Friday, May 1, 2020

The F Word: Sound engineers are suffering

Posted By on Fri, May 1, 2020 at 1:53 PM

ILLUSTRATION BY JACOB WALSH
  • ILLUSTRATION BY JACOB WALSH
With an unpredictable future looming precariously before them, Rochester-area sound engineers, in addition to club owners, have been caught in a kind of COVID-19 limbo. In this ongoing series of The F-Word, CITY music writer Frank De Blase finds out how businesses that rely on a regular live audience are staying afloat.

When COVID-19 struck, the infrastructure of the live music scene in Rochester collapsed like dominoes. Sure, there were the musicians caught in the avalanche, as were the venues that counted on those musicians to attract thirsty patrons. But there is a third group that has become a casualty in the absence of live performances: the engineers who run the venues’ sound systems.

One of those engineers is John Vassallo, who owns Spice of Life Productions in Hilton. “As far as surviving,” he says, “I am keeping the wolves at bay for as long as I can until money starts rolling in again. I unfortunately can’t get another job.”

Vassallo’s family is also being directly affected by his lack of work. He is the primary caretaker of his 87-year-old father, who needs daily care. On top of that, he plays the role of school teacher during the week for his 6- and 8-year-old children.

He does have a small amount of money from his dad’s pension coming in, but it typically runs out by the middle of each month. That’s when he counts on sound company dough to provide for food and meds for his dad. But currently, that’s not happening.

“The most difficult thing to deal with is the uncertainty,” Vassallo says. “We have had 35 to 40 events, that are a yearly thing, completely eradicated from our coffers. How do you bounce back from that?”

Unfortunately, income that Spice of Life Productions regularly took in from large-scale summer events such as Corn Hill Arts Festival, Spencerport Canal Days, and Park Avenue Summer Art Festival has disappeared for this year as well.

“On top of that,” Vassallo says. “We have lost all of the corporate work that was scheduled. Most of these events have been in my hands for 15 to 22 years. As of right now, I am looking at an 80 to 85 percent loss of total annual income for the company.”

In turn, he worries about his inability to pay his employees, and the possibility that it may be difficult to retain them and keep Spice of Life Productions on the right professional track for the next several years.

Despite having applied for aid through seven different programs, Vassallo says the federal government has been little help so far, and that he doesn’t have high expectations about outside aid coming in.

But that doesn’t mean Spice of Life is standing still in the face of the pandemic. In order to stay viable, Vassallo is shifting his focus toward the various rental items the company offers.

“I am pushing our tents, tables, and chairs for this summer, hoping that the backyard parties are going to happen,” Vassallo says. “I am banking on small groups that are going to want to be together rather than large crowds.”

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Another sound engineer whose work schedule has been decimated by the pandemic is Nick Marinaccio, whose job as the lead LED video wall technician at the Batavia-based Audio Images Sound & Lighting Inc. has been furloughed until the event cancellations subside.

Marinaccio was already planning a busy spring with Audio Images, including several bookings for spring festivals at colleges, when the hammer fell. Other prominent gigs for the company that have been postponed or canceled include the CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival, the Fairport Music Festival, and George Eastman Museum’s Garden Vibes concert series. Additionally, Marinaccio says he will miss his regular side gigs for Dragonfly Tavern and Public House during the Park Avenue Summer Art Festival.

Despite the sudden downturn in events, Marinaccio is hopeful in the short term that Audio Images will see a demand for rental services, which don’t necessarily involve rock ‘n’ roll or require a PA.

That said, Marinaccio thinks it’s possible that an eventual resumption of concerts and events may be cut short if the virus’s impact ramps up, and another shutdown of public gatherings is required.

“My coworkers and I know the event industry will never be the same,” he says. “We are expecting a slow ramp up to ‘normal’ by summer/fall 2021.”

Frank De Blase is CITY's music writer. He can be reached at frank@rochester-citynews.com.
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Friday, April 24, 2020

The F Word: Montage Music Hall gets a much-needed push

Posted By on Fri, Apr 24, 2020 at 8:17 AM

With an unpredictable future looming precariously before them, Rochester-area club owners have been caught in a kind of COVID-19 limbo. In this ongoing series of The F-Word, CITY music writer Frank De Blase finds out how businesses that rely on a regular live audience are staying afloat.

Rochester metal fans are a fiercely loyal lot. And though Montage Music Hall, located downtown at 50 Chestnut Street, brings in bands from all genres, it’s predominantly a metal club. Montage’s talent buyer and headbanger-in-chief, Randy Peck, has been bringing classic, speed, and death metal music to town for 15 years.

Montage Music Hall's Randy Peck (left) with guitarist Neil Giraldo - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • PHOTO PROVIDED
  • Montage Music Hall's Randy Peck (left) with guitarist Neil Giraldo
But the treacherous speed bump that is the coronavirus pandemic has halted all shows and slowed things down in a hurry. Like other local venue owners, Peck sought out the government aid provided through the Payroll Protection Program. Peck says he applied immediately, but that Montage’s application was unsuccessful.

“Unfortunately, we have not heard back,” Peck says. “And as of now, those assets have now run dry. There is talk of there being another round.” So at this point, it’s a waiting game.

But Montage is getting black-leather love from all over Rochester’s metal kingdom. Peck has been knocked out by the community’s response.

“I have to say, the fans of the Montage Music Hall have been amazing,” he says. “The outpouring of support has been overwhelming.”

Peck contemplated launching a fundraising campaign, but was reluctant to start one until the feedback from fans on social media made him reconsider. He has since created a GoFundMe campaign that raised  more than $3,800 of its $25,000 goal in the first week.

“This support made it an easy decision not to sit and wait for things to happen, but rather be proactive,” Peck says. In return for donations, he says supporters will receive tickets to future Montage Music Hall events.

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Still, many unanswered questions loom for Peck and Montage. How will the bills be paid without concerts generating revenue? When the club reopens, the timing of which is completely unclear, will there be occupancy limits or other restrictions in place? What safety measures will be needed to keep concertgoers protected from the virus?

Peck says that physical distancing guidelines have forced him to cancel Montage shows until at least July 1, even if the state lifts its restrictions on businesses by June 1.

Despite the bleak situation, Peck is encouraged.

“Rochester has always been a rock city, a metal city, a live music city, and these fans have always been so loyal to the music they love,” he says. “They have been so loyal to us. It has really given me the added push to fight through this.”

Frank De Blase is CITY's music writer. He can be reached at frank@rochester-citynews.com.
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Wednesday, April 22, 2020

The F Word: A matter of wait-and-see for Anthology

Posted By on Wed, Apr 22, 2020 at 3:01 PM

With an unpredictable future looming precariously before them, Rochester-area club owners have been caught in a kind of COVID-19 limbo. In this ongoing series of The F-Word, CITY music writer Frank De Blase finds out how businesses that rely on a regular live audience are staying afloat.

COVID-19 and its fallout have left a trail of tears in its wake, financially hobbling musicians and venue owners of both big and small clubs. Phil Fitzsimmons, the owner and operator of Anthology (which has a capacity of just under 1,000), has had to shut things down like all the rest.
Hollywood Undead performs at Anthology. - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • PHOTO PROVIDED
  • Hollywood Undead performs at Anthology.
But Fitzsimmons is somewhat optimistic. He sees a glimmer, a twinkle, a spark of hope.

“We are keeping a positive outlook,” he says. “And we are continuing to book shows for the distant future.” He acknowledges this is a medical crisis currently, not just a financial one. And it’s a moving target.

“The most difficult thing has been coming to grips with the constantly changing information flow around coronavirus and its effects,” he says. “It is difficult to book makeup dates when the understanding is that the virus is constantly in flux.”

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So Fitzsimmons cautiously looks to the future, planning for different scheduling contingencies based on when community health guidelines might again allow for public performances. Currently, there are some concerts tentatively planned for late summer, with the number gradually increasing in the fall and winter, and a full slate of shows for 2021.

Most of them are “holds,” as bands and management take a wait-and-see approach to rolling out small to medium tours.” Fitzsimmons is keeping the faith. He isn’t too worried.

“I don't think we can go back to normal,” he says. “But I do believe an informed public can make good decisions regarding best practices and social events.”


Frank De Blase is CITY's music writer. He can be reached at frank@rochester-citynews.com.
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Tuesday, April 21, 2020

The F Word: Filling up the Lovin' Cup

Posted By on Tue, Apr 21, 2020 at 11:21 AM

With an unpredictable future looming precariously before them, Rochester-area club owners have been caught in a kind of COVID-19 limbo. In this ongoing series of The F Word, CITY music writer Frank De Blase finds out how businesses that rely on a regular live audience are staying afloat.

Lovin’ Cup is everything you want in a venue. It’s a coffeehouse that comes off like a restaurant. It’s a restaurant that comes off like a live music joint. And it’s run by a knowledgeable staff to make sure it’s all those things.

Lovin' Cup's Leslie Ward - PHOTO BY JULIA HART
  • PHOTO BY JULIA HART
  • Lovin' Cup's Leslie Ward
Leslie Ward, co-owner and director of concept and business development for Lovin’ Cup — located at 300 Park Point Drive — was torn over what to do when the inevitable effects of the coronavirus pandemic set in.

“It was a highly emotional business decision to close down,” Ward says. “Having to lay people off, short-term — those phone calls were so emotional, I cried after all of them. But in the end it was safer for everyone for us to close down for about a month.”

In the meantime, Ward continues to employ an abbreviated staff, whose work includes catering services for essential workers. Beginning next week, Lovin’ Cup will also offer a takeout menu featuring family-style items, available a few nights each week, according to safety guidelines.

And though Ward says the financial strain has heightened her stress and contributed an uncertainty to issues such as a timetable for resuming concert performances, Ward is taking a hopeful, one-step-at-a-time approach.

She said Lovin’ Cup was fortunate enough to be approved for the federal Small Business Administration’s Payment Protection Program, or PPP. “I don't think we could have survived for long without it,” Ward says. “Maybe a month or two, but this is a savior for us.”

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Ward is keenly aware of how the pandemic is affecting other local businesses in her industry. When the state ordered restaurants, bars, and breweries to close their doors and limit operations to takeout only, Ward and Geoff Dale of Three Heads Brewing organized a meeting so that the owners of such establishments could meet and share their concerns, discuss ways to band together, and relay pressing questions to the state Comptroller’s Office.

“I saw a lot of fear in that room, even some tears,” Ward says. “This uncertainty is gnawing away at all of us, but I am certain that our ROC community is so incredibly strong. I take a lot of comfort in the fact that I know we are not in this alone, and that our community is so rad. We will come out of this thing.”

Frank De Blase is CITY's music writer. He can be reached at frank@rochester-citynews.com.
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Friday, April 17, 2020

The F Word: Keeping Three Heads above water

Posted By on Fri, Apr 17, 2020 at 12:52 PM

With an unpredictable future looming precariously before them, Rochester-area club owners have been caught in a kind of COVID-19 limbo. In this ongoing series of The F-Word, Frank De Blase finds out how businesses that rely on a regular live audience are staying afloat.

Three Heads Brewing's Geoff Dale - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • PHOTO PROVIDED
  • Three Heads Brewing's Geoff Dale
It’s hard to keep smiling during this pandemic, but you can see the corners of Three Heads Brewing concert organizer Geoff Dale’s mouth curl up into a grin when he talks about the things he loves: beer and the Rochester music scene. And he’s taken a hit in both categories.

Three Heads is still functioning, but at a reduced capacity. Less beer is being brewed — about half the batches produced pre-COVID-19 — and the stage is silent. The tasting room at 186 Atlantic Avenue is open only for "to go" sales of growlers and cans. Last week, the brewery began making its wares available via GrubHub.

Dale says it’s difficult to see friends struggling and being unable to help. “The worst thing about this situation is all the unknowns,” he wonders aloud. “When will we be open again? When can we bring our staff back? When can we do shows? It is just a weird holding pattern and I have no answers for our crew and friends.” He adds that Three Heads Brewing has furloughed 19 of its 28 employees.

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But Dale says the brewery was never at risk of closing the doors for good because the state government has deemed it an “essential” business. “The real concern was how to manage the money we need to pay for rent and taxes while taking in significantly less money,” he says. Three Heads Brewing did get some much appreciated aid from the federal government.

Despite the severe financial belt-tightening, he does have an answer when asked what he plans on doing when the pandemic loosens its grip and people come back out. “I think we will get back to normal,” he says. “It will take time. But there will be music on our stage, and I'll be in the front row holding my beer in the air, singing along.”

Frank De Blase is CITY's music writer. He can be reached at frank@rochester-citynews.com.
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Thursday, April 16, 2020

The F Word: Abilene's Danny Deutsch believes

Posted By on Thu, Apr 16, 2020 at 9:46 AM

With an unpredictable future looming precariously before them, Rochester-area club owners have been caught in a kind of COVID-19 limbo. How are businesses that rely on a regular live audience staying afloat?

To get to the bottom of this, I first rang up Abilene Bar & Lounge's Danny Deutsch.

Deutsch is an impresario and true music fan, which can be a tough position to be in when trying to make a living promoting live music at your establishment. His roots rock honky-tonk, Abilene (located at 153 Liberty Pole Way), shines with local, regional, national, and international talent virtually every night of the week. That streak ended a month ago with the advent of the pandemic.
Abilene Bar & Lounge owner Danny Deutsch - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • PHOTO PROVIDED
  • Abilene Bar & Lounge owner Danny Deutsch
"Our last day of business as usual was March 14 with the Don Diego Trio," Deutsch says. "Two of the guys were stuck in Italy and one guy got stuck here," he says. "We haven't had a live band since that date." Like every other venue, Abilene has had to endure being shut down.

In his mandatory vacation, Deutsch misses the camaraderie of the staff and customers. "Video chat doesn’t do it for me," Deutsch says.

Currently, Deutsch talks to promoters while rubbing a rabbit's foot. "It's really dicey," he says. "I'm talking to booking agents about dates in April of 2021." Regardless, he says he has every intention to reopen soon with bands, beer, the works.

In the meantime Deutsch says he's getting the place spruced up, in anticipation of a triumphant re-opening, but he's willing to be patient. "The health of all of us is too important," he says. "I can wait."

Apparently, so can his dedicated customers and fans, some of whom have randomly mailed checks to Deutsch to show support and to help out. He just shakes his head in appreciation.

He also says that Abilene isn't extravagant in it's day-to-day, nor is the club in immediate danger. "We pay our bills," Deutsch says. "We run it pretty close to the bone, here."

Though he doesn't know when, he promises to open as soon as possible with bands already queuing up to play. "I'm looking forward to it," he says. "My September is great."

Frank De Blase is CITY's music writer. He can be reached at frank@rochester-citynews.com.
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Tuesday, April 14, 2020

The F Word: What's your side hustle?

Posted By on Tue, Apr 14, 2020 at 10:52 AM

Recently, I found myself reaching out once again to the COVID-19-weary community of Rochester musicians, a hardy bunch with as much resolve and survival instinct as anyone, anywhere.

That the average working musician has to supplement their income to make ends meet is nothing new. Ask them and they’ll tell you: There are literally hundreds of dollars to be made in the music business. From time to time, musicians have to become bartenders, baristas, Uber drivers, and servers, or risk sleeping on mom and dad’s couch.

But those jobs aren’t an option right now. So, when I posed the question “What is your side hustle?” on social media, it didn't take long for the weisenheimers to surface with their supplemental answers.

Several different spellings of gigolo came up, as did pornstar. Starting a church was another one. Casino dealer. Reaper of a steady windfall from scratch-off lottery tickets. There was even an M.D. in there. “I tried to be a doctor but I didn't have the patients,” one said.

Initially, I thought nobody understood the question. But it slowly dawned on me how important it is to have a sense of humor throughout all of this pandemic pandemonium.

Many bands and solo artists are trying to squeeze a little bread out of live streams with virtual tip jars. For others, like Don Mancuso of D-Drive and Lou Gramm fame, the situation is equally dire.

“Work has all but dried up for me,” Mancuso says. “I had two to four shows per week with one of the eight projects I play with, as well as my solo acoustic stuff. Twelve students, now down to three online lessons. Session stuff, guitar tracks for hire...nothing.”

But Mancuso isn’t letting moss grow on him. He’s still selling his wares and working on improving his craft. He’s adding tour videos to his YouTube channel and expanding his viewership. He’s writing and recording new material — including an unplugged version of “Pray for Tomorrow,” due next week. The free time at home has also allowed him to hone his skills as a vocalist for acoustic shows performed at nursing homes with Michael Sidoti, and given him the opportunity to repair and set up guitars for fellow musicians.

Anonymous Willpower’s lead singer Suzi Willpower is the queen of the side hustle. Her side hustles have side hustles. She drives for Lyft and Uber, she cleans houses and washes windows, and she just started delivering for Instacart.

Willpower’s heart goes out to the legions of musicians here and abroad, hurting right now — including the ones in her band.

“Since teaching music isn't considered an essential job, they are hurting for dough,” she says. “However, on a good note, this had given us time to finish our latest CD, ‘No One Will Ever Know,’ due on April 24 on Bandcamp.”

The Byways’ frontman Alex Goettel says that prior to the pandemic, it was bartending for him. “Then three weeks ago, I picked up a job stocking at Aldi’s,” he says. “So, whatever pays the bills.”

I’m not saying it’s not bad out there; it’s scary, both financially and psychologically. But musicians here are making their way through the emotional tundra just as they did before, B.C. — Before Coronavirus.

They find ways to keep paying the rent and, most importantly, keep playing music.

Frank De Blase is CITY’s music writer. He can be reached at frank@rochester-citynews.com.
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Thursday, April 9, 2020

The F Word: For recovering alcoholics, it’s one step at a time, online

Posted By on Thu, Apr 9, 2020 at 11:07 AM

Alcoholics Anonymous is a close-knit organization whose members are couched in privacy. AA members look for help from within, without the worry of reprisal or judgement from their friends and neighbors. Their peers are there for one another, day or night, on the phone, in a group meeting, or one-on-one.

And in the disruptive uncertainty of now, these “Friends of Bill,” as they call themselves in reference to AA founder Bill W., need the services and support the organization provides even more.

One such local AA member, Doug, whose last name CITY is withholding in the spirit of anonymity, is a bass player and frontman for a Rochester-based hard rock band. Like many local musicians caught up in this pandemic, Doug isn’t working. And even though there’s currently no place for him to play, AA has provided Doug and others like him a place to go for support or to help provide support.

He says whether a meeting gets shut down or its members are practicing social distancing, there are protocols in place to ensure AA members continue with their recovery.

“Most of the meetings I go to are shut down,” Doug says. “In early recovery it is suggested to get a lot of phone numbers. So if you can’t get to a meeting, you call other people in recovery and talk through whatever is going on — if you want to drink or you’re struggling with emotional sobriety.”

As a sponsor, Doug meets with other members a safe six feet apart. Of course, there is video conferencing, too. “I have also been doing meetings online,” he says. “People can google them for a number of options.”

AA has multiple resources online, at aa.org, for people in recovery looking to stay plugged into the program and connected to the community. “Anybody struggling right now and feeling powerless over drugs and alcohol, I suggest they reach out,” Doug says. “There is help available even when things are as crazy as they are.”

For more information about how to connect with AA meetings in Rochester during the pandemic, go to rochester-ny-aa.org. A complete list of online meetings both nationally and internationally can be found at aa-intergroup.com.

Frank De Blase is CITY’s music writer. He can be reached at frank@rochester-citynews.com.
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Monday, April 6, 2020

The F Word: Clap hands

Posted By on Mon, Apr 6, 2020 at 2:39 PM

I had a ball the other night watching blues pianist Hanna PK on FB as she streamed and strode the 88s. The song she played ended in a crush of glissandi and boogie-woogie thunder that ran from the bass to the treble clef. It was beautiful. PK gave a curt bow but nobody clapped. Nobody whooped or hollered. Nobody cheered. Nobody was there.

Social distancing has gobbled up our hoorays and it’s swallowed our hurrahs. I imagine it must be hard for a performer when there’s no way to read an audience or find the reward in their applause.

“It’s awkward,” PK said. “I don’t really like playing alone in front of the camera with no audience. I think I’ll get a wind-up toy monkey that bangs the cymbals and I’ll play for him.”

The internet has proven to be an invaluable tool during the current pandemic. It’s keeping us together. Artists like PK are savvy and have taken to using virtual tip jars through sites like Venmo and PayPal to fortify their greenback stack in these lean times. But wouldn’t it be nice to hear some appreciation, too?

The applause isn’t always there for singer-songwriter Amanda Ashley and her Facebook show, “Afternoon Cocktail,” either. But does she miss it?

“Of course I do,” Ashley said. “But you’ve got to realize, I’ve also played live venues where sometimes nobody pays attention.” She looks forward to returning to the stage playing in front of a living, breathing, applauding crowd. Even though it won’t exactly be normal.

“It’ll be a new normal,” she said. “I’ve been doing live-streaming stuff for years. It keeps me in touch with my fans out of town.” That includes the ones she can’t hear clapping.

I suggest we download a clapping app on our phones and computers — not that app used for finding misplaced cell phones with a clap of your hands, but something similar to canned laughter. Instead of sounding like guffaws from an old episode of “All in the Family,” though, it could be the thunderous applause of “Live at Budokan” proportions that these artists deserve.

Or social media apps such as Facebook and Instagram could install “applause sound” reactions to go with the “likes” and “loves.” It’ll complete the performance, and it will let these musicians know just how we feel. So c’mon, give ’em a hand.

Frank De Blase is CITY’s music writer. He can be reached at frank@rochester-citynews.com.
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Friday, March 27, 2020

The F Word: The uplifting side of live-streaming

Posted By on Fri, Mar 27, 2020 at 9:00 AM

The same internet that’s been blamed for driving a wedge between musicians and audiences may be the very thing that saves our sanity and our souls. This is abundantly clear when you search the web and get inundated with new songs, one-on-one performances, and virtual windows connecting to those who are hurting as bad as you. The live-streaming feeds aren’t ideal, but they’ll do in a pandemic pinch.

The other night, there was nothing on TV so I found myself surfing the web, and I came across local pianist Bobby DiBaudo tickling the ivories on an original composition he called “The COVID-19 Blues.” It was beautiful. And though the times may call for a more rough ‘n’ tumble strain, “The COVID-19 Blues” is more of an ambling, W.C. Handy type of affair. It was truly a command performance, and nobody was there.

“It’s just that we are all cooped up in our houses,” DiBaudo says, “and my friends wanted me to play something and post it.”

I soon found myself on Danielle Ponder’s Facebook page, where she and keyboardist Avis Reese were laughing their way through “Proud Mary,” complete with choreography. Though they’re serious musicians, the obvious fun they were having was palpable and appreciated.

“We were just having the best time,” Ponder says. I think we didn't realize how much we needed that as well. We read everyone's comments and it really lifted our spirits.”

I left Ponder’s site for Geoff Dale and the Three Heads guys goofing and mugging for the camera. It was like reality TV for beer drinkers. They weren’t playing music — just fooling around, cracking each other up. But it was uplifting; when it comes to connecting online during the pandemic, you don’t even have to wait for a live-streaming concert.
Frank De Blase is CITY’s music writer. He can be reached at frank@rochester-citynews.com.

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