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.
Venues across the country also face uncertain futures. 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 dealing with 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. “The answer to that question is that without federal aid, we’re looking at about 90% closures by 2021.”
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 willing to book those unproven artists.
“It’s a risk to put them on stage because you have no idea how many tickets they’re going to sell,” Grobe said. “You’re not doing it for the profit motive. You’re doing it for the betterment of the arts community and because you think the people that go to your venue will enjoy it.”
When venues are shuttered, an entire ecosystem of 5 million skilled workers is harmed as well, Grobe said, citing a statistic from NIVA.
“They are the people that know how to light a stage beyond belief,” Grobe said. “They can produce a show, they can build a stage, they can hang the rigging that’s needed in a safe and effective manner, and all of those people currently have no work to do.”
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. The local blues and country bands that frequent the venue are also struggling to find employment.
“It’s everything from the musicians, the sound guys, servers, cooks. It all flows downhill,” Fontana said. “Every supplier in our industry is in the same boat.”
The economic impact of venue closures can disrupt an entire neighborhood, Grobe added. When people attend concerts, they also contribute to the local economy; if the concerts stop, then a large proportion of economic activity stops with it, Grobe said. According to NIVA, for every $1 spent on tickets at a venue, $12 of local economic activity is generated.
“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.
Some advocacy groups say 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. “We get involved in a broad array of issues, like copyright infringement, healthcare, Internet policy, net neutrality, telecom policy, broadcasting.”
The Save Our Stages Act is one of the leading solutions to venues’ and musicians’ struggles during the coronavirus. The NIVA-sponsored bill would provide $10 billion of federal grant money to independent venues, which would be allocated through the Small Business Administration. The bill was introduced in the Senate, but has not yet been passed.
The SOS Act is the best means of protecting musicians, according to Erickson.
“One thing that is clear is that if we don’t demand it, it’s not going to happen,” Erickson said.
The bill will not pass without public awareness and support, Erickson said. NIVA promotes the SOS act on their website and social media. Numerous music venues, including Pearl Street Warehouse, also use their online presences to raise awareness for the bill.
Grobe also voiced his support for the SOS Act. Congress has shown encouraging levels of support for the bill, with 48 cosponsors from both major parties, including Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Cory Booker, and Republican Sens. Roy Blunt and Lindsey Graham.
“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 called for in the act 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 could be inadequate. Federal aid would 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, any type of grant, or some kind of support like that,” Fontana said.
The best option for Pearl Street Warehouse would be simply to reopen, Fontana said.
“Even if we were able to have a party or 150 people come to a show,” Fontana said, “then that makes a big difference.”
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 is potentially dangerous, but Pearl Street Warehouse will need to risk the spread of COVID-19 among concertgoers in order to stay in business, he said.
“Yeah, they have some cases of people from bars,” Fontana said. “But 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.”
Pearl Street Warehouse resumed its live concerts in early October as part of D.C.’s ReOpen Phase Two Live Entertainment Pilot program, which will run until October 30. Only 50 people are allowed in the venue, and social distancing measures remain in place.