How the Coronavirus Could End Live Music in Washington, D.C.

By Niccolo Bechtler

Live music in Washington, D.C. has all but disappeared since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. Now, after more than six months without regular income, the local music venues themselves could be next in line to vanish.

For Nick Fontana, owner of Pearl Street Warehouse, an American roots music stage in D.C.’s southwestern Wharf neighborhood, the pandemic has claimed his venue’s lifeblood. The last concert at Pearl Street was on March 16, Fontana said in a phone interview. Since then, he has been left trying to fill in his venue’s missing income with take-out revenue from its small kitchen.

“We weren’t built to be a restaurant, so it’s pretty devastating,” Fontana said.

Pearl Street Warehouse qualified for a loan from the federal Paycheck Protection Program, but it only covered six weeks of payroll, Fontana explained. Since that loan in March, Fontana has been trying to keep his business afloat with only a quarter of its pre-pandemic income.

“There’s no way to get close to breaking even,” Fontana said.

Without adequate income or government aid, Fontana has been forced to consider closing for the winter with hopes of reopening in the spring, he said.

Fontana is not alone in his uncertainty about how to stay in business. According to Jordan Grobe, communications coordinator for the National Independent Venue Association, a group that advocates for independent live music venues, countless other small stages nationwide are facing the same struggles as Pearl Street Warehouse. 

“It’s a matter of how long venues can last burning their coffers,” Grobe said in a phone interview.

Ninety percent of independent venues will be forced to close by 2021 without federal aid, according to NIVA’s latest fact sheet.

The consequences of losing these venues would be grave for the culture of their surrounding communities, such as Washington, D.C., Grobe said. Up-and-coming artists need small stages to hone their craft, and independent venues are the only spaces that can provide those stages, he explained.

“They’re not doing it for the profit motive. They’re doing it for the betterment of the arts community,” Grobe said.

When venues are shuttered, an entire ecosystem of 5 million skilled workers is harmed as well, according to Grobe. The pandemic has left talented stage managers, lighting designers, sound engineers, and other venue staff unemployed, he said.

“We need to take care of them so when we do see through the end of this pandemic, they’re also there for us,” Grobe said.

Fontana needed to lay off more than twenty employees in order to stay afloat through March, he said. Since then, he has been able to hire back some restaurant staff, but the many skilled workers who manage Pearl Street Warehouse’s stage are still out of work, in addition to the venue’s regular acts.

“It’s everything from the musicians, the sound guys, servers, cooks; it all flows downhill,” Fontana said.

The economic impact of venue closures can disrupt an entire neighborhood, Grobe added. When people see concerts, they also contribute to the local economy; if the concerts stop, then a large proportion of economic activity stops with it, Grobe said.

“They’re going to get pizza beforehand, they’re going to take a cab there, and all of those things will just suddenly stop,” Grobe said.

For every $1 spent on tickets at a venue, $12 of local economic activity is generated, according to NIVA.

Some advocacy groups indicate that the only way to avoid mass venue closures could be through federal aid. 

For Kevin Erickson, director of the Future of Music Coalition, a group that advocates for working musicians’ rights, fighting for government aid means making musicians’ voices heard. Musicians rely on venues for their income, so legislation that supports performers supports venues as well, Erickson said in a phone interview.

“Musicians themselves often don’t have a seat at the table in the most important policy conversations that affect their lives,” Erickson said.

Erickson cited the Save Our Stages Act, a NIVA-sponsored bill that would provide $10 billion of federal grant money to independent venues, as a key piece of legislation in the movement for musicians’ rights. The SOS Act is the best means of protecting musicians, but will not pass without public awareness and support, according to Erickson.

“One thing that is clear is that if we don’t demand it, it’s not going to happen,” Erickson said.

Although NIVA advocates for venues rather than musicians, Grobe echoed Erickson’s sentiment regarding the SOS Act. Congress has shown encouraging levels of support for the bill, which is cause for hope, according to Grobe.

“This is a bipartisan act, which, in today’s climate, seems impossible,” Grobe said.

The SOS Act, however, is only the first step toward protecting venues, according to Grobe. The $10 billion only covers lost ticket revenue, not accounting for sales of food and merchandise, such as T-shirts, he said. 

“But it’s a start, and it’s enough to get us through to the end of this pandemic,” Grobe said.

For Pearl Street Warehouse, however, a grant from the SOS Act may be inadequate, Fontana said. Federal aid will merely keep the venue treading water, and additional loans are not financially viable, according to Fontana.

“They can give loans or whatever, but we’re not in a position to take on any more debt,” Fontana said.

The best option for Pearl Street Warehouse would be simply to reopen, Fontana said. Music venues do little business in the winter season, so Pearl Street would need to host concerts by late October in order to get adequate revenue to survive until the spring. 

“There’s plenty of small concerts we can do if the city just opens it up,” Fontana said.

Fontana acknowledged that reopening poses health risks, but spreading COVID-19 among concertgoers is less damaging in the long run than having to close Pearl Street Warehouse, he said.

“Now that bars are opening, schools are opening, and things aren’t going crazy, it’s just time to move on and see what happens,” Fontana said.

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