How the Grand Ole Opry kept the coronavirus from breaking a 95-year-old winning streak

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The show must go on: It’s a phrase used widely in the entertainment business and beyond, but over the past few months it means more than ever to the cast of the Grand Ole Opry.

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Based in Nashville, Tennessee, “the show that made country music famous” has found ways to keep going for fans around the world, even as live entertainment events such as concerts have essentially ceased to exist due to the coronavirus pandemic.

For the Opry and country musicians, there’s a special reason to keep playing: in its 95-year history, the show that featured legendary performers from Minnie Pearl to Grandpa Jones, Johnny Cash, Reba McEntire and Dolly Parton — has never gone dark.

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“It says a lot about the character, the resolve that the Grand Ole Opry has, that in spite of something so drastic and so impacting, that they still managed to go forward and still manage to do something,” Craig Morgan, a singer-songwriter and Opry member, told FOX Business. “And to me, that’s inspiring.”

Craig Morgan performs at the Grand Ole Opry House on October 22, 2019 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

The Opry started in late 1925 as a radio program that was broadcast from the Nashville office of the National Life and Accident Insurance Company, eventually changing venues as its popularity grew – the Ryman Auditorium perhaps being the most notable location that housed the show, from 1943 to 1974.

Today, the show is performed live from the Opry House, which can seat more than 4,300 people. Due to the pandemic that forced the venue to close its doors to customers, acts now play to a sea of empty padded pews.

“Our energy is definitely drawn off of the crowd,” Morgan said, describing what it’s like playing to a non-existent audience. “So it is more difficult to do a show, again, especially in an environment where there normally is a big crowd.”

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But with the help of cameras, social media and related streaming technology – which have previously brought shows to audiences – the Opry has continued its streak of performances, which will tally 4,928 consecutive weeks on Saturday night.

Each week, the shows air live on Circle Television, Dish Network, Facebook and YouTube, among others.

“It’s a little bit of accessibility that we’re trying to make available,” Scott Bailey, president of Opry Entertainment Group, a subsidiary of Ryman Hospitality Properties, told FOX Business. “That’s not part of our business plan to stream freely on those platforms, but we think there are just too many fans that are outside the U.S. that want to have access to it and we didn't want to restrict that.”

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Ricky Skaggs and Dailey & Vincent perform at the Grand Ole Opry (Chris Hollo/Grand Ole Opry)

With the doors closed to paying customers – meaning zero in-venue revenue – the broadcasts and content on the Circle network are vital to the Opry’s business, allowing it to bring in dollars from advertisers.

Lost revenue isn’t unique to the Opry, however. With acts either postponing or canceling tours, concert venues, stage crews, musicians, and the restaurants and hotels that would normally service them aren’t making money.

“I would say hundreds of billions of dollars in lost revenue this year in the entertainment world, in particular with touring artists,” Morgan said. “And not just country. We’re talking about every genre.”

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Behind the scenes at the Opry, a crew trimmed down to roughly 20 people is tasked with getting the show to air. In the early stages of the pandemic, executives at the Opry worked with Nashville’s mayor, the health department and even nearby Vanderbilt University’s lead medical team to ensure the protocols being instituted by the facility would keep the show teams and artists safe.

“The fundamentals of how you put on a show just had to be rethought in a way that required us to have a lot fewer people and people being able to multitask and do different types of jobs,” Bailey said.

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As states begin to ease virus-related restrictions, the Opry is planning to reopen its doors to paying customers at some point in July, at reduced capacity. It's working with Vanderbilt Medical Center to finalize the arrangements.

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