A Summer of Safe Shows: A Conversation with Bill Brandenburg

Richard Thompson and Bill Brandenburg, left to right (Photo by Rob Wasilewski)

For Bill Brandenburg, his love of music began in the early 1960s when he saw The Beatles perform on The Ed Sullivan Show. Immediately infatuated, Bill was inspired to partake on a journey of musical discovery, always looking for the next thing that was going to excite him as much as seeing The Beatles did.

“My Beatles story is your One Direction story,” he says. “It’s funny, several decades apart.” 

For the next forty years, Bill spent his time going to concerts and supporting artists through album and CD sales, but was not professionally involved in the industry. Then, in 2003 he began a music blog. 

In 2008, after reading an article in the local newspaper about the town’s goal to start a concert series, Bill emailed over his website. A few days later, he was invited to the town’s Arts Committee meeting and was asked to run the series on the spot. 

Here we are in 2021. Bill Brandenburg has built a music program of high artistic quality from scratch and is in charge of booking three nights of the outdoor summer shows in Woodbridge, New Jersey. Despite the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown in 2020, Bill Brandenburg and his team were able to persevere, putting on 50 outdoor concerts throughout the summer. 

I had the opportunity to sit down with Bill and hear about his experience putting on outdoor concerts during the COVID-19 pandemic. In our conversation, he discussed his experience rebooking acts, the safety measures taken for the outdoor shows, audience feedback, those struggling during COVID-19, and his thoughts on the future of the entertainment industry.

Below is his story.

Concurrent Cancellations

How did the COVID-19 pandemic originally affect the Woodbridge outdoor summer concert series?

“This year we did do our 50 outdoor concerts despite the pandemic. I had the summer pretty much fully booked by the end of February. Acts from all over the country, all over the world. As soon as COVID started to happen, I was in contact with all the different acts to alert them of our safety measures and to confirm they were still coming. Early on, they were mostly still on board. But, as the weeks started to roll on I started to get some cancellations. People don’t come to Woodbridge from Hawaii just to play Woodbridge. They’re coming here because they’re playing New York, they’re playing Philadelphia, Boston, or somewhere that has them crossing New Jersey. As the Philly Folk Festival, Newport Folk and Jazz Festivals, and other large festivals got cancelled, many of these acts started to say they couldn’t come. One by one, I had to replace the touring acts with acts who could more easily get here. It was an ongoing thing that was pretty challenging.”

The Shift to Safety

How did you adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic?

“We looked at the CDC and the government recommendations and we played around with different ideas on safety. We drew nine foot boxes on the ground, they were six feet apart, for a group that came together. It could be one person gets a nine foot box if you came by yourself. But if it’s two people, or four, or five people you can all fit in that nine foot box because the next box is six feet away in all directions. The field is gigantic so we had 300 boxes drawn on the field six feet apart. People had to wear masks coming and going. In their box they could take the mask off because in the box you’re with your own group and you’re six feet away in every direction. 

The Summer Without Spikes

Did it work? What was the audience feedback like?

“We did the first show on July 6th and everything went well. A lot of people came up to us and said, ‘I came and I was just going to look at the scene and if it gets scary or crowded or I don’t feel comfortable, I was going to leave.’ When they saw how we had it set up, they felt really safe. Word got out and our crowds actually increased over the summer. Everybody was respectful, no arguments about distancing or wearing masks or anything like that. Everybody got along. The artists all felt comfortable. 

Bill Brandenburg on stage in Woodbridge, New Jersey (Photo by John R. Patey)

We got some criticism, mostly from people who didn’t come. Our response to that was always, we care very much about people’s health, which is why we have boxes on the ground six feet apart and why they were 30 feet from the stage, all the things that we did. But, there were a few naysayers who were saying we shouldn’t be doing this. Overwhelmingly the people who came, we had no complaints.

We tried to find the middle ground that didn’t ignore the safety issues, but didn’t just say we couldn’t do it. Because it’s a town event, Town Hall was plugged right into the health department and got the daily numbers. We went through the whole summer without spiking at all. We were concerned about that in the beginning. We’re going to do this, but if a couple weeks later all of a sudden there’s a local spike, we may have to shut it all down. But as it went along, it became clear that there were no reports of anybody getting sick. I think being outdoors, being socially distanced, wearing masks when appropriate, and not shaking hands – if you follow all those guidelines, you’re relatively safe during the pandemic. As soon as you move indoors, it’s a whole different conversation.”

The Not-So-Good Zone

How do you think the entertainment industry has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic?

“It’s devastating. Most of the art world is not rich, famous people. It’s people eeking out a living, some better than others, but they need to work to pay their rent and to put food on the table. Not being able to tour is devastating. It’s not easy and a lot of small venues are not going to be around when this is all over. They just couldn’t survive not being open for business so long. It’s hard to imagine anybody not being negatively impacted in some way in the arts.

There are some people who are doing a lot of online concerts. Most of them are pay what you can, some set up a fee. The bigger you are, the more followers you have, the more likely somebody will pay to watch your concert. But for artists who are much lower in stature, they can do an online concert but it’s hard to sustain that. There are people who will probably have to stop being artists because they just couldn’t sustain it any longer. But even if you’re in the good zone, it’s not as good as it was. You’re surviving, you’re paying your bills, you’re doing okay, you’re comfortable – but you’re not making as much money as you were making when you were playing 200 concerts a year. It’s devastating. So for the artists themselves, my heart goes out to them.”

The Essentiality of the Arts

What do you think lies ahead for the future of the entertainment industry?

“It’s always going to be there. People need art. It’s always going to survive because it’s an essential, it’s a necessity. Not everybody’s going to survive this pandemic. Some have already closed the doors for good. They’re not coming back. More will between now and a year from now. But out of the ashes will rise some new people who have a dream and want to pursue it. As long as there’s enough people out there who want to participate as patrons to view the arts and not just to perform the arts, they’ll always be there. We will get through this and the people who need to rebuild will rebuild. People that are gone hopefully will come back in some other way, shape, or form, and new people will emerge to fill those voids. The arts will always be here. It’s just a little bit challenging in 2020.”

Make sure to follow and support the Woodbridge Free Summer Concert Series at the links below:

And, make sure to follow and support Music On Main Street, Woodbridge’s indoor concert series, at the links below:

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