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6 Venue Workers Explain Why Coronavirus Is a Catastrophic Blow to Live Music

"The whole ecosystem has been disrupted in a seismic way so it just ripples out."

by Josh Terry
Mar 26 2020, 11:00am

Photo courtesy of Sleeping Village

In the wake of COVID-19, the once-vibrant live music ecosystem has come to a screeching halt. The virus has upended every aspect of the industry, from touring artists to touring crew, but it's also hitting music venues in a particularly devastating way. With state-ordered social distancing and shelter-in-place orders closing all restaurants and bars and places where people gather, the spots that host shows are scrambling to rebook postponed shows and their many staffers are out of work for at least several weeks. .

With no clear timeline for a return to normalcy and no updates on when it will be safe again for people to congregate in groups to watch a concert, venues are currently in limbo. To get a sense of how people who work for, own, and run these venues are feeling about the future, VICE talked to six staffers from across the country about how how the effects of coronavirus will continue to be deeply felt for a long time.

David Castillo (Co-owner at Saint Vitus in New York City)

I would fucking give anything to be open if it were cool because we're all out of the job right now. Everybody. I'm a part-owner, but I'm the head talent buyer there too. We were able to pay people pretty much through about this week. That was kind of like what we had. One thing with the live music business has been the cash flow aspect. It might look like you have a lot of money, but then if everybody is wanting to come back for a refund at the same time, it's bad. You're floating on things that are going to happen in live music. These things are all really tricky and there's still like, the fallout of this is still being mitigated, I'm trying to rebook all these shows that we've had to postpone for the back half of the year. I'm looking at July through the end of the year but nobody really fucking knows honestly. The whole ecosystem's been disrupted in a seismic way, so it just ripples out.

I'm worried about however long this situation actually is, how many independent venues are going to weather the storm? Companies like AEG and Livenaton have lost so much money. I think Livenation was at $8.3 billion and that's fucking insane. A lot of people got laid off and they're huge. For all of the workers and those people, I feel bad and it's terrible. But those bigger companies will survive this. Whereas like me and these three or four dudes from Brooklyn who opened up this place, it's a completely different thing. You're really voting with your dollars when this thing is over when you begin to use it again in the music space. Just put that in your mind. If you do have a ticket for a show that gets postponed, just hold off on taking that money out to help with venues' cash flow and help them weather this storm too. Big runs on refunds can be devastating. Besides that, I'm, I'm focused on surviving this thing, man. We've been doing this Instagram Live thing where we interview musicians and try to keep our community alive. We're looking for interesting avenues to get through this.

Kyle Lavalley (Talent Buyer at Sleeping Village in Chicago)

It was pretty much business as usual until the last two weeks when everything just went up in flames. As a smaller club, we knew there would be cancellations and postponements, but it took a while for us to get notified as the larger festivals and tours all had to come down first. I don’t think anyone saw how huge the impact would be right out the gate. Most peers I spoke to thought it would be a few weeks of rescheduling but in the course of the first week, it became evident that this was going to be a major blow industry-wide for several months. People started losing their jobs almost immediately, tours just went away, and everyone was panicking. While it continues to be scary as of this week there’s at least a bit more clarity to the overall situation and some hope that with proper stay at home precautions taken by the public we’ll be able to get back online by Fall. We have to hold onto that hope. As a new venue just over 2 years old, I felt we’d just started to hit our stride in terms of programming and had so much on the horizon dismantling these shows, and thinking about all the work that’s gone into them is heartbreaking. You think about the bands, labels, agents and it’s affecting everyone on a very deep creative and financial level. Shows continue to shift around and the process remains difficult, but I’ve tried to keep my head up. Our most immediate concern, of course, is our staff who are without work due to the closure.

As a business, we’re doing everything we can to survive this. Fundraising to keep our staff afloat went into effect immediately. There will be more tiers of fundraising to come to ensure we can get by over time. We are very involved with CIVL’s efforts to organize relief; working with local, state, and federal leaders to pass legislation to help our businesses survive. We pivoted as soon as we were able to do curbside pickup of growlers and cans so we could keep our extensive bar program alive, but not having a tangible replacement for the shows is really difficult. I speak for most people I know in the business when I say I’m certainly not in this for the money— I work in live music because it’s a driving force in my life.

Taylor Cole (Talent Buyer at The East Room, The High Watt, and Mercy Lounge in Nashville)

We realized kind of all at once that this was going to affect our country and our business pretty seriously. I don't really know that there was a ton of planning for the worst except for bracing myself to be able to reschedule as many shows as possible. It's just been a domino effect and here we are now, closed indefinitely. This has really affected Nashville in a big way. With the tornado too that happened earlier in the month, it's been one thing after another. Bam, bam, bam. That was also something that nobody had time to plan for. We were hit with a tornado and a virus. Everything in entertainment feels at a standstill. You can plan things months in advance but when you have no idea when you're allowed to even have a show, all you can do is cross your fingers and hope for the best.

It just depends on how the virus goes along in the next month or two. Either something's going to happen where we're to be able to open up and we shouldn't be open but we're going to do it because we have to survive. That would be awful because people would be scared to go out still. Or, we'll see huge, drastic change in the numbers of cases and by June or July we're seeing not many cases and people are comfortable going out, it could be a lot of fun. I'm looking forward to the possibility of the celebration of life and music once this is over. In Nashville at least, I feel closer than ever to this music community. I can't wait to go see my friends play again and hear their music. Maybe you took it for granted before but maybe now you realize how much you miss it. In order for that to happen, everyone needs to stay inside.

Dion Fischer (Co-owner UFO Factory in Detroit)

We're completely closed, so the next couple of months are just rescheduling and trying to figure out what's next. We've got more than two months of shows of the ricochet effect of this whole thing. We've rescheduled a couple of gigs for August and September. It's a small venue and we really get people in for the bigger events. The venue might just end up being my personal art space for the time being. Most of our staff have been bartenders and cooks for their whole young careers. We started a Venmo thing for them.

UFO Factory has weathered worse. In 2017, our building was destroyed by neighboring construction and it took us 15 months to reopen. At that time, our staff could go work at other bars but they can't now. They don't know what they're going to do and neither do we. The margins on small businesses like this are very tight. There's going to be some lending that needs to happen for us to get back on our feet. Once it's safe, somebody has to make the masses feel like it's going to be safe again and then there will probably be a live music boom. On some level I think it will return to normal, but I think people in general will be more cautious and understanding of this reality of pandemics.

Zack Weil (Door at Empty Bottle, frontman Oozing Wound)

We started talking about the potential spread of the virus as a venue really early on about what we would want to do. Everyone wanted to stay open for as long as possible, but when news started to come out about how bad it was, none of us did. It lasted only a couple of days. It was odd because just from talking to people that work in restaurants, it seemed like attendance was going up for the places that had food. At our restaurant, we saw ours diminish immediately. You can either take that as people in the scene being slightly more intelligent about what is happening and not wanting to put themselves into unnecessary risks as opposed to the St. Patrick's Day revelers in Lincoln Park or Wrigleyville or whatever doing whatever the fuck they want. At the venue, the last three nights that we had all the bands canceled and 10 people showed up and it wasn't feasible to even be open.

The government's got to get their shit together and do something. I've been very pleased with Gov. Pritzker but terrified that Trump is trying to undo the social distancing shit. I had kind of mentally prepared myself for being bored for three months, and now the thought of being put into this situation is terrifying. A lot of people are going to die and people our age are going to die because there's not going to be enough space in the hospitals. Everything needs to shut down for a while. Even if the Bottle opens in two weeks, there are no tours.

I'm personally prepared to weather it out. I'm not in dire financial straits, and, out of amazing luck and really just laziness, Oozing Wound doesn't really have anything planned right now except for some festival dates this summer, which might get postponed. At this point I'd be so shocked if it still went on. It's kinda scary to think about it because the DIY culture that we all know has been growing since the 80s, unabated. When you put a giant stoppage on it, how does it restart? When I go back to work, I have to think about keeping people safe and just like all that stuff. I'm trained to identify drunk people really quickly. How do you identify someone who's asymptomatic and sick?

Alicia Chapatwala (Door at Mercury Lounge, Bowery Ballroom, and Warsaw in New York City)

I have a day job down where I live in central Jersey, so technically I'm not unemployed. I'm still getting a little bit of a paycheck, but I'm probably missing about half of my income because of the venues being closed. It's definitely hitting hard in more ways than financial. I miss live music and I miss supporting artists. I know some of my colleagues solely rely on these venue gigs for income too. The spirit of live music just came to a screeching halt.

My venues told us that they started a GoFundMe for their staff who aren't getting any work right now but I'm not sure when they'll start giving out the money they raised so far. But more than that, there should be some sort of financial compensation from the government for closing down all the venues. The live music industry is completely done for an indefinite amount of time. It shouldn't be just a one-time check. There should be more for this and there should be some accountability. It's disheartening to see people not take this shutdown seriously. You shouldn't just be sad you can't go to a restaurant or a show. Stay home!

Tagged:
touring
Mercury Lounge
Saint Vitus Bar
The Empty Bottle
music venues
independent music
Coronavirus