Nashville music venues worry proposed COVID law could erode relationships with audiences and artists

Many venues in Nashville ask for proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test at the door. That “or” would be key if Tennessee’s governor signs new legislation that would bar requiring proof of vaccination into law.

“I think it’s just really going to be about semantics,” says Chris Cobb of Exit/In.

He says the only real change is that venues wouldn’t be allowed to require vaccines without another option. While the change in vernacular might be minor, he worries the impact might not be.

He says his venue and many others are already struggling with a high no-show rate — where people buy tickets but don’t come. Further complicating their COVID policy may only make matters worse, he says.

“The state’s actions the past week have done nothing to help us regain that consumer confidence,” Cobb says.

And he says the changes wouldn’t only erode the trust of concert-goers. It could also make it more challenging for venues to meet the demands of artists.

Touring musicians have been cancelling shows all over the country if venues won’t agree to their COVID safety protocols. Nashville artist Allison Russell says she has pulled out of about nine shows in the last year for that reason.

“I can’t put my band at risk like that,” Russell says. “And I don’t want to put the audience at risk like that.”

Russell says she is baffled that a legislature that is usually focused on the economy would limit venues and artists from setting COVID policies that could help keep them running.

“You are actively impeding the economy’s ability to recover from the last 20 months, which have been so devastating,” she says. “And particularly, the music industry’s economy. And that seems to me like a really terrible mistake.”

Russell says if the governor signs the legislation into law, it could push local artists like her to avoid playing shows in their own backyard.

“There are some artists out there right now who are wanting actually both,” says Michael Dorf of City Winery. “They would like to have a vaccine requirement and a rapid test situation at the door.”

He says Tennessee’s venues and audiences would likely miss out on those artists.

Dorf operates venues in other states, and says those state governments let the business set their own rules. He finds it frustrating that lawmakers here want to interfere.

“If the Tennessee General Assembly was going to tell us that we got to take down our exit signs and emergency lights because they made that decision, I would ignore that too,” Dorf says. “Our job is to keep people safe.”

He says if the law takes effect, City Winery won’t change a thing.

UpdateThis story has been updated to include comments from Allison Russell, who is a local Nashville artist.