As Music Venues Shutter, Former Owners Describe Devastating Toll
The list of permanently closed indie clubs nationwide has only grown during the pandemic, as bank accounts hit zero and loans dry up. The worst may be yet to come
In 1969, Jeff Wolfram was carried into the Red Chimney — a Los Angeles restaurant his father had bought two years earlier — and placed on the bar. He was two days old.
His father Horst had arrived in America from Germany in the 1960s. Horst wasn’t planning on staying in California; he was just making a quick trip en route to South America before heading home. But the then-sizable German population in Los Angeles’ Silver Lake neighborhood was alluring, and he ended up holding numerous jobs before purchasing the restaurant. The Red Chimney would later morph into the disco Dreams of L.A. and La Chic in the Seventies, a Top 40 club in the Eighties, the popular and revered rock spot Spaceland in the Nineties and 2000s that hosted Foo Fighters, White Stripes, Beck and Lady Gaga, among many others, and, since 2011, indie-rock mainstay the Satellite.
The younger Wolfram was there for all of it. By age seven, he was counting quarters for the video games. By 12, he was cleaning mirrors. As a teen, he hand-built stages with his dad (“It was just plywood and some two-by-fours,” he says, laughing) and bartended there in his twenties before taking over as owner around 1997.
In July, faced with a myriad of pandemic-related problems and few solutions after temporarily closing the Satellite’s doors on March 12th, Wolfram permanently shuttered the institution. “It has really hit us hard. We can no longer afford to wait for the day we will be allowed to have shows again,” he wrote on Instagram. “It, personally, has been an amazing 25 years of live music and dance parties. I will miss those days, but it is time for us to move on.”
As Congress weighs multiple bills that could save or alleviate the suffering of tens of thousands of imperiled venue employees nationwide — most notably the Save Our Stages Act — this fall and winter could see a devastating new phase for independent venues as crucial cash reserves begin to dry up and patience for help runs out. The damage for others like Wolfram has already been irreversible, with hundreds of places shutting their doors for good as owners assess their losses and plot their next moves. For many, PPP loans have run out. Employees — both furloughed and laid off — get increasingly despairing each week. Fledgling bands are losing small venues to hone their craft. And it only seems to be getting worse.
“Things Came to a Screeching Halt Almost Overnight”
Amanda and Jon Hency opened up the 300-person Asheville, North Carolina club The Mothlight in 2013 and quickly turned the venue into a staple of the city’s vibrant and diverse arts scene. It was a place where fans of free jazz, indie rock, metal, experimental music, and more all found a home alongside game nights, movie trivia events, the Carolina Anarchist Bookfair, and an event called “Urban Combat Wrestling.” Jon, a veteran of Chicago venue the Empty Bottle whose label Bathetic Records released Angel Olsen’s debut album, booked all the shows, while Amanda handled the barkeeping and various other tasks.
South by Southwest’s cancellation in early March deprived the Hencys of a vital pipeline of bands that pass through Asheville en route to Austin. The next week, as Jon explains, “I went to bed [on March 13th] and woke up in the morning and it was like a 180. It was a complete shitshow.
“A lot of agents pushed their touring dates to the summer and fall and then that quickly became, ‘Let’s just keep the same date we have in April, May, and June but let’s do it in 2021,’” Jon adds. “It quickly became a year of just [nothing.] … That goes back to what we call ‘zero in our bank account’ because we had so much money already invested in advertising and promotion for those shows that got canceled out. We would never see that money back.” The club permanently closed this summer.
In March, while the Hencys were awakening to their uncertain reality in Asheville, Sam Sundos, the 37-year-old general manager of Brooklyn café and dance club Kinfolk, thought, “This is going to suck for a couple of weeks.” The 250-capacity Williamsburg spot began as a design studio in 2008 before hosting genre-hopping parties and, at one point, the Michelin-starred restaurant Aska. “It was at the height, I think, of creative Williamsburg — before all the hotels opened up,” says Sundos, who worked there for seven years. “And so there’s still artists living in the neighborhood where it became a ‘local’ for a lot of people.”
As the weeks went on and monthly fixed costs in the tens of thousands of dollars remained, Sundos became more pragmatic. He conferred with the club’s other partners to find a way to survive through the pandemic and surmised that the best-case scenario would be to reopen in March 2021 under “crazy amounts of debt.”
“It would’ve been a year of just costs with no revenue,” Sundos says. “I told everyone, ‘If you’re keeping this open for us, I appreciate it. But maybe it’s just time to look at what the realistic ideas of closing this place down are.’ You’re keeping it open for what? Within two weeks [of the first lockdown order], we saw restaurants that we like — that are popular and were loved by the community — go out of business.”
The club closed this summer with a heartfelt note that’s emblematic of those posted and shared by an increasing amount of now-shuttered venues. “Unfortunately, the reality of the extended shutdown and piling up of operational costs has essentially forced the decision to be made for us,” Kinfolk owners wrote on Instagram. “We are heartbroken and did not want this to be the way we said goodbye.”
For Allen Sanford, the co-founder of the 300-capacity Hermosa Beach, California, venue Saint Rocke that shut down in July, “things came to a screeching halt almost overnight.” “We own restaurants as well,” he says. “So what took me 20 years to build got decimated in 20 days.
“Is it worth it to take away from our families right now and put it back into a business that has zero percent probability for success in the next 12 months?” Sanford asks. “It’s not, ‘Are we done?’ It’s, ‘Do we want to keep throwing bad money after this and taking money out of our pockets when we have no chance of recuperation?’”
“There Was Zero-Way for Us to Make One Dollar”
As both the pandemic and its consequent lockdown restrictions grew more severe, owners like Wolfram tried to navigate unprecedented challenges. Wait staff were furloughed and later let go. Paperwork for loan and PPP applications took up the time previously reserved for booking bands. Bills and worries mounted as owners tried to placate, negotiate, and satiate landlords and vendors.
“We were just screwed,” Wolfram says. “People were telling us we weren’t going to be able to open until January. We just couldn’t wait that long. It was just constant money out the door.” Wolfram said he was able to change his insurance policy to a significantly lower monthly cost, but the “huge deposits” needed to keep the policy were untenable.
“We started trying to see what we could figure out, like, ‘OK, how can we do this?’” he says. “Can we deliver alcohol? We don’t have a kitchen, so we couldn’t do anything that they’re allowing restaurants or bars with kitchens to do. There was zero-way for us to make one dollar.”
The White Stripes at Spaceland
He received a $10,000 government grant to help pay for rent but it was like a Band-Aid on a bullet wound. “I heard about other places that got $90,000 but that’s literally only two-and-a-half months [for some venues],” he says. “We looked to reach out to friends trying to get money, and it was like, ‘What are you going to do with it? It’s going to be something that you’re gonna make money back, right?’ I couldn’t answer that question. This was ‘trying to survive’ money.”
When asked what his breaking point was that made him realize he would have to close for good, Wolfram’s answer is swift. “I think the [breaking] point was in June when our bank account hit zero,” he says. “We had maybe $500. We couldn’t even pay for the dumpster to be dumped.”
“Human Beings Without Music and Art and Creativity Are Empty”
More than $500 billion has been given out in PPP loans to small businesses, and while it may seem like a crucial lifeline, the unique business structure of venues made it less than ideal. A key tenet of those PPP loans was forgiveness if businesses spent 75 percent on payroll, but for now-closed venues, there were few to no employees, and thus no payroll to cover. Yet venues, even when closed, remain stuck with an array of huge costs, including mortgage payments, utilities, and insurance.
“While the PPP grants were welcome, those venues are in a unique situation where that wasn’t as much help as it was for other businesses,” Minnesota Senator and Save Our Stages co-sponsor Amy Klobuchar wrote in an op-ed for Rolling Stone. “They’ve always operated on a thin margin.”
Sundos says Kinfolk received PPP assistance, but “it wasn’t as helpful as you would think” given the venue’s operational costs. “If anything, they’re forcing small business owners to function and operate under these strenuous circumstances and knowing that they can’t make that money. Knowing that selling to-go drinks isn’t going to pay the rent; all it does is make their numbers look good so unemployment doesn’t look that bad.”
A Tour of Kinfolk
“All you’re doing is paying some of your employees to live; you’re paying money to a landlord for a vacant building,” Sanford says. “Until you can get back to business, it doesn’t matter how much [you receive]. The aid that the country has seen is really what the country prioritizes as important and I haven’t seen any arts and music prioritization at all. … Human beings without music and art and creativity are empty. But I don’t think that the government or our culture is really pushing for that.”
Relief is starkly different depending on which country you live in, with some countries like Denmark and the Netherlands covering 90 percent of salaries if businesses don’t lay off employees. While the U.S. issued a one-time $1,200 direct payment to Americans earning up to $75,000 earlier this year — a new round of financial relief remains in Congressional gridlock — venue owners like the Hencys say a more sustained effort to aid workers would have a greater long-term economic benefit.
“Putting the incentive on the employer to hire back the employees was the mistake of PPP,” Amanda Hency says. “It was a mistake on the federal government to not just give everyone bigger stimulus checks for a continued number of weeks, so that it wasn’t up to the employer to keep people able to pay their bills and feed themselves.”
Deerhunter at The Mothlight
“The Big Boxes Will Win in Arts and Entertainment”
As independent venues shut down, many owners of smaller locations fear both an increased consolidation of power in the hands of behemoths like Live Nation and lack of the traditional feeder system that nurtures fledgling bands to rise up the ranks.
“Most big artists start somewhere,” Amanda Hency says. “There’s going to be so many musicians that don’t have the opportunity to stay in the business and a lot of people that give up on their dream because they’ll be so many fewer options. … It just sucks for anyone who’s interested in DIY development of artists.”
“At some point, it’s not going to be worth it for all these small businesses to continue,” says Sanford. “The worst thing may happen: the big boxes win. Just like in retail with the Targets and Walmarts winning, the big boxes will win in arts and entertainment and that’s a scary thought for a guy that loves music and art.
“If people care about small businesses, then instead of going to shop at Target or that massive chain restaurant, they go support the small guy,” he adds. “A return to local would just be the coolest and greatest thing to come out of this.”
Fishbone at Saint Rocke
But it wasn’t just the temporary closures in March that scared owners, as concerns about what live music would look like after the pandemic nearly rivaled fears of closing. While live music is gradually returning — albeit in mutated drips and drabs in the form of livestreams, drive-in shows, and venues with socially distanced pods — many cities included concerts in the final phase of their reopening plans. Many live music experts say tours won’t begin to come back until next fall at the earliest — a prediction admittedly based more on hope than science — and when they do, it will most likely be at a reduced capacity.
The ripple effect could be both enormous and devastating. Even if certain cities and regions are deemed safe, touring routes demand the entire country is back to normal for all parties to feel secure in sending their acts on a cross-country tour. “Each major market supports countless secondary markets due to proximity,” the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) said in a fact-sheet. “If tours can’t route to primary markets due to Covid-19 hotspots, both primary, secondary, and tertiary cities will be impacted.”
“These bigger bands are not going to tour, so you’re gonna have all these bands locally and there’s only so many that draw,” says Wolfram. “Had we all stuck around, we would all be fighting over this exact thing. There’s all these big players like [AEG-owned] Goldenvoice and Live Nation and then you got these little independent venues. Gee, who’s gonna get ‘em?” (Earlier this month, Live Nation and AEG were among the high-powered companies and organizations to start #SaveLiveEventsNow, an initiative they say is aimed at helping live industry workers.)
As Congress continues to debate aid packages, organizations like NIVA are vehemently fighting for financial relief. The Save Our Stages Act guarantees $10 billion in grants for venue operators and promoters, who would receive the lesser of 45 percent of their 2019 gross revenue or $12 million. Over 600 artists — including Dave Grohl, Billie Eilish, Robert Plant, and Lady Gaga — have signed a letter to Congress supporting the bill, which was later folded into the HEROES Act. Other bills, including the RESTART Act — which would finance six months’ worth of fixed costs — are also being considered.
“Hundreds of venues have gone under so far,” Audrey Fix Schaefer, a representative for NIVA, told Rolling Stone last month. “I think there are a lot of others that have been just holding on, totally white knuckle, in hopes of this funding to come through. And they keep waiting and waiting, but there comes a time when that wait is going to stop.”
“Ripping That Stage Out Was More Than Just Ripping Out a Stage”
The emotional toll of closing is less tangible than the financial one, though no less impactful and resonant. For many owners, a music venue is hardly something you get into as a passive investment; it’s a physical totem of countless hours, sacrifice and toil that, once closed, is mourned as much as destroyed. Wolfram notes that his father died three years ago and some of his fondest memories were building the venue’s myriad stages with him over the years. “Ripping that stage out was more than just ripping out a stage,” he says.
Sundos speaks wistfully and with pride when recalling his stint at Kinfolk — “I served the first drink there as a bartender and I was one of the last out the last night” — and notes the influence the location had on the lives of its staff. “I got married there. [My wife and I] had our baby shower in there,” he says. “We’ve all had big life events there. With the staff, it was like a family as much as it was work.
“Emotionally, I think it hit hard once I wrote the post [announcing the club’s closure],” he adds. “And once I was in the space of selling off the furniture and the DJ equipment and seeing slowly our spaces get eaten away … It helped build an entire community where we all relied on each other. What’s really happening which is kind of gross is you’re going to just get a bunch of the same things in one neighborhood. All the love is gone. It’s just going to be a bunch of hotels yelling at each other.”
As venue owners nationwide try to find creative ways to save their businesses, the ones that have already closed are looking into alternative revenue sources to make ends meet. Wolfram opened up some food trucks in the old Satellite parking lot while he plots how and when to open a future gastropub once the pandemic wanes.
The Hencys, who were already planning on pursuing other careers before the pandemic, have decided to keep the Mothlight space and have rented it to Different Wrld, a “black-led, queer, and femme-owned production collective” that will soon open a community hub and artist studio space. “We all kind of feel like it’s not really time to mourn yet because we still have this community gathering space,” the Hencys say. “We’re thrilled to see the Mothlight space live on as an inclusive gathering place for the community we hold so dear. Passing the torch to passionate and supportive people is all that we could have ever hoped for.”
Back in California, Saint Rocke’s Sanford is already looking into a new music venue in Venice with his business partner, whenever that may be. “We’re hellbent on bringing music back to Venice and think it’s important to the community and we literally have a venue that’s built and completely done,” he says. “Now we’re just waiting for the day that we can bring music into there.”
Additional reporting by Claire Shaffer
From Rolling Stone US.