Smaller music venues face ‘the great unknown’ before live shows can resume at full capacity

July 26, 2020, 4:00 PM UTC

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To say the coronavirus pandemic has been disruptive would be an understatement. Just about everyone’s way of life—from the way kids attend school to the way business is conducted—has changed significantly.

Some industries have been able to adjust more easily than others, but one thing has become clear in recent months: Live music isn’t ready to come back in a big way anytime soon as crowded events remain largely banned and consumer spending remains low. Smaller venues, particularly of the independent variety, are facing a long and difficult road before they’ll be able to reopen—with many likely to close permanently without outside intervention.

That’s not to say all live performances in the U.S. have come to a complete stop: Drive-in concerts are popping up, and a handful of shows are still being held in some places without much social distancing (and drawing a lot of criticism). Live streams have become a regular part of the performance landscape as well.

But getting shows back to the way they used to be—at 100% capacity—is ultimately what’s needed to keep business viable in the long run, venue operators say. While there are some interim efforts to keep their businesses afloat amid shutdowns, they only have so many alternative ways to generate income.

“We’re a 10,000-square-foot basement with no windows. Outdoor dining isn’t an option for us. Delivery through Seamless isn’t an option for us,” says Brett Tabisel, senior music director at New York City’s Le Poisson Rouge. “These aren’t things that we do.”

Le Poisson Rouge, which held its last show this year on March 12, launched a GoFundMe to help workers affected by the venue’s shutdown that month itself. In May, it launched a successful fundraiser—offering everything from merch to virtual lessons—specifically for the venue’s benefit. The fact that many patrons have held on to tickets for shows that are in the process of being rescheduled is helpful, plus the venue has a Patreon page and is still pursuing more live-streaming opportunities while its doors remain closed.

Le Poisson Rouge
James Harknes performs at Rockers On Broadway 2019 at Le Poisson Rouge on Nov. 11, 2019 in New York City. The venue is amongst thousands throughout the country that has been shuttered by the coronavirus pandemic.
Bobby Bank—Getty Images

Tabisel says live-streaming is something LPR has done over the past decade—practically since its inception—but it was never really monetized in the past.

“Live-streaming in and of itself is nothing new. It’s been around for a while,” adds Jared Losow, LPR’s marketing director. “But the degree to which everyone’s trying to get involved now, and the degree to which everybody’s trying to monetize it, it’s a completely new marketplace. And everybody—ourselves included, to be honest—is just trying to figure out where we fit in.”

The venue’s landlord has been understanding so far about rent, but its operators—who don’t anticipate being able to reopen safely earlier than next year—worry about how things will play out long term when live events, their real source of revenue, can’t happen.

Even as some shows get rescheduled, there is only so much advance planning that can take place right now. What people don’t understand is how many months go into planning a national tour, which also involves a lot of intricacies, Tabisel says. The process “involves a lot of people up and down from a whole different world of merchandise to tech to ticket sales. There’s so many tentacles of this big octopus brain that is the music industry.”

This is part of where trying to figure out exactly when and how to reopen becomes tricky. Couple that with little to no revenue, and “paying a premium rent when there’s no money coming in is basically impossible,” explains Ruben Perez, director of operations. “But without a solid resolution as to how rent is going to get handled for businesses like ours…It’s the biggest storm cloud that looms over us constantly.”

These are concerns venues throughout the country share, resulting in the formation of the National Independent Venue Association, a coalition of nearly 2,000 members in the U.S. Tabisel is actively involved with the group, which is behind the Save Our Stages campaign, calling on Congress for federal assistance in the form of modified small-business loans, mortgage and rent forbearance, and more. A survey of NIVA members indicates that 90% of those venues expect to close their doors permanently without government intervention.

“What a lot of property owners are dealing with is…mortgage payments that they have to make. The problem in this scenario is that it trickles down from the top. If the bank or lender slits the throat of the property owner, they do the same to the tenant, and then everybody’s dead,” says LPR cofounder David Handler.

That’s something Charley Ryan, cofounder of Brooklyn Bowl—with locations in Brooklyn, Las Vegas, and Nashville—agrees with. He’s involved in a New York–based group that is having ongoing discussions with bankers, landlords, and elected officials about such issues.

“Everybody understands. The landlords understand. That this is of such a magnitude that even if they were hard-hearted and cruel, it wouldn’t be good business for them to take the attitude that ‘if you just can’t pay, we’ll just kick you out,’” he says. “I’m not saying that won’t happen. That will happen in some cases. But everybody also knows that, well, who’s going to be taking that space? Who’s coming up with the business plan and the funding to take over a place if you kick somebody out of it?”

Brooklyn Bowl 2019
Members of the band Red Baraat perform in the middle of the crowd on Jan. 4, 2019 at Brooklyn Bowl’s New York location. The venue often hosts high-energy performances, and going back to 100% capacity someday is best for the business, cofounder Charley Ryan says.
Radhika Marya—Fortune

Ryan did not disclose specifics of Brooklyn Bowl’s finances. He ultimately believes the multilocation business, with its restaurant and bowling components—which can resume operating to some degree when it’s safe—has the resources to weather the storm. (The Nashville venue, which was originally supposed to open in March, opened briefly in June with some open-air dining, spaced-out indoor dining, and bowling, though it closed as coronavirus cases spiked in the area, he says.)

But Ryan wants to see Brooklyn Bowl back to full capacity once authorities determine it’s safe. While there is a willingness to host other types of events (including spaced-out movie screenings) if needed, the venues usually host high-energy performances, which involve a larger number of workers.

“It’s more people—they’re going to be paid. If you’re working your butt off, and you have 200, 250 people in the room, can you pay for it?” he says. Brooklyn Bowl’s original location in New York has the capacity for about 1,000 people.

That said, Brooklyn Bowl’s operators have talked about organizing some seated shows in the interim, to allow for some element of social distancing. And Le Poisson Rouge isn’t opposed to doing limited capacity shows either if it’s required in the early reopening stages “to get the engine back running,” says Handler. Hand sanitizer will probably be a “common fixture” inside the venue, and they’re looking into air filtration options as well, Perez says.

But a limited capacity isn’t viable in the long term. And should the majority of smaller independently owned venues close, it could also result in significant cultural loss. Everything from previous history to more experimental performances and inclusive shows could be diminished as a result, Handler and Tabisel say, pointing to neighborhoods and other businesses that often thrive in areas surrounding such spaces.

Le Poisson Rouge, founded in 2008, was once the site of The Village Gate, which hosted the likes of Miles Davis, Patti Smith, The Velvet Underground, Lenny Bruce, and others, in previous decades.

“Widespread closure of smaller, more vulnerable, independent institutions will mean a more homogenous, less interesting place to come back to, culturally, lifestyle-wise,” Handler says.

Ultimately, LPR’s operators believe people will want to gather together for concerts again someday.

“I don’t think a sold-out metal show is going to be erased from human culture. The dance party with people bumping and grinding,” says Losow. “It’s the road to get back to that I think is the big unknown.”