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Nashville Music Biz Begins Meeting In Person Again After Year Of COVID-19

“I’m excited to get back out,” says Maverick Nashville president Clarence Spalding (Brooks & Dunn, Jason Aldean), who noted the experience still felt a bit odd. “It was nice to go sit in a restaurant and see people and not feel concerned for your health. But I think it’s going to take everybody just a beat to get used to it.”

The bulk of Nashville’s music community responded to the pandemic with an appropriate level of respect. Most offices closed and instructed their employees to work from home. Artists canceled the bulk of their tours, though they found ways to connect with fans through virtual appearances, social media or TV shows.

Nashville encountered a fair share of negative press connected to the pandemic. The COVID-19-related deaths of Joe Diffie, John Prine and Charley Pride were discouraging, and some of the tourist-driven nightclubs on Lower Broadway flouted the city’s capacity restrictions, yielding YouTube videos that made it look like the community was still in heavy party mode.

“That’s not indicative of the music scene in Nashville,” says Black River vp marketing Tanya Schrage.

Schrage had her first meeting with a company partner within the last few weeks, convening at Jasper’s, a restaurant on West End Avenue. She had had one jab of the Moderna vaccine by then, and is now fully immunized. They purposely picked a table that was fairly isolated, and while they did not set any protocols in advance, they conducted a sort of unspoken dance, making sure that both felt comfortable with their conditions.

“There’s no reason to not be smart about it, at least for a while longer,” she says. “We’ve come this far.”

Black River had, perhaps, an advantage over most labels in its reaction to COVID-19. After a short shutdown, Nashville’s studios adopted intense testing and safety protocols to stay open. Since many — if not most — musicians operate in an isolation booth at sessions, it was comparatively easy to keep players socially distanced and masked, but still productive. Black River owns three studios, including the prominent Sound Stage, and a handful of label employees continued to work at their discretion at the home office since they were properly scanned by entering through the studio.

Thus, Schrage has seen coworkers periodically, and it has made her a tad more confident about reconnecting than many other music pros.

“If I weren’t already having to interact with others, I think it would be a little more unsettling than maybe it was for me to take that first meeting,” she says. But she remains cautious: “I hope we don’t [fall] into that false sense of security.”

There are certainly positive signs. Nashville Mayor John Cooper announced on April 27 that 40% of citizens were vaccinated in the previous six weeks. The city is dropping venue capacity restrictions on May 14, though mask mandates will remain in place.

When PR company Schmidt Relations had its first in-person planning meeting on April 28, owner Jessie Schmidt and publicist Dixie Owen met that guidance, maintaining masks and avoiding physical contact.

“It is awkward because you have to retrain yourself,” says Owen. “It’s a natural tendency to hug someone or shake their hand or give them a side hug or whatever. And now you just don’t, you know, unless you really know the person and you know what situation they’re in.”

Safety, however, is not the only retraining involved. After a year of scheduling back-to-back appointments on Zoom, Owen packed too much into her April 28 calendar.

“I’m a little bit off on my timing, so I overbooked myself because I didn’t allow travel time as much as I should have,” she says. “It’s kind of relearning how long it takes to get places, not overbooking.”

Creekhouse Entertainment owner Julianne Drennon (Darryl Worley, Sydney Mack) picked Rafferty’s, a Southern steak-and-burger chain, for her first April meeting with day-to-day manager Ashley Cantrell. Drennon had received both doses of her vaccine, and Cantrell had gotten her first. But Drennon has seen the effects of COVID-19 up front — her daughter’s teacher contracted severe lung damage from it — so the Creekhouse team stayed on opposite sides of a well-ventilated patio table. She was nervous going into the meeting, but relaxed once it started.

“I feel myself, as time goes along, getting less and less hypersensitive about things, I guess because I am vaccinated and lots of people are getting vaccinated,” says Drennon. “I probably will be cautious for quite some time. I don’t know that I’ll be running up, hugging people in their face, but I certainly would be back to shaking hands and being kind of cautiously cordial.”

Thus far, none of those companies has a particular date planned to reopen offices, though it’s on all their minds. Still, if any of their acts has to cancel 10 days of shows this summer or fall because of exposure, venues are booked so tightly that they’ll likely be unable to reschedule the dates. So Spalding is encouraging his employees, his artists and their employees to operate with group safety in mind.

“It’s not mandatory [that] anybody comes in,” says Spalding. “If you’re not going to feel comfortable going out, then stay home until you feel comfortable. I’m not going to jump out in front on any level and do anything that would potentially put one of my employees in harm’s way.”

This article first appeared in the weekly Billboard Country Update newsletter. Click here to subscribe for free.

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