Wooly’s Looks Ahead As Pandemic Takes Toll

Since 2012, Wooly’s has served as a mid-sized music venue for local and touring acts in Des Moines. The pandemic has put that role in jeopardy.

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 several Des Moines music venues and provide updates on how they’ve handled the past few months. You can read last week’s feature on xBk Live here.

After one of its most successful years in 2019, Wooly’s is now staring in the face of one of its worst.

The East Village music venue has gone seven months with virtually no income, says owner and operator Sam Summers. That has led to budget deficits; the business has lost up to $30,000 every month during the pandemic. Summers says he’s had to use personal money to get through the past several months.

“Filling that gap from when we closed down is really important because nobody’s going to be able to make that up once we open,” Summers says. “We’re just going to be sitting here with this debt that we can’t pay off.”

Wooly’s has reopened, but in a limited fashion. There aren’t many touring acts to book, as tours have been nearly eliminated because of differing lockdown restrictions in each state and the general health concerns around COVID-19. Most of Wooly’s recent in-person shows have featured local cover bands. Each show requires masks, and those who attend are assigned seating to ensure proper distancing.

Summers is happy to see live music return to his stage, especially since so many of his peer organizations have turned to livestreamed shows. Summers has been intentional about staying away from online performances.

“Going to a concert is a highly emotional experience for people that you don’t really get from livestreaming,” Summers says. “There’s that personal connection that you get being around people.”

But even with the slow re-emergence of live music, things aren’t quite the same. Summers notes that shows that would normally attract 400 people now only draw 70. In short, attendance alone isn’t enough to get Wooly’s through the foreseeable future, Summers says.

That’s why grants are still essential. Various grants have helped Wooly’s retain staff and make in-person shows possible. Summers is also hopeful about the Save Our Stages initiative by the National Independent Venue Association, which is raising money and pushing the U.S. Congress to provide relief for struggling venues.

“When we come out of this, which we will, hopefully we go back to the way things were in 2019, which is kind of just grinding and getting by,” Summers says.

Despite the circumstances, Summers is still confident that Wooly’s will stay afloat through the winter and into next year. He and his team are looking ahead, booking in-person shows for 2021 and beyond. When people ask Summers how they can help support Wooly’s in the meantime, his answer is simple: “When we put shows up and when you’re comfortable buying tickets, buy tickets. That’s the best way to get money directly into our hands.”

Find out more about Wooly’s upcoming live shows here.

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