It has been just 235 days since a 17-year-old concert promoter spent a few hundred bucks to rent a California Denny’s, staged a concert for a self-described "fast as fuck" punk band, and then talked down the restaurant's manager when she realized what happens when an amped up crowd meets a room filled with low-hanging light fixtures. At the time, the worst thing that could happen to a hyper-local band is having to pay Denny's $1,000 for "heavy damages done to [...] a few chairs and those chandelier hanging light thingies [sic]," according to the post-show GoFundMe. But roughly eight months later, Denny's restaurants in California are currently closed to dine-in customers due to the continued spread of COVID-19, and the vast majority of shows are canceled. But in some parts of the country, hardcore and punk promoters are doing whatever it takes to make shows happen—social distancing recommendations be damned.
On the other side of the country, Suffolk County, New York is reaching the fourth phase of its reopening plan, which allows "low risk indoor and outdoor arts and entertainment" to resume. Social gatherings can now include as many as 50 people, and city officials continue to advocate for both face coverings and social distancing.
One club on Long Island has reportedly started hosting concerts again, including one last weekend that featured five hardcore bands and required everyone to buy a chili cheese dog before they walked in the door. "You telling me people risked their lives to hear and see this," one Twitter user wrote, including a 12-second clip of a young band playing for maybe 15 people. Most, but not all, were wearing masks, two were social distancing through the use of roundhouse kicks, and one person in front of the stage even did a cartwheel.
That concert started a still-ongoing debate on social media about whether or not live music should be a thing right now. The venue itself—which VICE is not identifying—was reported to Governor Andrew Cuomo as a mid-pandemic rule-breaker, and others have actively petitioned for it to be closed permanently. (A lot has also been made of its chili cheese-cover charge, but they were probably sold so the bar could comply with the governor's recent requirement that some kind of food has to accompany every alcohol order.)
"I don't support anyone who wants to have venues shut down. I don't agree with everything every band or promoter does, and when I see something I don't like happening, I don't advocate for the venue who hosts the shows to be punished," New Jersey-slash Philadelphia hardcore legend Joe “Hardcore” McKay told VICE in an email.
"There is a pent-up aggression that is alive and well on Twitter, where there are plenty of topics where people jump on and run wild. I don't see the value in being upset that someone takes risk in a setting like the [venue's] show. Those who played and those who attended made that conscious decision for themselves and are responsible for their own health."
McKay's band, Shattered Realm, played an invite-only show in Pittsburgh in late-June to a crowd that had to be capped at 50 people. "Some folks wore masks, there were precautions taken, but it was for all purposes still a hardcore show in a DIY place," he said. "I do believe we have a social responsibility to take precautions and be safe to eliminate furthering the spread of COVID. That being said, I don't begrudge anyone, especially people who I may never see in real life, to do what they want."
Todd Smith, the founder of Rock Island Management, echoed McKay's concerns when it comes to trying to minimize the risks of even small-venue, limited-capacity shows.
"I contacted the [Suffolk County] Department of Health to find out exactly what precautions we needed to take," he said. "They told me 50 percent capacity, a mask was required for entry, and to try to maintain social distancing and try to make sure everyone wears their mask, [...] but I can't kick anyone out if they choose not to wear their mask."
Smith said that social distancing was a challenge during his first post-reopening concert, so he started asking bands to keep their equipment in front of the stage to put some additional distance between them and the crowds. He has also handed out free masks at the door, and put chairs on the floor at six-foot intervals. ("I thought people would just move them, but they didn't," he added.)
He currently works with nine hard rock, alternative, and punk bands, most of them young and just starting to book their first gigs. He's already put on four shows, and has three more coming up on the calendar—a situation that he has mixed feelings about.
"The truth is that at first, I wasn't entirely comfortable, and if I had a choice I would wait longer [to book concerts] but I can't," he said. "When we were asked to put on a show, I asked the bands how they felt and the response was about 50/50. Most of the people involved in the scene didn't get any stimulus checks or small business loans, and don't even qualify for unemployment. That bar [from last weekend] is $13,000 behind in rent. These people have been sitting at home for five months without any income or support. I'm living off credit cards, but these kids in the bands don't even have that."
Some young bands are taking this opportunity to score sets that they might not have gotten otherwise. Last weekend's "chili dog" concert was the first for Long Island hardcore band Showing Teeth. "It felt good to finally get up onstage for the first time and enjoy the thrill of being a frontman with my friends on the floor and onstage," singer Ismail Burdur said. "Everyone who was there had a great time, and it was nice to help out [the club] with any effort we had, as the booker has done so much for our local hardcore community. Most of these bands you see coming from Long Island wouldn't have a lot of momentum without [the club]."
That club's supporters were quick to push back on social media when others were tagging Gov. Cuomo in its mentions, sharing links to online complaint forms, or strongly suggesting that it should be closed for good.
"They shouldn’t be having a show yet," one Long Island local wrote. "But they are one of the only places on Long Island that let’s you have hardcore shows consistently (knowing that MOSHING happens) and doesn’t care about the antics, and people are so entitled and spoiled they want to talk shit."
But right now, small venues don't need Twitter snitches or strongly worded petitions to shut them down—because there's a good chance it'll happen anyway. In June, the National Independent Venue Association conducted a survey of almost 2,000 music industry professionals, and 90 percent of those bookers, promoters, and venue owners said that they could be forced to close permanently without some kind of sustained government funding. Even well-established venues like New York City's Bowery Ballroom and Mercury Lounge have turned to GoFundMe so they have any chance of surviving. And in Americans for the Arts' most recent "COVID-19’s Impact on The Arts" report, 62 percent of artists and creatives—including musicians—said that they have become "fully unemployed" this year.
"I think it's important to note that the people who are judging us and are calling us out are the people who have steady jobs and incomes, who aren't struggling to put food on the table and gas in the car," Smith said. "If people feel unsafe, I completely understand, just don't come. No one is going to judge them or get on their case for not coming."
On a larger scale, and for an assortment of pandemic-related reasons, Joe Hardcore has made the decision to postpone his long-running This is Hardcore Fest, which had been scheduled for this coming weekend.
"We'd secured a venue setting for outside performance rain or shine, however within two weeks of planning to release information on the venue, Philadelphia's mayor brought the final nail into the coffin, banning large gatherings until February 2021," he said. "It was a bitter pill to swallow, and with some help from friends and partners from Sound Talent Group and Hate5six among others, we will do a broadcast [or] streaming event in mid-September. We probably could have done something small and secretive and I was looking forward to our annual get-together of friends, but there are far too many opposing factors that would eliminate us from doing what we were planning."
For the past several months, we've been playing an ongoing game of "Which is Worse," debating the risks of all kinds of behavior. Is selling chili dogs to a handful of concert-goers better or worse than adding a bowl of $1 'Cuomo chips' to a bar menu to take advantage of a loophole? Are the bands who booked their first shows last weekend better or worse than people who have slightly too many people sitting at their brunch table? Is singing along with your friend's hardcore band better or worse than singing whichever hymns are scattered throughout a church service?
It's all complicated, and there are no good answers. But health experts have agreed on one thing: If you do go out, whether it's to pick up dinner, to race through your weekly supermarket time trial, or to listen to whatever live music is out there right now, wear a mask and keep your distance. Otherwise, it'll be years before we can stand in a tightly packed crowd, watching strangers smash the shit out of a Denny's chandelier.