In the days since the coronavirus brought the live music business to a halt, one thing has become clear: People can’t get by without live music.
How else to explain the explosion of musicians livestreaming from lockdown, singing the quarantine blues, connecting with fans however they can when in-the-flesh interaction has become life-threatening.
The late-night virtual DJ parties and cozy couch performances have been heartening, a way to safely feel human warmth through the screen. But they’re also a reminder of the thrills we’re missing: the magic that happens when music makers and their listeners gather in the same room.
Since COVID-19 shut down America two weeks ago, the rooms have been empty.
The pandemic has hit venues hard, including giant corporations like Live Nation and AEG Worldwide that dominate the concert business. But independent music promoters and venues — World Cafe Live in University City, Johnny Brenda’s in Fishtown, the Locks at Sona in Manayunk, Ardmore Music Hall, and others — face grave challenges.
Clubs are facing weeks if not months of going dark. And even in the best of times, profit margins are slim in those intimate rooms that are the lifeblood of Philly’s local music scene.
“We don’t have their deep pockets,” World Cafe Live’s Hal Real says, comparing indie venues like his to Live Nation and AEG. Clubs typically pretty much break even on tickets sales, then earn their profits at the bar. With no bodies in the building, there’s no money to be made.
When will they be back in business? Nobody knows.
And while venue operators are confident that they can weather the storm for a month or two, they fear that if it goes on much longer some might not survive.
“It’s been stressful,” says Greg Mungan, venue manager at Johnny Brenda’s, the gastropub and 250-capacity venue that sparked Fishtown’s revival in 2006 and is a linchpin of Philly’s thriving music scene.
After a show with R&B singer Sudan Archives on March 13, the club shut its doors. Mungan and talent buyer Barrett Lindgren are still working full time, but more than 30 hourly employees are out of work. A GoFundMe emergency fund has been set up, and the kitchen is open, with pick-up and GrubHub delivery. But Mungan said the take-out business makes up for only about 2% of normal revenue.
Venues like World Cafe Live and Johnny Brenda’s have postponed and rescheduled dozens of shows from March through May, as has the new small-venue player on the scene, City Winery Philadelphia.
The music business hasn’t shut down. Behind the scenes, venues, promoters, and booking agents are busy planning for a future that no one can predict — while doing triage on the wreckage that the coronavirus has wrought in the here and now.
“Right now, I’m doing the work I would normally be doing, for August, September, and into next year, plus we’re trying to reschedule as much of the canceled calendar as we can. It’s kind of a mad dash,” said Lindgren.
“We’re in this incredibly strange time where everybody — booking agencies, rental companies, bands, venues — we’re all bleeding money, but are all extremely busy doing so.”
“I’m busier than ever,” said Jesse Lundy of Point Entertainment, which books mostly acoustic shows in the 110-capacity Locks, whose last show was country songsmith Robbie Fulks on March 8.
Lundy and his Point partner Rich Kardon have their fingers crossed about June 13, when they’ve booked the Avett Brothers at the Mann Center.
But when booking agents ask for dates, Lundy and Kardon are reluctant to nail down anything earlier than July. “There’s just not enough information, it’s changing too quickly to say that July is good,” Lundy said. “It’s a great thought, it’s optimistic. But we don’t know that.”
Party planner and promoter Stacy “Flygirrl” Wilson’s last show was a sold-out event March 12 at the Kimmel Center Innovation Studio with rapper Jeff “Thee Phantom” McNeil. The next day, it became clear that her April events — a National Constitution Center party with DJ Jazzy Jeff, a Philly Loves Prince event at the Fillmore — were not happening.
Chances are dimming for her Roots Picnic after-party on May 30, she says.
World Cafe Live is closed until at least April 30, and likely beyond. “The hope is mid-May,” said Real, founder of the venue, which converted into a nonprofit in February.
Some shows are scrapped entirely, like an April 18 date with Les Filles de Illighadad, from Mali. Most have found new slots, such as Kurt Vile’s two April dates, now set for Sept. 5 and 6.
Half of the WCL’s 24 full-time staffers and all 70 hourly employees have been furloughed. An emergency relief fund has raised over $30,000.
The next date on Johnny Brenda’s calendar is Belarus punk band Molchat Doma on May 14.
“But it’s such a day-to-day thing, we really have no idea,” says Lindgren. “I think we’ll definitely make it through in one form or another. But in the in-between time, it’s definitely tenuous, uncertain, precarious.”
Promoters hope fans will hold onto tickets for postponed shows rather than ask for refunds. As of now, only about 5% of patrons have requested refunds.
Indie venues are the essential base of a successful local music scene, and of the concert business as a whole, where touring bands start off small before moving into bigger rooms and lucrative festival dates.
Johnny Brenda’s, in particular, is a seminal music venue. It’s not an accident that the rise of the Philly rock scene and the national attention for The War On Drugs, Kurt Vile, and Hop Along coincides with its arrival at Girard and Frankford.
“When I was first making music in my house in Fishtown, the dream wasn’t to play in a huge arena,” said Adam Granduciel of Grammy-winning The War On Drugs.
“It was to play Johnny Brenda’s. To play the M-Room,” citing a long-gone Girard Avenue dive. The Drugs played their first-ever show at JB’s, and have returned to the venue repeatedly long after they’ve outgrown the room.
“It’s the place you go to see your friends or celebrate a great rehearsal," Granduciel says. "It’s like so many places that cemented a neighborhood full of people who make art and music.”
During a livestream on Saturday, Adam Weiner of Philly band Low Cut Connie preached on the importance of indie venues.
“I want to support these bars, these little clubs that helped us when we were coming up,” he said, shouting out Ray’s Happy Birthday Bar in South Philly. “These small businesses are at risk. We’re all in this together.”
“These people need help now,” said Greg Seltzer, founder of the nonprofit Philly Music Fest, scheduled for World Cafe Live, MilkBoy Philly, and Johnny Brenda’s in September.
The attorney and music fan has taken action by giving out $250 microgrants to musicians and venue staff in need, distributed from money he’s raised and out of his own pocket. (Applicants can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.) So far 65 grants have gone out. “It seems like this might be the best way to get real cash in the hands of musicians," he said.
Sean Agnew owns indie R5 Productions and books Union Transfer and Boot & Saddle, which he co-owns with AEG Live subsidiary The Bowery Presents. He worries that his clubs, and others, won’t make it if some normalcy is not restored by June.
For venues and promoters who can hold out, it’s going to be a busy fall. Agnew says that at the 1,200-capacity Union Transfer, “it looks like we won’t have one day off from September to December.”