As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage in the U.S., live performance venues will be among the last businesses allowed to reopen–and, even when some reopening is possible, there is no way to know yet what it might initially look like. For large arenas and concert halls, the shutdown has been a struggle–but for smaller operations, the pandemic may turn out to be devastating. Small music venues, the very heart of the artistic scene of any city, are facing an existential threat.
One survey conducted in June found that fully 90 percent of independent music venues in the United States report being at risk of permanent closure as a result of the pandemic. Jef Soubrian told Press Play with Madeline Brand that his venue, Zebulon, could very well be among them.
“I think it’s very important. Every artist and band starts in a place like Zebulon, small venues. These places are in danger now,” he said. “When the pandemic may be over, people [are] going to maybe see then these places are closed. And they will be very sad.”
Justin Randi owns the Baked Potato, the oldest operating jazz club in L.A. The club was started by his father, Wrecking Crew keyboard player Don Randi, in 1970.
“Don wanted a place where he and the other studio musicians could play their own stuff, play jazz, and it continues to be that kind of place for musicians,” Randi says, recalling the role the club and its patrons played in his life growing up. “I set the tables when I was really young, then I progressed to washing dishes. I clearly remember Jaco Pastorius walk over to my father’s young bass player at the time, take his bass, and play with my dad the rest of the night. I watched Al Jarreau sit on my dad’s stool with him and sing lyrics to Miles Davis’s ‘All Blues.’ I had never heard lyrics sung to that song. It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard.”
“A live venue, especially one as intimate and long-standing as ours, is a lot about community.”
Randi’s club closed up on March 15, canceling a weekend of sold-out shows, thinking they would reopen in three weeks. At Memorial Day, staff prepared to reopen for limited service, only to be unable to operate due to the imposition of curfews. Once they lifted, the venue attempted to do half-capacity indoor bar service, but that too was shut down again.
For now, Randi is looking to streaming audiences to help his family business stay alive.
“A live venue, especially one as intimate and long-standing as ours, is a lot about community. And the Baked Potato community is an in-person community. But, you know, these are the times we’re in for now, and we will adjust as needed,” he says. His team has invested in a state-of-the-art system to capture performers and broadcast them around the world from stage of his otherwise-empty club.
“What we have installed has allowed us to continue to share music with Baked Potato regulars and also music and jazz fans across the globe. People from all over the place have bought tickets to our benefit show with Steve Gadd [on July 25], to save a club they’ve never physically stepped inside of. This part of it, the outpouring of support, from all over the place, has been overwhelming in the most beautiful way. I never imagined we’d grow the Baked Potato community like this, online.”
He notes that, while the Baked Potato has played host to hundreds of benefit shows over the years, a recent streaming fundraiser was the first time they’ve been in a position where the benefit was for the club itself.
“I never thought such a day would come, but here we are and its standing between continuing on or closing for good,” Randi says. “The bills are still due. The insurance, mortgage, water and power, property taxes. They are all still due.”
When asked what the future holds for live music, and for his own club, Randi admits he doesn’t have many answers yet.
“That’s the million-dollar question,” he says. “For me and every other business owner who has put their heart and soul into something they believed in.”
“The bills are still due. The insurance, mortgage, water and power, property taxes. They are all still due.”
Many clubs are hanging their hopes on federal intervention. The National Independent Venue Association, a trade group formed in April to lobby for music venues amid the pandemic, has backed two specific proposals, the RESTART Act and the Save Our Stages Act.
The RESTART Act, which would cover a variety of small business categories, has been on the table for inclusion in a second federal stimulus bill, but talks between Congress and the White House on that package are currently at an impasse.
PPP loans are an ill fit for most venues, as payroll is typically not the largest expense facing the businesses. According to NIVA, venues typically have relatively small staffs of largely part-time or seasonal workers, but carry substantial overhead costs due to the expense of paying rent on large—currently empty—physical spaces. Further, the group says, since there’s no clear date on which venues may be able to resume business, taking on additional debt in the form of loans might be a burden that many venues would never dig out from under.
Specific to the live-performance industry, the Save Our Stages Act was introduced in the Senate in late July by Senators Amy Klobuchar and John Cornyn. If adopted, the bill would provide for six months of financial support to venues, in an attempt to help them cover rent and payroll for the short-term.
“There is an estimated $9 billion in losses expected should ticket sales not resume until 2021. And so we really tried to focus this on the independent, smaller venues,” Senator Klobuchar told Rolling Stone. “[With music venues], it’s not like some of the businesses can be half-open. It’s either open or closed for the most part. You could envision a day where maybe they can do social distancing, but it’s really hard in mosh pits to do that.”
Klobuchar, who likens the industry-specific legislation for music venues to a much larger bail-out program created specifically for airlines, says Save Our Stages could be passed as a stand-alone bill, or incorporated into the HEROES Act (it does not appear in the House-passed version of that act as it currently stands).
“I would say if you’re willing to put all that money into the airline industry because they’re uniquely affected, you’ve got to start looking at the music industry. That is a huge, huge part of our economy and such a unique American export,” Klobuchar notes.
NIVA participants in Los Angeles include the Bootleg Theater, Teragram Ballroom, the Regent, Zebulon, and the Troubadour, among the dozens of venues, promoters, and festivals in the region, and hundreds nationwide. Amy Madrigali of the Troubadour told Press Play that lobbying for pandemic relief has become her company’s top priority.
“That’s our main objective at this moment, working with NIVA to help both of our venues and our 2,000 members across the United States,” Madrigali said. “We’re down to zero revenue. We closed our doors with no shows, there’s no revenue really. And so these are small pieces to try to just hold on.”
“The small venues are where the diversity in Los Angeles exists. It’s the soul of the city.”
If these spaces disappear, there will be the loss of jobs and small businesses and economic activity–and there will also be harder-to-quantify type loss to culture and city life itself.
“The small venues are where the diversity in Los Angeles exists. It’s the soul of the city,” says Andrew Lojero of ArtDontSleep. “If large corporations buy up all of the venues, we will see a sweeping homogenization in music. All of the wonderful niches would have no place to exist. The two biggest things we would lose are diversity and artist development.”
Lojero can think of at least 25 concerts that he was involved in that were forced to cancel due to the pandemic. Facing the reality that the months that have already passed without live performances could be just the beginning of a long, dark season, he finds himself struggling on multiple levels.
“This is the first time in 18 years that I’ve not done a concert, a tour, or programmed a festival,” Lojero says. “I really love bringing people together through music. I’ve devoted my life to it, so it’s still taking some getting used to.”
“I really love bringing people together through music. I’ve devoted my life to it, so it’s still taking some getting used to.”
Beyond the artistic loss, Lojero notes the financial hardship aspect of the pandemic as well. On top of losses from not performing or booking events, he co-owns a recording studio which he says has had almost no clients coming in the door, even as restrictions on entertainment industry productions have begun to relax.
“It put a dead stop on everything we had planned for this year,” he says. “It’s been a hard-hitting year.”