In the spirit of collaboration and best practice sharing, I thought it would be interesting to share perspectives from our fellow creatives to see how folks are getting along as we all craft new ways to practice our craft. This week I interviewed composer, musician and venue owner Liam Singer. He tells us how he has been holding up, and how he has adapted to the restrictions on gatherings and live music. For more on my LIVING ONLINE series, click here.
You are unique. You represent as a creative, and as someone who holds space for the creative community with your coffee shop HiLo and restaurant / performance venue The Avalon Lounge. How are you finding a balance in all those roles right now?
My wife and I opened HiLo in 2017, and Avalon in 2019, so during all those years there wasn’t much of a balance; my creative life was on hold, save for the creative force we were putting into the businesses. It sort of became a “water water everywhere” scenario for me, because I was surrounded by my dream community of musicians who were ready to collaborate and play, and I had zero time or energy!
This past year, due to some downtime from the pandemic, I did manage to get a small album made which felt great. But now my wife and I are going to have a kid. So I’m ready to say bye-bye to creative time for a little while again (which I am completely at peace with).
How has the pandemic affected your businesses and community?
Our community has been pretty resilient through all this – most businesses in Catskill have found a way to stay open. I’d say the biggest auxiliary challenge our community has faced is rising home and rent prices. This is directly due to the newfound popularity of this area. In terms of our own businesses, beyond the financial stress, the biggest bummer has been that they were both conceived of as extremely social spaces. So, we can’t really fulfill their intended purpose right now. Even though we’re keeping them alive, it sort of feels like an extended act of limping along.
How is this affecting your venues financially?
HiLo, our cafe, has returned to near pre-pandemic levels in terms of daily coffee sales. A lot of new people have moved to Catskill and are more are visiting on the weekends. This has offset lost sales from those of our regulars who aren’t comfortable coming out right now. Evening sales at HiLo are way down for many reasons, including the current NY state laws that prohibit selling alcoholic drinks without food.
At Avalon, we have just been functioning as a takeout joint through all of this. That space is too daunting to try and operate under the covid-era legal standards of NY. And, too, the standards by which we would personally feel safe and responsible. We would basically need to hire someone to monitor each room, which wouldn’t make any sense. And the place was really made as a performance venue, which it just can’t be right now. So that’s been a big financial hit. The silver lining has been that a lot of people who didn’t really know about our food now realize that we run a dope Korean kitchen in addition to being a performance space.
Overall we’ve survived thanks to two PPP loans and a loan from the SBA. Thankfully, we had the understanding of our landlords and The Bank of Greene County during the early months of the pandemic. Otherwise we’d be toast right now.
Have you been able to find progress over the last year in your own creative endeavors? Explain.
Yes, as I mentioned, I did manage to make a record last year called “The Ocean.” It was a collection of songs I’d sketched out over previous years but hadn’t had time to complete. I kept the production modest – It’s mostly piano-based, with some string and vocal overdubs – so I was able to approach recording in a covid-safe way. I made it with a local engineer, Tyler Wood, who recorded, mixed, and mastered the whole thing. We tracked piano at Scott Petito’s studio, NRS Recording, and the rest at Tyler’s home studio.
I funded the project with a Kickstarter and self-released it… I really wanted to get it made and I’m very proud of it. But I’m past the point of needing or expecting a press push around my stuff – I’m just glad that the people who find it do. It’s very much an ensemble piece with several guest vocalists making appearances. I really look forward to the day I can play the whole thing live.
How are you coping with the whole thing in general?
I’m as susceptible as anyone else to the free-floating anxiety and weirdness that’s out there right now. But I’ve had some good things to focus on in my own life. First, making the album and then getting ready to have our baby has kept me in my own little dream world. It has been frustrating – or I guess I’d say exhausting – as business owners to be put in the position by NY state of being daily safety enforcers re: masks, etc. I’m not sure what a better option would be. But that aspect of things, as well as having to sort of reinvent our businesses every few months, has been tiring.
What’s your plan for 2021?
Babies, dancing outside, who can say? Basically planning 2 months ahead at this point, no more.
What advice would you give to other venue owners and/or musicians struggling with the same challenge right now?
I have little in the way of inspiration or advice there. I will say this: we hosted a couple of shows at Avalon last fall where bands played on our roof, and the audience stood out on the sidewalk below. Really wonderful musicians. All were local players who — pre pandemic — an audience might have come out for and enjoyed. OR, they might have stayed at home and thought “I’ll catch them next month.” In this case, the audience definitely showed up. Their level of attention/emotional involvement in the performance was extremely intense, bordering on spiritual. It was beautiful to see.
The general scarcity of live performance definitely brought home the fact that they were actually witnessing something amazing. Any small venue owner/promoter who is in it because they truly love music knows the struggle of booking a great band and then wanting to scream into the void when you can’t get an audience out to see them. And I have no idea how long it will take. But, when live music is a thing again, I do see a new era in which performance is truly valued by the audience, and not taken for granted. I’m looking forward to that.
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A longtime ACE Contributor, Corey works out of Troy, New York. He runs a freelance consultancy for all aspects of brand development and business process management / development. Current projects include cash flow analysis, strategic market planning, 3rd party project oversight, public relations, event planning and front end visual brand design / design-build projects. He has a focus in not-for-profit arts and mission oriented organizations. In his free time he works on honing his craft as a photographer and guitarist. (firstname.lastname@example.org)