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San Diego’s small venue owners discuss what recovery might look like.
It’s been six weeks since I’ve seen live music. The last show I went to was Fotocrime – a one-man synth-goth band – at Whistle Stop on March 13. Businesses were still open, and there were no stay-at-home orders yet, but predictions of COVID-19’s devastating potential were abundant, so it felt strange, almost taboo, to be in the packed bar. The vibe was a potent mix of YOLO and what am I doing here? In the end, this conflict proved too much for my nerves, and I left after only one song.
I don’t miss going out to restaurants. I don’t necessarily miss going to bars, and I’m fine with staying away from beaches, but I feel spiritually and emotionally lost without live music.
I recently paid for a ticket to watch the Dashboard Confessional livestream, and despite my long and shameless history with the band’s youthful sadness and depths of despair, the thing I felt the most during the set was: This just sucks. This is not a substitution for a live show.
Shannon Joy also remembers the last concert she was at before the stay-at-home orders went into effect. It’s an easy date to remember.
“I went to Las Vegas to see 311 on 3/11,” she said. “I came home on March 12, and then I haven’t left since.”
Joy is a co-owner of Brick By Brick, a 400-capacity venue known for hosting some of the most extreme and aggressive metal shows that come to San Diego. It just seems out of place for a metalhead to dig the laid-back, chill vibes of a band like 311.
“They’re not even a guilty pleasure because I proudly like 311,” she said. “They do a special three-day ‘311 Day’ festival every other year, but I only went for the first night because I felt so uncomfortable being in a group in Vegas with 5,000 people. I was going to have a panic attack, so we packed up and left the next morning because I was just like, ‘I’m not quarantining in Vegas. No freakin’ way.’”
Joy – like most people who own and work in smaller music venues – is a music fan first and foremost, which accounts for her seemingly contradictory taste in bands, and the loss of live music for venue owners is not just a blow to their income, but their sense of identity.
“I grew up at a club,” Joy said. “I was there every night of the week. I’d see whoever. Any band – it didn’t matter. I needed that. And it kills me to know that somebody else who needs isn’t going to have it now.”
Similarly, Matt Koken had to come to terms with the sudden upset to his industry. Koken owns Til-Two Club in City Heights’ Little Saigon district. He acquired Til-Two in 2019 and has been working to rebuild its reputation as a live music and rock ‘n’ roll destination.
“March 14, I believe, was the last Saturday before it was basically a requirement that bars shut down for the public,” Koken said, reminiscing about Til-Two’s last live show before the lockdown. “That was Freedom Hawk with a bunch of other doom and stoner-metal bands. That was a really good turnout. I was pleasantly surprised. Most of the people were not necessarily uneasy or on guard. I mean, obviously people were concerned about it, and everything at that point was kind of not necessarily business as usual.”
Koken will not be able to celebrate his one-year anniversary of owning Til-Two Club – a major bummer for any new business owner.
“We’ll probably celebrate it virtually,” he said.
The lockdown has also stolen Joy’s plans to celebrate an important Brick By Brick milestone: its sixth anniversary on June 6, which corresponds to 666, i.e. the number of the beast and every metalhead’s favorite three digits.
“It was going to be a sick show,’” she said. “A year’s worth of work is basically – it’s just gone.”
On May 1, Gov. Gavin Newsom outlined a four-phase plan to reopen California, which included live concerts in the fourth and final phase. Under the plan, large-scale events like concerts and live sporting events won’t happen until “therapeutics have been developed.” There aren’t specifics about when that will be, but considering that phase three is “months, not weeks, away” it’s hard to imagine that we’ll be able to see a concert in 2020.
San Diego’s small-venue owners, however, are taking everything with a grain of salt.
“I’m optimistic about live music coming back this year in smaller clubs such as Soda and The Casbah. Likely 50-100 max capacity to start,” said Cory Stier, one of the co-owners of San Diego’s Soda Bar.
Some of the business owners I spoke with had an especially negative reaction to Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s mid-April statement that “large gatherings such as concerts and sporting events may not be approved in the city for at least 1 year.”
“What’s the definition of a concert?” Koken said. “I mean, obviously, you have Coachella not happening. I would say most people have a view of concerts being a House of Blues concert or a Live Nation event at an amphitheater where there’s a few thousand people in attendance. That’s, what I think, what most Americans view a concert to be.” (The Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival was postponed but remains tentatively scheduled for October.)
The Til-Two opener isn’t alone. “I just think it’s inappropriate to make a claim like that, because you’re talking about such vastly different things,” Joy said. “We don’t have the same attendance as a Dodgers game. It’s not an all-inclusive thing. It’s not OK to say tiny clubs can’t be open because the football team can’t play. If 200 people are allowed to be in a restaurant, 200 people should be allowed to be in a club.”
There’s no question that after the lockdown, the live-music experience will look vastly different than what we’re used to, at least for some time.
As Stier pointed out, venues will likely cut their capacity by at least half, which would mean that Soda Bar’s normal capacity of 230 would be cut to 115. Stier said his team has also considered separating bartenders from clientele with plexiglass. No one I spoke to suspected they’d raise admission prices.
“For local shows, I don’t anticipate upping the price of admission,” Koken said. “I mean, I pride myself in being very affordable, especially with people being out of work and wanting to go out. I’m not going to raise admission.”
Koken said the most important aspect is creating an environment where people feel safe. “People are still going to be a little wary going out. What are the safety precautions each establishment is doing to make me feel better about being here?” he said.
Both Joy and Koken imagine that masks and gloves will be required for all staff.
“I would assume that all of our employees are going to have to take some sort of sanitary class,” Joy said. “Much like getting a food handler’s license.”
Joy joked that perhaps Brick By Brick has a leg up in keeping the bar sanitary because it’s hosted a number of Insane Clown Posse shows, which usually culminate in the band spraying Faygo soda everywhere.
“Maybe we can incorporate some of the ICP model into our reopening,” she said. “We just cover the whole place with this plastic stuff. [Faygo] just goes freaking everywhere so we have to basically build a shield inside the bar so that nothing can penetrate. Our bartenders wear ponchos for that.”
Just like many other aspects of American society, COVID-19 has exposed the greed and ubiquity of certain corners of the music industry. Joy said that she’s unable to cancel or schedule shows without the go-ahead from major ticket outlets that may not want to renegotiate deals with bands that had to cancel due to the force majeure clause.
“There’s a secondary issue here that a lot of independent venues are kind of almost – not being bullied – but just not able to move forward on stuff because the big guys are making the calls,” Joy said.
Ultimately, Joy hopes that this whole ordeal reminds people the importance of small, independent venues.
“We’re not just like a whatever-business. We bring people to the city. We promote the arts. We’re the taste-makers,” she said. “It’s not just about Brick. Obviously Brick is our club and we love it and we want it to survive and thrive, but it breaks my heart to know that any venues are going to be closing. All of the venues are not going to survive.”
Koken also stressed the importance of the community that people find in the small, live-music setting.
“We just look forward to opening.” Koken said. “Not only to see the regulars and get that tall can of PBR or that specialty cocktail – but I personally look forward to seeing live music again. I want the people who love Til-Two back in the bar and enjoying themselves.”
Same here. I’m counting the days for when I can safely get back in the bar, to bask in the timbre of a beautiful voice again, and to feel the thud of a kick drum in my heart. And perhaps a little more space between us will be a nice reprieve from rude audiences, sweaty bros and scary mosh pits – maybe it’ll bring us closer to the music.
Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated the band playing at the Whistle Stop on March 13; it was Fotocrime.