It’s almost 2 p.m. on a recent Tuesday at the Frederick Fairgrounds and Shawn Hocherl, the vice president of local production company Showtime Sound, is walking the fencing along East Patrick Street.
In his right hand is something that measures dBA levels, an indication of loudness. As music blares through his company’s sound system, into the crisp blue skies that hover over the fairgrounds like an immaculate painting, he’s tasked with keeping the volume level at or below 90 dBA at the fence.
Why? Because it’s the law. The fairgrounds are institutionally zoned, and therefore, concerts on the property must adhere to a few standards. One, performances must end by 10 p.m. Two, no more than 2,000 people are allowed through the gate. And three, the dBA level cannot exceed 90 where the border of the fairgrounds ends and East Patrick Street begins.
Naturally, Hocherl smiles when the digital numbers appear on the device in his right hand: 81.4.
“Live music,” he said with boyish enthusiasm. “Coming from a real PA, outdoors, it just feels so good.”
And so, despite a handful of complaints from residents who live near the noise, the show can go on.
Mt. Joy, an indie rock band from Los Angeles, will eventually take the stage as part of Showtime At The Drive-In’s run of fall concerts. The slate only recently came together as music promoters, production companies and artists brainstormed ways to continue working through a pandemic that has brought the live entertainment industry to its knees over the last six months.
Showtime is no different. A nationally known company that handles sound for venues like the Pier Six Concert Pavilion in Baltimore and Jiffy Lube Live near D.C., the local production shop depends on summer tours to keep its employees, well, employed.
Not so much this year, however, as government shutdowns and social distancing requirements have made live music all but impossible. The creativity that went into staging the drive-in concerts — as well as the drive-in movies that have been taking place at the fairgrounds for the last month or so — hasn’t just been a lesson in adaptation; it’s been a clear necessity for people who need to keep their jobs.
It’s also why Hocherl, whose company has lost millions of dollars during the pandemic, is doing all he can to abide by the laws of the land as he readied to kick off the concert series last week.
“We want to be respectful of everything and everyone,” he said. “We really wanted to build this thing at the fair and we worked so hard to bring the community together. To have the success we’ve had so far, it’s just been awesome.”
‘NOT THE BEST OF TIMES’
Twenty-five million dollars.
That’s what the Maryland Entertainment Industry Association — a group of more than 30 live entertainment venues, even more event promoters and 3,500 employees from the across the state — said was needed in grant money to survive in a letter to government officials. The association has lobbied for aid from sources across the state – including Frederick County Executive Jan Gardner — throughout the summer.
To date, those pleas have fallen on deaf ears. So much that businesses affected by the shutdown banded together — not just locally — but across the nation, to bring awareness to the issue on Sept. 1 by lighting up buildings in red as part of an initiative called the Red Alert Restart. Hashtags like #donotabandonus and #saveourstages also helped inspire music fans to reach out to officials locally and in congress to help pass a relief bill that would keep live entertainment venues alive.
The attention is needed, according to the letter. While the state has moved in and out of various stages of reopening, entertainment venues are part of the less than 2 percent of Maryland businesses still not allowed to open at all.
“Simply put, we were the first to close and will be the last to open,” the MEIA letter states. “Bearing our existing fixed operating costs for six to 12 additional months will mean some venues will not survive until entertainment events can resume.”
Among the venues listed in the letter is Frederick’s Weinberg Center for the Arts. John Healey, the executive theater manager, said last week that while no layoffs or furloughs are planned for the Weinberg staff, it is still financially irresponsible for the theater to hold events open to the public.
“We’re allowed 100 people through [the] state of Maryland,” Healey explained. “That includes volunteers and technicians and staff. So that means realistically, even if I did a movie, I could probably get 85 people in there and you multiply 85 by 7 dollars, it doesn’t give you a whole lot.”
He added that other theaters in town are also showing films.
“So, financially, it doesn’t make sense to take the risk of getting 85 people in there, plus staff,” Healey continued. “The budget that I wrote in late February — that reflects numbers that are not real anymore.”
Making matters more deflating was the reality that the Weinberg was on pace to finish well above its projections for the fiscal year — so well that it would have been the best since Healey took over as the head of operations in 2006. By the end of June, he said, the Weinberg was on pace to welcome more than 90,000 people through its doors before the pandemic all but eliminated the final quarter of the fiscal year.
Moving forward, Healey explained that he’s planning for three different seasons. The first, he said, would be under the pretense that it could responsibly open by the end of the year. The second is based on the hope that it could host performances within the first two quarters of 2021. The final scenario? The Weinberg stays dark until the fall of 2021.
“It’s touchy,” Healey said. “We’re all juggling and trying to do stuff. The Save Our Stages program ... that whole bill is way up in the air at this point, but people are at least talking about it now.
“It’s not the best of times,” he continued. “A lot of our ticket revenue went out the door with people canceling, and we’ve tried to shift as many of the shows as possible, but we’re really just playing kick the can. I feel bad for the artists, and all the downtown people that make their livings off the Weinberg Center. At this point, we’ve all gotta find some balance and figure out creative ways to do things.”
FROM MOVIES TO MUSIC
Perhaps the only creative money- making venture the local entertainment community had was to come together for the Showtime At The Drive-In series. Initially constructed as a drive-in movie theater, Hocherl explained in September that his eye was always on concerts.
“We built the drive-in to prove that we could do a safe zone for drive-in shows, and it really doesn’t make a difference because all the safety protocols remain the same,” he said. “We all banded together so we could save everybody’s business and have something for the community to come out and support. I think at this point, everybody is looking to get out and do something safely and that’s what we’re trying to do — provide a safe experience.”
As such, all concert-goers are required to wear masks outside of their vehicles. Patrons can bring chairs to sit in and all parking spaces are socially distanced. Not only does the outdoor sound system pump the volume through the crowd, but for those who wish to stay inside their vehicles for the performances, the show is also broadcast to a radio station, so attendees can experience professionally mixed audio both in and out of their vehicles.
The concerts have been popular. The Oct. 6 kickoff with Mt. Joy sold out while the Pigeons Playing Ping Pong concert set for Thursday nearly reached capacity immediately.
Showtime Sound has worked with a pair of production companies for the shows, including Soundstage in Baltimore and All Good Presents. Among the future acts set to take the fairgrounds stage are rock singer Grace Potter on Oct. 21, country singer Chase Rice on Oct. 29, and Grateful Dead tribute act Dark Star Orchestra on Halloween weekend.
Through it all, Hocherl was adamant that local community members have been phenomenally supportive of the venture. Though it won’t make up for the losses his company has endured, the camaraderie has ignited new hope into a circumstance that for so long felt hopeless.
“We know we aren’t going to make it unless we create our own work,” Hocherl said. “It’s brutal right now. I’ve had a lot of friends who are out of jobs because of all this and we’re surviving by the skin of our teeth. For our capital to go down to zero for seven months, and then to spend money to keep staff on payroll ... we need to do this to keep our guys employed and our doors open.”
THE MORNING AFTER
It’s the morning after the Mt. Joy show, and Shawn Hocherl is excited.
“Last night was very successful,” he said over the phone. “The vendors, how much money they made, the safety protocols — it all came together, and everybody was happy.”
He goes through it all. How some neighbors complained about the noise. How the fact that Frederick hasn’t heard live music outdoors in nearly a year maybe played a role in that dissatisfaction. How committed he is to work with the surrounding neighborhoods to make sure everyone is happy. How he wants to get the dBA levels to 80 by the fences, even if city regulations allow them to go as high as 90.
“But,” he asserts, “the amount of support from local people is way outweighing the complainers. Last night was a crystal clear night with no humidity so that sound travels far. Still, we’re going to do some things on our end to make sure it’s better.”
The power of the night’s success harkens back to something Healey said as he looked toward the future of the Weinberg.
“If nothing else,” he noted, “this pandemic has shown people the impact of all the arts does to a community. Financially and culturally. This is what happens when you take these things away.”
It’s hard to argue that, considering the success of a concert from a marginally known indie rock act at the Frederick Fairgrounds on a Tuesday night in October. It’s also hard to argue that when a man who presents himself as comedian Louis C.K.’s manager wanders through the grounds during the afternoon soundcheck.
”Music soothes the soul,” he exclaims without giving his name, only noting that he’s been responsible for booking comedy acts in venues around the DMV. “It just helps everybody.”
Then there’s Greg Davis, the Weinberg’s technical manager, who came to the show as a volunteer. Sure, he could run lights at some point, and if they need him, he’ll be glad to step in wherever, but above all else, he just wants to be here for something he’s missed so dearly for so long.
“The community needs this,” he said. “We all do.”
Even Healey, while he couldn’t be there, voiced his support for the concert series. noting that he was hoping the Weinberg could be part of it in some capacity when he first got wind of the idea (legal hurdles ultimately got in the way). Still, from his home in Virginia, his enthusiasm for the drive-in venture bled through the phone like live music on a fall night.
And that wasn’t only because of the venture’s success; it was also because of his intense eagerness to get people back in the Weinberg sooner rather than later.
“I know there will be a lot of losses, but hopefully people will hang on,” he said. “It’s horrible. People lost money and their jobs, but out of negativity, there can be potential for growth and businesses thriving. It just means change. You can get sucked into the negativity — and there are certainly days when I look at this laptop and think, ‘What’s the point?’
“But,” he added. “I would like nothing better than to get the place open again and get it operating again. ... It’s a difficult time. We can dwell on the negative or we can dwell on the positive. Since I am very cynical, I know what I usually do, but at the same time, deep down, I’m an optimist. I want this to work.”
“I don’t want to throw up my hands and say, ‘You know what? I’m too old for this crap,’” he offers with nary a trace of that signature cynicism. “Right now, I’d love to have a concert to worry about.”