SALT LAKE CITY — On a hot Friday night, 180 Beatles fans set out on their bikes.
Divided into groups of 16-20 people, they rode along designated paths in downtown Salt Lake City. Half of the riders took a 4-mile route that went east. The other half traveled west.
On each route, five local bands — each separated by a four-to-five minute bike ride — awaited the travelers, eager to make live music again. The cyclists put on masks as they began to approach a listening site. After parking their bikes, they lingered at each stop for 20 minutes, keeping several feet apart as they enjoyed hits like “Strawberry Fields,” “With a Little Help From My Friends” and “Eleanor Rigby.”
The event on May 29 — dubbed the “SLC Beatles Concert Cruise” — fell near the anniversary of the “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album release (the U.K. release came May 26, 1967, while the U.S. release came a few days later on June 2.)
But the timing was just a coincidence.
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, concert venues nationwide continue to remain shut down. Most have been closed for nearly three months. While some small clubs in Utah are beginning to open with restrictions in place, many venues across Utah are having to get creative in order to make revenue.
Hence the concept of biking for your music.
“Basically this is just … an invention of necessity,” Will Sartain of S&S Presents told the Deseret News. “It seems like the virus is more easily spread inside, and so we wanted outside, and we wanted something active. And that was just our best idea.”
Sartain’s company owns the Salt Lake venues Kilby Court, Metro Music Hall, Urban Lounge and RYE Diner. All four locations have been closed for two-and-a-half months. Sixty-five of the 70 employees have been laid off. But the company still has rent and staff to cover.
“We haven’t made any money, any revenue,” Sartain said. “Our goal is actually to produce a concert series all summer with these bike concert events while it’s still warm. And then as time passes, we’ll kind of get a better idea of what inside looks like and we’ll definitely reopen.”
The doors to other Salt Lake venues like the State Room and the Commonwealth Room also remain shut. To bridge the revenue gap, the owners have launched an online poster auction. They’ve auctioned off hundreds of signed posters from years past — concerts from the 11 years the State Room has been in operation.
“It was clear when our revenue went to 0 on March 12 that we wanted and needed to do something that felt constructive and not just asking for money,” Darin Piccoli, co-owner of the State Room Presents, wrote in an email to the Deseret News.
The auction — which so far has featured signed posters of artists including Brandi Carlile, Booker T. Jones and Jason Mraz — celebrates the memories of concerts past and helps bide time until the venues move forward and reopen. Piccoli longs to welcome bands back on stage — some shows later this year remain tentatively scheduled — but he knows his entertainment venues need to stay on the safe side of things.
“Prognosticating can be a slippery slope,” he wrote. “We will open when we know we can be safe for our staff and patrons. We will not blindly open because of a color change or impatience.”
Sartain is watching closely for when Salt Lake City switches to the “yellow,” low-risk phase. At that point, re-opening his venues will become more of a conversation. But like Piccoli, he’s not rushing into anything. Having read a study where 87% of a choir in Washington contracted COVID-19 after a rehearsal with one symptomatic person, Sartain still has concerns: Is placing a plastic screen in front of the singers enough? Should the venues feature only instrumental music? Do the musicians need to wear masks?
In the meantime, with summer approaching, Sartain is content to capitalize on Utah’s great outdoors. The inaugural bike cruise was scheduled for last Friday, Saturday and Sunday but only took place that first night due to nearby protests over George Floyd’s death at the hands of police — protests that turned violent in the late afternoon Saturday.
The other two Beatles concerts have now been rescheduled for June 12 and 13. Sartain expects close to 200 people each night. Going forward, most of the bike cruises will highlight original music from local bands. But after every third or fourth cruise, Sartain said he’ll throw in a themed concert. Maybe David Bowie in July and the Rolling Stones in August.
Although this is something that emerged out of necessity during a pandemic, Sartain can see the cruises continuing in a post-COVID-19 world.
On that Beatles-themed Friday night — which saw one happy biker wearing “A Hard Day’s Night” shirt — local band Folk Hogan wrapped up its 20-minute set with “A Day in the Life.” The small crowd cheered and clapped.
“Thank you very much! We’ve been Folk Hogan as the Beatles,” the band said. “We appreciate you guys coming out. Let’s all have fun!”
The concertgoers mounted their bikes and removed their masks as they started pedaling to their next destination. Five minutes later, they would place the masks back on for another round of Beatles songs.
For live music during a pandemic, it’s just another “day in the life.”