Thom Kutz and Tobi Parks opened xBk Live last September, and they’re hoping a quick pivot will help them through the pandemic.
Writer: Allaire Nuss
The pandemic has hit the music industry hard, particularly local venues that rely on live entertainment. Over the next few weeks, we’ll cover a handful of Des Moines music venues and provide updates on how they’ve handled the past several months.
Thom Kutz misses live entertainment—at least, in the form it used to be. As the co-owner and general manager of xBk Live, one of Des Moines’ youngest music venues, he’s especially antsy to see music take the stage again as it once was. But he knows it may never be the same.
“Normalcy is a thing of the past,” Kutz says. “The way that the live entertainment industry worked a year ago is not going to be the way that it works going forward.”
To adapt, Kutz and co-owner Tobi Parks jumped headfirst into the new reality of entertainment—one that’s almost entirely virtual. They’ve used livestreams to promote artists and share music, and launched an online store for patrons to buy liquor and vinyl records from the venue.
xBk has even brought back live music in some capacity. It reopened its doors last weekend for an in-person performance, limiting attendance to 50 people with advance tickets. After passing a temperature check and wearing a mask, attendees sat in “patron pods” with tables spaced 8 feet apart. For extra safety measures, xBk now uses disposable cups and has increased staffing for round-shift cleaning.
“The waste goes way up, the employee and staffing costs go way up, but it also allows us an opportunity to do very intimate type of shows,” Kutz says. “It’s this weird balancing act.”
Even with the adaptation, funding has been extremely tight. xBk’s survival wouldn’t have been possible without money from various grants, Kutz says. Having only been open since September 2019, xBk still qualified for some startup grants. Paired with some other artist and music grants, the money has helped keep employees on the payroll.
xBk has received support in other ways as well, namely through support from the Des Moines community. Loyal followers still show up to virtual shows and the newly returned in-person performances.
“The community support has been amazing,” Kutz says. “And it’s humbling that so many folks come out in support of small venues. It’s an amazing feeling when the community rallies around you.”
Despite the pandemic, Kutz sees a silver lining in the new normal of virtual programming: increased accessibility and forced creativity. Livestreams allow for easy access to live music while also pushing artists to conceive of new ways to promote their art. Kutz points to live music existing in gaming platforms like Fortnite and Minecraft, or Zoom concerts where musicians chat with fans between sets. “Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” Kutz insists. “And the arts community is always going to find a way to make things happen.”