Colin Pate was toiling away at his North Philadelphia recording studio in late June when he received an unbelievable text message: "Secret show at Johnny Brenda's tonight, 6:30."
Like so many places, the beloved Philly music venue has been shuttered since the Covid-19 pandemic first flared up in March. The 250-person venue, a staple of the local music scene that served as an early stage for Philly acts like Kurt Vile and The War on Drugs, used to host shows almost every night. While locals can still order take-out food and drinks from the bar, nobody expected a band to play there — or anywhere else for that matter — until sometime next year.
"At first, I thought it was a joke," says Pate, a local musician and recording engineer who has spent the pandemic bouncing between at-home isolation, recording solo in the studio and working at local bars to cover his rent. Like every other musician in town, Pate's hopes of playing any shows were dashed by the outbreak months earlier. By late June, the prospect of attending one seemed just as unlikely.
But this show was different. Rather than switch the upstairs stage lights back on, the venue's staff hauled a PA system onto the roof of the building. Pat Finnerty and the Full Band, an impromptu group of local musicians led by guitarist and singer Pat Finnerty, set up their gear, did a sound check, and proceeded to tear through covers of David Bowie, Marvin Gaye, Neil Young and, appropriately enough given the rooftop perch, The Beatles.
As music filled the streets below, so too did a gathering of mask-wearing locals, eager to experience their first concert in months. Some watched from apartment balconies. Others honked their car horns as they drove by. Most stood on the sidewalks and trolley platform below, maintaining a cautious, pandemic-friendly distance from one another.
"We weren't sure what to expect, but we really pulled it off," says Marley McNamara, a talent buyer at Johnny Brenda's who helped organize the show. "I was happy with the way people were all masked up and being respectful of those around them. It even sounded good, which I was surprised about."
For residents of the city's Fishtown neighborhood, the surprise performance seemed to offer a much-needed distraction after months of social isolation, followed by citywide protests and racial tension that had boiled over in front of the police precinct down the street from Johnny Brenda's just a few weeks earlier. The vibe on the street was decidedly less intense as Finnerty and his friends closed out with the "Ghostbusters" theme song against a multi-colored sunset.
Shows like this are a rare, if imperfect, bright spot for the independent live music industry, which currently sits, like so many, on the brink of catastrophe. Since March, thousands of independent venues across the U.S. have remained closed in response to the coronavirus outbreak. As the pandemic drags on, it has created an existential crisis for these venues and the critical role they play in music scenes and communities across the U.S. The Barracuda in Austin, The Satellite in Los Angeles and Portland's Port City Music Hall are just a few of the venues that have closed for good in recent weeks, with many more at risk of going under.
"It's a really surreal and scary time for everyone, but especially for the music industry," says McNamara. "We can't lose places like Johnny Brenda's."
Without federal intervention, as many as 90% of indie music venues could disappear, according to the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA). To that end, the newly formed advocacy organization is lobbying hard for legislation like the Restart Act or Save Our Stages Act, which would provide large-scale financial assistance to these endangered institutions.
For venues, the clock is ticking. If Congress doesn't pass one of the music industry aid bills circulating in its halls before the legislature's August recess, NIVA fears it may be too late.
"It would be like needing a kidney transplant, but not getting the new kidney until after you've expired." says Audrey Fix Schaefer, a spokesperson for NIVA who also heads communications for the 9:30 Club and other Washington D.C. music venues. "It's not going to revive the cadaver."
The impact of such a collapse could be culturally devastating. Unlike restaurants or shops, a small or medium-sized music venue is more than just a business serving its customers. They are living, breathing mini-institutions in their own right, each one with its own unique capacity to incubate local bands and artists, host touring ones, and connect them all to the communities of like-minded show attendees that these spaces attract.
For artists, who tend to make the bulk of their income performing live, this could jeopardize their ability to plan successful tours once the pandemic is over. "You can't get on a bus and play at a boarded-up building," Schaefer points out.
As the live music industry awaits an economic lifeline and an eventual vaccine, some are using the standstill to creatively rethink the functionality and economics of live music. While nobody expects new formats like socially distanced, limited capacity shows to address the industry's bigger, more systemic threat, the experimentation may yield clues as to how to safely experience live shows before a full reopening is possible. Crucially, it's also a chance to build more future-proof models for live entertainment.
The Complicated Promise of Socially-Distant Concerts
Philadelphia is not the only place experimenting with pandemic-appropriate shows. Across the U.S., drive-in concerts have become a new summertime trend for bigger, typically Live Nation-affiliated acts like Brad Paisley, Nelly, the Avett Brothers and, notoriously, The Chainsmokers.
For independent artists, the options remain scrappier and more experimental. In late March, LA-based musicians like Booker Stardrum, Celia Hollander and Angel Olsen collaborator Ben Babbit performed live from their cars in the parking lot of an Echo Park grocery store, broadcasting it to attendees' vehicles over an FM radio frequency. A Sun Kil Moon show in Big Sur, Calif., held in July by the boutique music event curator FolkYEAH!, employed social distancing, temperature checks and limited venue capacity to offer fans an escape from the months-long live music drought.
In Nashville, live music has played a more complicated role in pandemic life. While most venues in Music City have been dead silent for months, some are happy to test the lockdown's limits. Summertime crowds of often mask-less people packing the honky-tonks and bars of Lower Broadway have turned the downtown entertainment district into the epicenter of Nashville's current coronavirus surge.
In mid-June, Kid Rock's Big Honky Tonk and Steak House was among 13 Nashville establishments cited by the city's health department for ignoring social distancing rules, hosting country music shows to crowds packed shoulder-to-shoulder. Two weeks later, country star Chris Rice came under fire for playing a concert in nearby Petros, Tenn. to a crowd of hundreds of fans who seemed to think physical distancing and masks were optional.
Some in Nashville are at least trying to do things responsibly. City Winery, a restaurant and venue in downtown, has kept much of its music programming going throughout the pandemic by moving its shows outdoors and implementing a rigorous set of safety protocols for attendees, artists, and staff.
In addition to strictly-enforced mask and social distancing requirements, City Winery gives every attendee a temperature check and health questionnaire when they arrive. To limit crowds and social interaction, the venue requires reservations, staggers the groups entering and leaving, and has attendees pre-order their food and drinks to a pre-selected table in a "pod" set eight feet apart from other parties. From start to finish, the entire experience of each show is carefully designed to limit the risk of spreading the virus.
"If everyone would follow these types of procedures across the country, we wouldn't be in this mess," says City Winery CEO Michael Dorf.
As bulletproof as City Winery's approach may sound, it has its limitations. For one thing, the economics of limited capacity shows are inherently challenging for venues, and even moreso for the artists who perform there. Fewer attendees means a smaller pie of ticket revenue to be sliced up between the venue, its staff and the artists.
"We have less money to pay our vendors and artists," says Dorf, noting that shows typically hosting 1,500 ticket holders are now seating just a few hundred. "There's this great recalibration that needs to happen if live music is going to continue."
Then there's the unpredictable nature of the pandemic itself. Even the most buttoned-up and flawlessly executed approach to pandemic-safe shows can be thwarted by a sudden change in rules as state and local governments react to the latest coronavirus infection trends, which continue to surge in many U.S. states. Tennessee, which Dr. Anthony Fauci warned was at risk of a surge in late June, is now seeing infections rise in nearly every county.
"It's changing week to week," says Dorf. "In our virtual office, we have a chart that breaks down the positivity rate in each market and looks at the trends, just like the scientists. We need to try and predict what's going to happen in each place."
The constant fluctuation can send business owners back to the drawing board when they least expect it. On June 22, Nashville began its transition into the less restrictive third phase of its reopening plan. But by the beginning of July, the surging infections forced officials to roll back to a "modified phase two" and put new restrictions on restaurants and bars, the latter of which were ordered to close for 14 days.
If safely operating shows during a pandemic is tricky in one city, scaling the model across locales is practically impossible. Outside Nashville, City Winery also operates in seven other U.S. markets, most of which remain quiet for now. After outdoor concerts proved successful in Nashville, the company announced in mid-June that it would launch a new socially distant outdoor music series called Concerts in the Vineyard at its location in New York's Hudson Valley. The next day, New York State authorities told Dorf that the concerts were forbidden, and that moving ahead with them could cost the venue its liquor license.
Dorf has spent the last several weeks trying to convince New York authorities, including Governor Andrew Cuomo himself, that his company's approach to outdoor shows is not only safe, but could serve as a potential model for bringing live music back to life before a vaccine is ready.
Finally, in early August, Cuomo agreed to let City Winery's Hudson Valley concert series proceed beginning in September. That is, assuming nothing changes.
When 'New Normal' Is A Moving Target
For City Winery, this dizzying ping-pong of changes and discrepancies over time and across different locations has made it especially challenging to keep the music playing at even one of its locations, let alone the other seven.
The team's frustration speaks to a wider issue that plagues the live music industry and plenty other aspects of life amidst the pandemic: Perpetual uncertainty. As the virus surges and the state of the pandemic evolves, it becomes difficult for people and businesses to adapt. Just when a reopening plan, city health regulation, or state-issued mandate seems set, something changes.
Sudden shifts in reality are now the norm everywhere. Back in Philadelphia, the owners of Johnny Brenda's aren't planning any more rooftop shows. It's not that there's a lack of interest; after the first one, McNamara said they got messages from agents for bigger national acts interested in playing on the roof. Ideas quickly started brewing. Then, like clockwork, everything changed again: On Jul. 14, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney announced a citywide ban on any events consisting of more than 50 people, which will remain in effect until at least Feb. 2021.
"Everything is so fluid that it's really hard for us to ever plan anything like this again, even secretly," says McNamara. "it feels like a different environment now."
Meanwhile, Pat Finnerty and his friends are wondering when and where they might be able to play another socially distanced pop-up show. Finnerty says he's thinking about doing something along the city's waterfront, or at Philly landmarks that might be safe places for people to distantly congregate. Eventually, he wants to park two socially-distanced boats in New York Harbor in front of the Statue of Liberty, where his band will play a set of Neil Young covers.
For now, given the surges and constant changes, Finnerty is content to wait things out a bit longer. "Me and my buddies have all said no to a million gigs," he says. "Personally, my own conscience says we need to slow down. There are too many ass****s out there right now."
Can The Live Music Industry Future-Proof Itself?
Ric Leichtung is heartened to learn about the Philly rooftop gig. "Those are the stories that keep people going," he says.
But his vantage point, from just up the road in Brooklyn where he runs the indie concert promoter AdHoc, only allows for so much optimism. For Leichtung, it's hard to envision a rooftop DIY show series atop the warehouses of Bushwick anytime soon. As the first major epicenter of the pandemic in the U.S., New York has been locked down and under especially strict restrictions since the beginning. The city's music venues are likely to remain silent until a vaccine is introduced, if not months later. "That means, what, next April? June? Sometime in 2022?" he wonders. "It's insanely scary, honestly."
Liechtung agrees with the industry consensus that a federal stimulus is the only way for the independent venues in New York and beyond to survive long enough to see the end of the pandemic. "The consolation prize of online events or limited gatherings simply is not enough," he says.
While such an intervention would prevent an imminent cultural catastrophe, it may only be the first step toward ensuring a sustainable future for independent artists and spaces. But just as the pandemic exposes systemic weaknesses in the industry, many believe it also presents an opportunity to start building something more resilient.
Mat Dryhurst, a musician and Berlin-based professor at NYU's Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, has spent a lot of time thinking about alternative models for how venues could be owned, interlinked, supported, and even defined in the future.
"There are ways to develop economies around the thing that people really do cherish about music, which is ultimately a sense of belonging and of coming together," says Dryhurst.
Of course, it's the "coming together" part of grassroots music culture that has been rendered physically impossible by the pandemic. But, given the recent rise in crowdfunding drives, Bandcamp Fridays and other digital expressions of support for independent music, Dryhurst can't help but wonder if stronger connections could be built between digital communities and physical spaces.
Rather than waiting for an emergency to solicit donations, DIY music spaces and medium-sized venues could build deeper digital communities and experiment with support models like memberships and subscriptions. Something like Patreon, but for places.
A membership-supported music club model might not work for every venue, but spaces that offer enough value to people in the community may well find a sustainable source of revenue. In some places, this model of community-based support could even be taken a few steps further, into a shared community ownership of spaces.
"There are also other possibilities for venues beyond music," Dryhurst points out. Plenty of small DIY music venues already serve other functions during daytime hours, such as educational workshops, creative workspaces, and providing various community services. In doing so, those spaces become more essential to the community around them. And ultimately, Dryhurst hopes, less prone to the kind of existential threat posed by pandemics or future climate catastrophes.
"My hope is that over the next year, we'll start moving away from a reactive space into that more generative space," Dryhurst says. "What could be built that would be more resilient in case something like this happens again? "
As an academic, Dryhurst recognizes the inherent privilege of being able to toss around big ideas at a safe distance from the industry trenches. As a musician, he hopes something sticks, because he can't wait to crawl back in.