With a click of Gavin Newsom’s Gucci loafers, Californians reemerged from their quarantine stupor in search of a new normal.
L.A. drivers began restoring the skyline’s smoggy pallor; chalkboard sidewalk signs beckoned brunchgoers; influencers reclaimed their rightful perch atop Runyon Canyon. Maybe you even found yourself stuck in traffic.
Then everything abruptly stopped once again.
Over the last four months, there has been constant silence in one quarter: music venues remain shuttered, and so will most of the live music industry until the advent of a vaccine. Even in the best of pre-pandemic times, smaller and independent venues operated on razor-thin profit margins, as entertainment conglomerates like Live Nation and AEG Live bought out stages and promoters across the country. Unlike many of L.A.’s commercial industries, independent venues aren’t afforded the luxury of operating at rationed capacity — that is, when the city’s live music industry gets the green light to operate at all. Meanwhile, venue owners and lobbying groups like National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) say current small business relief programs aren’t enough to bridge that extended gap.
That’s not to say their fate is sealed. Newly-formed organizations like NIVA and the Independent Music Professionals United are seeing the music industry band together for the first time in history to drum up financial support and lobby for protections on local and national levels. L.A.’s own diverse swath of independent music operators — from D.I.Y. outposts and niche jazz clubs to nightclubs and venue-studios — highlights a history of adaptability and resilience, as well as a dedication to local music communities that have managed to ward off even the most moneyed Goliaths.
If the challenges they face now are unprecedented, owners and promoters are equally ardent about opportunities for innovation and the importance of a reinvigorated local scene upon their return. Until they do, Los Angeles can never truly be Los Angeles.
David Neupert, Owner, Gold Diggers
In the short term, we’re trying to position the bar into being a livestream production facility. We were already going in that direction before Covid, and now, it’s just an accelerated timeline. For a lot of artists that can’t tour in the foreseeable future, it’s an opportunity to make some income.
We were always a hybrid venue with our recording studios and hotel, so it makes sense to include this, but livestreaming will never replace the live experience. When we do reopen, I think we’ll see it be very age-centric; the protests have shown that well. That’s more of our target audience: 25-to-35-year-old folks who don’t have the concerns of somebody in a more vulnerable age group.
Until we have a vaccine in place and venues can fully reopen, a lot of independents are at risk of failing. It really depends on how well capitalized they were leading up to the shut down, and how government programs are navigated to provide a bridge until that happens. If this continues for a while, there will have to be some other stimulus or bailout for live entertainment. It’s incredibly sad, because the fabric of the community, the city, and its culture is based upon its independent operators. That’s what makes a city like L.A. dynamic, and that would be tragic to lose.
I assumed we’d open up around August 1st, but now, I don’t know. Whenever we do, it’ll be at a smaller capacity and it remains to be seen how much we’ll be able to generate income-wise — and whether that will be enough for my bartenders, the bands, and everyone else.
But the Renaissance came out of the plague. I think the future is bright, but the short term is pretty grim. We all need to get creative and try to help out local musicians. That’s the most important thing. We were already developing a strong community around the venue, where artists were hanging out and supporting each other; we definitely want to continue to be that. I want to be doing more benefits to support the local music scene. For every industry, but especially music, really uniting right now is how we’ll get through this — whether it’s with organizations like NIVA, or just continuing to provide a space for independent local artists. We’ll always be there for them, and I know coming out of this, that will be more true than ever.
Justin Randi, Owner, The Baked Potato
I took over about 32 years ago. I’ve been through a lot, but this one was a bit much. I was here for the earthquake, the riots, and the 2008 crash. But I’ve never been closed for more than two days. That’s the most we’ve ever been closed in 50 years. Being closed nearly three months is a catastrophe.
Our last night was March 14th, a Saturday night. We were sold out and having the best year we’d ever had. The mayor made it sound like [quarantine] would be a month. I had April completely booked, so I had to cancel shows and refund tickets. Then it was three months, then they didn’t know when anything was gonna open.
In January, I bought all this streaming equipment and installed it during the first months that we were closed. We’ve done streaming shows with nobody in here, and I’ve made the stage larger so that everybody can be six feet apart. Some musicians are apprehensive, but others aren’t. Some wear masks. None of them are going on tour for the rest of the year, and that’s their livelihood. This was going to be a big year for all of the industry.
I know how to open this nightclub with half-capacity. That’s gonna be rough, but we’ll do it and then we’ll add a second show. So the band has an opportunity to make money.
We’re not going to have any people coming from Japan or Europe for a longer time. That’s huge. We’re an international club. People fly in from all over the world to come here.
For a lot of us, the concern is, when does the investment start being, “Uh, this is stupid, we’re just hemorrhaging money?”
Even the Baked Potato is hemorrhaging money. Everyone still has to pay insurance. It does not go away. I survived so many things; I’m gonna survive this somehow. It’s gonna take awhile for all of us to get back to anywhere close to where we were, if we ever do again, but I’m gonna try.
Mitchell Edelson: Owner, Catch One and El Cid
There’s little clarity on how long this will last, and how we’ll be able to reopen. Catch One has a larger room upstairs, and so once we do open up, it won’t be at full capacity. I envision that events that we’d normally have in smaller rooms will be held in the larger room. The venues with larger rooms will be at an advantage in the beginning.
Things will change in a few ways. First, I don’t think you’ll buy a ticket to a show and just show up whenever you want. It’ll probably be like when you go to a restaurant and make a reservation. There will be a staggering of arrival times — in say 15-minute increments — with groups of people arriving at those times getting checked in.
But this could 100 percent be an opportunity for local venues and artists, because the fear of flying and travel restrictions and stuff like that will give more of a focus to local communities.
I think people will be more than happy to be able to see their favorite local DJ in person again.
The biggest challenge is that we just don’t have answers for staff, promoters, bands, or fans. I don’t know any better than anyone else. It seems like right now even the scientists really don’t know. I do think that some venues might never reopen because of the financial hardship that this has caused. Some concert promoters might not come back; we still might see reduced capacities for a long time.
L.A. has always been the most competitive concert and nightlife promotion market in the country. If a lot of these independent venues go away, it makes it even easier for the big corporate promoters to consolidate their power. So that’s gonna be tough. But at the same time, I don’t know how many shows are actually gonna get rescheduled, or what the ticket prices are going to be like. I don’t know if it’s gonna be more accessible or less accessible. I don’t know if people are still gonna want to go to the underground warehouse parties that they have before, especially at first, or if they’ll feel safer at established, licensed businesses.
It’s hard not to get anxiety about the uncertainty of everything—the economic impact, all the people who work for me, all the people who put on the shows, and all the artists and the fans. That weighs on me.
Sean Gaynor: Manager, Promoter and Co-founder, Mixed Feelings
I had a full season of shows that I had to cancel just in one day, which was completely unprecedented. Sold out shows, too. I lost tens of thousands of dollars in a minute. As a small business, it was gutting. I’m fortunate because I am an independent promoter who is not tied to a venue, since my space, the Lyric, doesn’t exist anymore. [The La Brea Ave. venue closed in November 2019 after a permitting dispute.] I don’t have rent or a full staff of employees or a lot of overhead.
But at the same time, we’re not able to operate whatsoever. We can’t do anything. We’d gotten to such a good place for a whole season of sold out shows. I had cash sponsorships for the first time in my career. We had another revenue stream doing marketing for Live Nation and Goldenvoice because we built up like a 25,000-person email list. We had a consistent, steady income, and that all went out the window.
The venues I work with are all already operating on the thinnest of margins. If we can only sell half of the amount of tickets or less than what we were already used to, I don’t see how we’re going to make any money. I know from running the Lyric that you make all your money from the bar. Ticket sales largely go to paying the artists, and anything substantial that the venue makes comes from the bar. So if you have half capacity that means you also have half the bar sales. So it’s just gonna be fucked all around for a long time. I’m hoping for some science miracle where a vaccine and a treatment all just appear magically, and we can go back.
For being the “music capital of the world,” L.A. is already so limited. Especially for venues that tend to book hip-hop, R&B, and artists of color. And with less opportunity, it’s gonna mean less opportunity for them to have places to perform. It’s like, who’s going to step up and book these artists? I always will when I can, but I’m competing with every other Joe Schmo promoter in town to get dates at the same number at a small amount of venues.
Mateo Glassman: Co-owner, ETA
We don’t have a definite time that we’re going to reopen. It’s very difficult to get more than 60 to 80 people in here. With the new regulations that are currently being given by the county, we can’t figure out a way to get more than 15 to 20 people in here. That’s not enough to make any money.
The product that we sell is less about jazz and more about an experience of going to this bar and watching amazing jazz musicians perform. People appreciate being a part of the scene. On a given night, you might be sitting next to the guys from Dawes, watching Jeff Parker play with Dave Harrington. Would it be cool to live stream that? Yes, absolutely. And we want to do that, but it’s not really the product we’re selling. We’re a neighborhood bar that people like to come and watch jazz at. I think that people are eager to be like, ‘Hey, that’s my spot. That’s my bartender. That’s my doorman.’
It’s hopeless and hopeful at the same time. The biggest weeks we’ve ever had were the four weeks before we closed March 15th. We were getting busier in ways that we’ve never seen. We’ve put some sort of imprint on the Northeast L.A. live music and bar scene. We give a lot of touring musicians the chance to sit and noodle and experiment for two hours in front of people and feel energy and see what works and what doesn’t.
Financially, staying afloat is always a concern for any independent venue. But I’m seeing a real looming threat to independent venues. We got the PPP loan. We’re still figuring out how to deploy and use it, but it does give us some runway to screw up a few times, provided we’ll be able to open up sometime in the near-ish future.
It’s cliche, but we really are all in this together. If the venue is not here, if ETA closes, the band doesn’t have a place to play and the customers don’t have a place to see jazz. So the customers and the bar and the bands all depend on each other. And it does make me feel good, knowing that we’re all on the same team.