And the Bands Play On: The Kennett Flash is Keeping the Music Alive
By Richard L. Gaw, Staff Writer
In the five years that Andrew Miller has served as the executive director of the Kennett Flash, he has spearheaded a membership program, hired a full-time assistant, and given the venue’s concert calendar a new lease on life by bringing in not only the top names in local music but nationally-known performers, as well as open-mic nights, comedy revues, children’s programming and a Master Class series.
For nearly everyone who stepped on The Flash’s stage and for many of those who attended shows, their comments were an echo of one another. This place is a true listening room at its best.
Then in March, the world caved in.
Ironically, as the COVID-19 pandemic was beginning its scorched-earth assault on theaters and concert halls throughout Pennsylvania, Miller was about to meet with The Flash’s Board of Directors to discuss the 11-year-old venue’s biggest project yet: To explore the possibility of moving to a larger, dedicated arts space – one that would provide the same intimacy of the Sycamore Alley location but offer upgraded amenities.
Due to the stay-at-home restrictions that governed Pennsylvania in the early days of the pandemic, the meeting never happened, and soon, the worst fears of any music venue director had become real for Miller. He had to postpone some shows, reschedule others and outright cancel a few more – effectively shutting off an income source that pays for 70 percent of The Flash’s expenses.
Suddenly, the big umbrella of The Flash’s mission statement -- to enhance the quality of life for people of all ages, achieved through arts experiences for audiences, performing artists and students – was not large enough to protect it from an oncoming storm. To make matters even more stressful, Su Spina, who was hired in 2019 to assist Miller in every phase of operations, had left her position, finding more secure work outside of the arts.
“The initial reaction from the Board was that we needed to shut The Flash down, to allow for everyone to quarantine and preserve the cash reserves that we have, with the thought that we would be allowed to reopen in May or June, at which time we would see what changes would need to be made,” Miller said. “At that time, we had 50 shows on our calendar, over $20,000 in pledged tickets sales and a membership program that over the last eight months had generated another $20,000 in revenue.
“I felt a complete shutdown would send the wrong message to our audience, performers, agents and the community. It was crucial for The Flash to reimagine its presence in the community at this very uncertain time.”
The Kennett Flash was far from the lone wolf in the wilderness. Similar venues across the U.S. have been experiencing up to a 90 percent loss in revenue due to COVID-19, and many of them will not reopen their doors again until 2021, if they are lucky enough to survive at all.
Impact on The Local Economy
Their closings have also impacted local economies, as detailed in a study that estimated that for every dollar spent at an independent performance venue like The Flash, $12 was spent at neighboring restaurants, hotels and retail shops.
On June 26, Miller saw a potential light at the end of the proverbial tunnel, when Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf ushered the last of the municipalities stuck in the Yellow Phase of Reopening into The Green Phase, which gave permission to performance venues to operate at 50 percent of full capacity.
Miller created a new hybrid model for The Flash that would encourage social distancing. He cut out The Flash’s limited food menu and concession sales. He initiated a mandatory mask-wearing rule for all attendees. He planned to limit the performances to no more than one hour. He installed a Plexiglass safety wall at the edge of the stage that would protect the audience from any projected droplets from the performers that could come off the stage.
It was a short-lived plan, however.
Citing the lack of masks being worn, out-of-state travel and visitors and a lack of a nationwide commitment to social distancing, Wolf and Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine signed new orders for targeted mitigation efforts that began on July 16, in response to the recent rise in COVID-19 cases in the state. According to the order, indoor events and gatherings of more than 25 persons are prohibited.
Like many other music venue directors, Miller has hit upon an idea that has continued to pack The Flash for live shows – virtually, of course. Beginning in June, The Flash began live streaming concerts from its stage to its Facebook page and website, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
While each concert is essentially free to the viewer, donations are encouraged. So far, Miller said that the turnout has been outstanding; audiences range from several hundred to nearly 1,000, depending on the performer.
“Certainly, we want to generate income through this method, but in a larger respect, it’s about producing quality content and continuing to deliver on a promise to provide arts and music for the community,” Miller said.
As he navigates The Kennett Flash through the ever-changing tableau of CDC guidelines and government policies, Miller has sought refuge in The Flash’s membership in the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA), a 3,000-member consortium that connects independent venue managers with each other, including those from the Uptown! Knauer Performing Arts Center in West Chester, The Grand in Wilmington and the Sellersville Theater.
Lately, Miller and his colleagues have all had to absorb some very harsh realities stemming from the coronavirus. A recent survey of 2,000 independent music venues conducted by NIVA concluded that 90 percent of independent venues report that they will close permanently in a few months without federal funding.
Despite the gloomy forecast, Miller sees visible signs of support coming nationally and locally. Last week, Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn and Minnesota Democrat Sen. Amy Klobuchar introduced the Save Our Stages Act, which if passed will contribute $10 billion to help small venues make it through the next six months. Grants can total up to $12 million per venue or 45 percent of the venues' operating costs in 2019, whichever is less.
The funding may be used to pay for rent, utilities, mortgages, maintenance, personal protective equipment (PPE), administrative costs, taxes and expenses that would allow venues to meet CDC-recommended COVID-19 safety guidelines.
Additional Revenue Streams
Meanwhile, The Flash has received federal assistance from the Payroll Protection Program, grants from the Philadelphia Cultural Alliance and the Pennsylvania Council of the Arts; over $12,000 from The Kennett FlashEmergency Fund; and over $3,000 in new memberships.
“Because of these revenue streams, we have been able to bring in over $50,000, which has essentially covered The Flash’s expenses over the past four months,” Miller said. “While this income stream flow has kept the venue afloat during the pandemic, it will require a concerted and continual effort to simply keep basic fixed expenses covered for the foreseeable future. It’s month to month, and we have to continually work to produce revenue to cover our expenses, so it’s a question of ‘Where do we go from here, at a time when our industry is facing an existential crisis the like of which it has never seen before?’”
While the near future of performance venues like the Kennett Flash will likely unfold in accordance with a rulebook of guidelines and regulations dictated by the still-unknown course and longevity of the world pandemic, Miller said that the intimate listening room he manages will most likely not be offering live, audience-attended performances as they once did until June 2021 – an estimation that Miller said is an optimistic one.
“A lot of us in this industry are of the mindset that we don’t want to do shows with audiences, indoors,” he said. “We could now sell ten tickets per show, but it doesn’t make sense, because it puts a lot of people at risk. I’d rather have a very successful live stream lineup and generate donations from that. Some artists are charging for live stream concerts, but I would rather give it away for free and let audiences pay what they want. This way, we’re still generating much-needed revenue, and it still allows large audiences to enjoy the performances.
“The Flash will continue to produce arts programming content safely, while continuing to fundraise and urge our community to reach out to local and national outlets and lawmakers -- like Save Our Stages -- and fight for continued arts funding during these uncertain times. It simply comes down to a matter of ‘If we aren’t funded now, we might not have the ability to come back when this is all over.’”
Upcoming live streamed shows at The Kennett Flash include Dr. Harmonica & Rocket 88 on July 31 ($18 suggested donation); Virtual Open Mic with Angelee on Aug. 2 ($5 suggested donation); and Dead Flowers – a Tribute to the Rolling Stones on Aug. 8 ($18 suggested donation).
To make a donation to and attend live streamed concerts from The Kennett Flash, and to make your contribution to The Kennett Flash Emergency Fund, visit www.kennettflash.org.
To learn more about Save Our Stages, visit www.saveourstages.com.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].