How D.C.'s Live Music Venues Are Trying To Survive The Pandemic Music venue owners say government support will be necessary to their survival.
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How D.C.'s Live Music Venues Are Trying To Survive The Pandemic

How D.C.'s Live Music Venues Are Trying To Survive The Pandemic

How D.C.'s Live Music Venues Are Trying To Survive The Pandemic

How D.C.'s Live Music Venues Are Trying To Survive The Pandemic

Dante Ferrando, the owner of the Black Cat, in his empty club on 14th Street. Tyrone Turner/WAMU hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/WAMU

Washington entered its second phase of reopening last week, but the city's live music industry is still dormant.

All live music venues in D.C. remain closed. Gatherings of more than 50 people are prohibited. And with the spread of COVID-19 still a major concern, mosh pits and go-gos are a no-go.

Still, Dante Ferrando, the owner of the Black Cat on 14th Street NW, keeps fielding inquiries about his club's status.

"I'm getting calls, 'Hey are you guys open tonight?'" he says. "I'm like, no, you guys don't understand. We're not open until next year."

That's not an exaggeration. Ferrando says there's no way for him to reopen in the foreseeable future and make any money. He's considering adding tables into the main checkered-floor concert hall that typically hosts sweaty rock shows and dance parties, but if he did that, he'd only be able to sell tickets for a fraction of the room's total capacity. With overhead costs like rent, insurance and staffing, it wouldn't make financial sense.

"It's pretty simple: The numbers just don't work," Ferrando says. "It's insanely expensive."

Venue owners across the region and the country are lobbying their local governments and Congress for more support. They're asking for property tax rebates, rent relief and a loan program tailored to the concert industry. (Most venues can't qualify for PPP loans, which are only fully forgivable if companies keep paying all their employees or rehire them within eight weeks of getting the loan.)

"Government support by cash or tax incentives are going to be the only thing that saves us," says Audrey Fix Schaefer, the communications director for I.M.P., which operates the 9:30 Club, the Anthem, Merriweather Post Pavilion and other major concert venues in the D.C. region.

Schaefer has also been leading communications for the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA), which launched in March. Ninety percent of its nearly 2,000 members report that if the shutdown lasts six months and they don't receive federal assistance, they will never reopen again, she says.

The back bar at the Black Cat. "Everyone is panicking," owner Dante Ferrando says. "Everybody is worried that it might not be OK." Tyrone Turner/WAMU hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/WAMU

More than 600 famous music artists and performers signed a letter to Congress in support of NIVA in late June, including Jerry Seinfeld, Lady Gaga, Tiffany Haddish, Mavis Staples and Dave Grohl.

The financial toll of the pandemic on the concert industry is already clear in D.C. The longstanding nightlife spot 18th Street Lounge announced last week that the venue would close after 25 years in Dupont Circle. Owner Farid Nouri told the Washington Post that he and the building owner couldn't agree on the terms of a new lease.

"I don't want to commit to pre-pandemic market terms for a post-pandemic market," Nouri told the Post.

The Future Of The Concert Industry—Local Music, New Tech And Empty Space

Even if venues could reopen, they'd likely struggle to find acts to book. Most major national tours have been postponed until 2020. Activities like traveling out-of-state or staying in hotels aren't high on many musicians' priority lists right now.

But this dearth of national acts could be good for local musicians. "D.C. has such a deep well of really talented musicians in all sorts of different genres," says Alli Vega, a musician and the talent buyer at DC9, a small bar, restaurant and music venue in Shaw. "People may be more willing to see something they haven't heard of, because there's not the option of seeing touring bands. I'm hoping that it helps foster the local community a little bit more."

DC9's owner Bill Speiler is using some of his new free time to play around with ways to make the venue feel safer. He's currently considering putting a plexiglass barrier in front of the stage to prevent the spread of germs between the audience and musicians.

"It sucks," he acknowledges. "Part of the great thing [about DC9] is being in such a small space. You feel like you're in someone's bedroom or living room."

Other venues are investing in live streaming technology until they can host crowds again. Songbyrd in Adams Morgan is retrofitting its concert space with high-end cameras and servers so it can rent out the room to musicians looking for space to rehearse or stream live sets.

"People are growing a little bit weary of the user experience and glitchy quality of Instagram Live," Songbyrd's owner Joe Lapan says.

Lapan made another big investment recently: a 1978 Chevy C10 pickup truck. He plans to use the truck to host mobile outdoor concerts in neighborhoods across D.C.

Songbyrd's new mobile concert rig. Courtesy of/Joe Lapan hide caption

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Courtesy of/Joe Lapan

"It's summertime. People want music back," he says. "But I'd feel like a jerk promoting an unsafe experience to anyone."

Outside of the city, some venues are starting to host real live concerts. Jammin' Java in Vienna is holding concerts in its parking lot, and the Birchmere in Alexandria will hold its first concert next week at 50% capacity. Each ticket has a $5 "COVID fee" tacked on to help the venue make up for lost revenue.

Classical Movements, a local orchestra and chamber touring company, hosted three hour-long concerts on June 20 in a garden outside its Old Town Alexandria headquarters. Each audience was limited to about 40 people.

The classical musicians wore jeans and khakis, not tuxes. Audience members stood six feet apart — for now, plush concert hall seats are a thing of the past. It wasn't what anyone was used to, but for one afternoon, the music was back.

"These are great artists. For them, performing is sort of an essential thing," says Neeta Helms, Classical Movements' founder and president. "And there's nothing like live music."

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