar data. The show drew 1,000 patrons in a limited-capacity setup at the venue, which normally holds 7,200 for an end stage concert.

It’s a milestone for the concert industry, considering the pandemic has eliminated thousands of jobs and cost tens of millions of dollars in lost revenue from postponed and canceled shows.

For VenuWorks, the company that runs U.S. Cellular Center and three other venues in town, the show also marked a return to operations after a freak storm Aug. 10 with 100 mph straight-line winds devastated the city and caused heavy damage to the city’s ice arena.

The storm knocked out the power grid for the McGrath Amphitheatre, a 3,000-capacity outdoor music venue where Josh Turner was originally scheduled to perform in mid-August before the storm crushed the community. Officials rebooked the concert indoors at the U.S. Cellular Center down the street, which sustained minimal damage. 

Face coverings were mandatory for attendees and seating was spaced to protect attendees in compliance with local and state requirements. VenuWorks used a clear-bag policy to eliminate physical contact between ticket takers, security and concertgoers.

Concessions were simplified, serving hamburgers, hot dogs, chicken tenders and french fries cooked in small batches. Items came in small containers and drinks in cups with lids. VenuWorks runs the food in-house.

“We were just happy to be back to work,” said Mike Silva, U.S. Cellular Center executive director. “Doing concerts is what we do and we didn’t pay much mind to it all. We were happy with its success and we sold a few beers. It wasn’t until the end of the night when one band member said, ‘We think you’re the only arena in the country actually doing concerts.’”

Silva said there were some tense conversations between the co-promoters, Mammoth Live and Pepper Entertainment, over whether they should go ahead with the concert, considering hundreds of ticket refunds had been distributed for the show, which went on sale pre-COVID. 

The postponement over the storm and rebooking at the arena resulted in more refunds. During the week of the show, however, interest picked up again and the arena sold 100 to 150 more tickets, giving everyone the confidence to move forward, Silva said. 

“We made back almost all of it,” he said. “We all walked out with a few bucks in our pockets. It wasn’t enough to float the bank, but it’s better than taking a poke in the eye, so to speak. The restrictions call for between 20% and 25% capacity, which put us down to 1,800 seats. Having 1,000 fit really well. The floor was spaced out nicely.”

To remap arena seating into socially distanced pods, the box office had to manually go through all ticket purchases and separate them into the appropriate groups tied to those transactions. 

The U.S. Cellular Center has booked Buckcherry with Adelitas Way for an Oct. 17 show, plus Justin Moore and Tracy Lawrence for Dec. 2. For those two concerts, the arena will use Ticketmaster’s social distance tool to remap the bowl within minutes, Silva said.

For the Josh Turner show, a lot of planning and coordination, plus an artist willing to play indoors in front of a crowd, went into pulling it off, said Jeff Fortier, co-owner of Mammoth Live. The firm has offices in Lawrence, Kan. and Kansas City, Mo.

“Our biggest priority is getting the fans comfortable coming back to the venues and proving that we can handle the responsibility of social distancing and wearing masks,” Fortier said.

“Everybody must be on the same page. We don’t want to see a situation where we have a mess to clean up, because we’re going to ruin it for everyone else if we do. There are a lot of people watching us. At this moment, we all feel pretty good about it.”

Postevent surveys supported Fortier’s summary. On a 4-point scale, most attendees gave the event high scores of 3.7 and 3.8. Overall, they felt safe and the building was clean, according to Silva.

“One guy wrote — in a comment I shared with the city —  ‘At times, your ushers were just too proactive, ensuring that I wear a mask every time I went up to the bar, so I don’t know if I’ll be back,’” Silva said. “I’m fine with that. I’d rather our staff be proactive.”

As fall weather approaches and flu season arrives while the public awaits a coronavirus vaccine, the big question is whether other arenas will take the plunge to book indoor concerts. It all depends on city and state laws over mass gatherings. The key moving forward is safety, Fortier said.

“We’re working through this now,” he said. “It’s important to us because COVID will probably be here until next September. There may be a vaccine, but a lot of people won’t take it. We’re going to have to deal with social distancing, masks and sanitation through next summer. If we put the extra work in, we can take some leadership roles for the country on how to do this the right way.”

In Cedar Rapids, the amphitheater is back in operation with capacity limited to 1,300.

Two shows set for Friday feature Aaron Lewis and Sully Erna, guitarists with heavy metal groups Staind and Godsmack, respectively. They’re performing acoustically, apart from their regular bands. The first performance sold out, resulting in a second one added that was 95% sold a few days before the event, Silva said.

“That’s just the way it’s going,” he said. “We’re getting a lot of short-lead business. We get a tip and if they can string two to three dates together, we get about three weeks to put tickets on sale. The public is buying tickets and we’re pretty pleased by that.”