The fight for small venues to survive

The iconic 55Bar has been closed since the beginning of the pandemic
The iconic 55Bar has been closed since the beginning of the pandemic
The iconic 55Bar has been closed since the beginning of the pandemic

The emblematic Smalls Jazz Club located in the heart of the once vibrant Greenwich Village is facing a dire situation. “We don’t know if we will have to close”, says it’s owner Spike Wilner. The club was closed from March 15th until September 30th . Since then it has been allowed to open at 25 percent capacity and is now offering two sets a day with fifteen seats available per set.

Smalls is one of the clubs that were part of an energetic and vibrant network of small music venues in New York’s Greenwich Village and part of a jazz tourism circuit that brought people to the city who wanted to experience live music in small venues. Since the pandemic, many restaurants and small businesses have been closing for good and many are resisting the economic side of the pandemic with little to no governmental help.

“We closed our businesses on March 15th, I couldn’t believe it, I had never seen in the history of the US that businesses would be shut by the government” says Wilner. “I think it is a very dark time, a very scary historic time”, he adds with a demeanor of frustration.

Another emblematic small venue in Greenwich village, The Bitter End, has also said that it will have to close its doors if there isn’t some kind of aid. The club has received temporary relief of its $23,000 a month rent, according to Bloomberg. The small venue started in 1961 and has been the home for important musicians and comedians, such as Joni Mitchell, Nina Simone and Jon Stewart among many others.

The iconic Times Square Iridium, a well-known music venue in New York City, also told the New York Times that there was a chance that the club would not reopen.

In New York City, indoor dining reopened on September 30th at 25 percent capacity and was supposed to have reopened at 50 percent capacity on November 1st, but there has been no approval or direction from New York State governor Andrew Cuomo who said he would make a decision soon. Audrey Schaefer, spokesperson for the National Independent Venues Association (NIVA) warns that without governmental help many small venues will be have to close doors permanently: “It is frightening and it is devastating, every single day I get an email by a venue that is shutting down forever, even the most successful with more history, they can’t survive, their history [doesn’t] protect them for the future”. NIVA which includes 2,800 independent musical venues and promoters from all over the country expects about 90 percent of small venues to close if help doesn’t come soon.

The situation doesn’t look good. Even though the city has recovered some sense of normality compared to the beginning of the pandemic, tourist destinations remain pretty empty, many workers haven’t come back to their offices and cultural sites are visited mainly by locals due to travel restrictions.

Retail stores are closing all over Manhattan and many people have moved out to the suburbs or back to their home countries. Apartment vacancies are beating records with 16,000 apartments available in Manhattan last September. The hospitality sector has lost 44 percent of it’s jobs this year, and half of all New York City bars and restaurants could close in the next six months taking approximately 150,000 more jobs. Unemployment in the city is at 14.1 percent, twice the national level, according to the Department of Labor. On top of that, the city is facing a tax revenue crisis. Some economists are foreseeing a tougher recovery for New York compared to the rest of the country.

A tough time for small venues

Spike Wilner, owner of Smalls Jazz Club in the West Village, closed on March 15th and left the city temporarily with his family until June. Smalls spent six months without any revenue and basically surviving thanks to an arts foundation that he set up a year before, the Smalls Live Foundation, a nonprofit organization that allows donors to make a donation and take a credit for their taxes. This foundation has allowed him to collect money in order to provide livestream music. Basically, a donor sponsors one show through the foundation and with that, the venue can pay rent, expenses and a band. This is the only reason why Smalls is still around: “We started collecting donations from people to be able to stay around and I have to say it saved us. We would have been gone a long time ago”, admits Wilner.

Live Streaming has been one of the options that some venues and artists have tried in order to survive and make some revenue. Smalls pioneered livestream back in 2007 before it was popular.

Wilner thinks that from now on, running a small venue as a business might be not possible anymore: “That might be our future to operate as an arts foundation, it is not what I like to do because I am a musician and a bar owner, I like to be a bar owner, but that might not be possible anymore”, says.

Smalls’ landlord hasn’t been willing to negotiate the rent and Wilner complains about the lack of government action to help tenants to face rent burdens. Smalls is paying $10,000/month in rent, up from $900/month in 1994 when they opened.

On the east side of New York City, in the East Village, Pangea, a 30 year-old iconic restaurant and alternative cabaret has struggled to survive. When the pandemic hit, its co-owner and manager Stephen Shanaghan closed the restaurant until the end of June. Pangea is unique because apart from being a restaurant, the place has been a hub for artists and writers for three decades, especially alt-cabaret.

Shanghan recognizes the difficulty of reopening as a live music and cabaret venue and assumes that this may not happen until spring 2021. For that reason, he decided to invest in equipment to provide two livestreaming shows a week starting in late October. He hired some engineers and started to think of a way to reinvent himself: “I myself am not an engineer but I feel I have taken a crush course, I have been reading a lot about it”, he admits. Shanghan understands going online as an opportunity beyond the pandemic: “I believe the livestream will become a part of the future even if we are able to have an audience because many artists have international followers and international presence and that can translate well to ticket sales”, he hopes.

To afford the investment, Pangea launched a crowdfunding campaign hoping their benefactors will help them to raise the money that the venue needs. They already did a crowdfund at the beginning of the pandemic which most went to pay insurance and electric bills. Stephen was also able to negotiate with his landlord who waived rent for the months they were not open at all.

Another emblematic small venue in the West Village, 55 Bar, has been closed since the beginning of the pandemic and hasn’t reopened yet. Its manager Mark Kirby explains that they tried to reopen for outdoor dining but it didn’t work out: “We didn’t have enough space, the rules were always changing, the way they were enforcing them by threatening people’s liquor license, and also we were not making any money for the bar.”, he says. “It really wasn’t worth it.” In order to reopen, the venue prefers to wait until there is a more comprehensive plan and at least half capacity allowed.

55 Bar is thinking as well to go livestream and set up a fundraiser to pay for the costs of the investment.

Waiting for the government to help

In the middle of an election campaign full of controversies and unexpected circumstances, aid from the government didn’t arrive before the election. In October, the House of Representatives passed a revised version of the HEROES Act, a relief package of 2.2 trillion dollars to boost the economy, expand the unemployment benefits and allocate money for local governments.

In the package, there was a $10 billion dollar allocation for the bipartisan bill that senator John Cornyn (R-TX) and senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) introduced in July to the Senate, Save Our Stages Act, which would offer grants to small venues, promoters and festivals and that has more than 196 co-sponsors in Congress, according to NIVA. But the HEROES Act didn’t make it to the Senate. Furthermore, conversations between the Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Stephen Mnuchin didn’t reach any agreement.

President Trump offered a $1.8 trillion deal that Nancy Pelosi rejected a few weeks before the election sparking criticism from some democrats who argued that citizens’ needs are urgent after nine months of the coronavirus crisis. Right now, conversations about the relief package have been put on standby until the election is over and there is a winner declared. With the record amount of early voting experienced in the days before the election the results may be held up. At this point, it is uncertain when an agreement will be reached and help will arrive to people.

Schaefer thinks that the longer small venues have to wait for aid, the more of them will have to close doors permanently: “This is not a bipartisan thing, This is about keeping mom and pop businesses that have been the hardest hit”, she says.

The only help that small venues have had from the government was through the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) [the loans that the government provided through the CARES Act] which was not a big relief according to Schaefer: “The PPP has helped a lot of businesses and industries but not ours, it didn’t fit our businesses because the whole concept is that after eight weeks you have to get your employees back and then pay them and your loan is forgiven. But we don’t have employees, we had to furlough them. The PPP means for our business just more debt”, she complains.

Besides the PPP loan, there hasn’t been any other help coming from the federal government. At the local level, some states are starting to provide funding [that came through the CARES Act] to music venues: “It is a case by case basis and it is temporary, it is not a long term solution, we are encouraging members to see what is allowed in their states”, says Schaefer.

Wilner agrees that the PPP loan was not helpful for its business: “By June we were out of money from that [PPP] and now we owe the government that money back and our staff is gone, it didn’t help”, he concludes.

Pangea got a small amount of the PPP loan which was depleted in a month. Shanghan thinks that the situation is taking too long and “more government support is going to be needed before all that is over’’ and he feels that the government should step up and give grants instead of loans. Besides that, he felt frustrated that insurance companies didn’t want to pay out for business interruption insurance, an issue which has brought over 1,000 lawsuits against insurance companies. Shanaghan thinks that Congress should have taken action on that: “Most of us have paid premiums on through years and the insurance companies found a way not to pay that out. That’s unfortunate because the insurance industry is huge and they do have money and pressure should have been put on them but it is an election year and politicians aren’t going to take on that”, concludes Shanghan.

At the local level, changes in the state laws in order to contain the spread of the virus added frustration, confusion and anger to business owners. Restaurants have to close their doors at midnight and the city subway it’s still closed from 1am to 5am, which makes nightlife very difficult for customers and workers. In mid-August, the New York State Liquor Association (SLA) commanded that restaurants and bars are prohibited from offering ticketed live music events and other forms of outdoor entertainment. The New York Independent Venues Association (NYIVA) sued the SLA over it but they lost in the courts.The SLA also imposed the requirement of mandatory food service when a customer orders a drink.

Having to offer food has been a big problem for some venues that don’t have a kitchen: “We have a very tiny kitchen, like a little thing to grill hot dogs, if we had to follow this rule we need to invest in equipment and spend money when we are not making any money”, says Kirby. “Some bars are just serving a piece of cheese with some bread, just in case the police come by, because some people just want to have a drink and that’s all”. Wilner feels that while help doesn’t arrive, all these new regulations are making things worse for business owners: “It feels like they are going out of their way to destroy the culture”. For Shanghan, this is worse than 9/11 because of the lack of information: “We don’t have information, it comes in pieces and sometimes the information contradicts between federal, state and local”, he says.

Kirby also complains about the lack of action from the federal government: “A lot of people, especially in power, think that the arts are a waste of time, but they don’t understand how much the economy thrives on it”, he says.

Meanwhile, NIVA has set up an emergency relief fund to try to help those businesses who are in most risk of vanishing while they wait for the government to step up.

For artists, their whole world stopped

Saxophonist Jure Pukl left New York on February 20th without knowing he was leaving the city he had lived in for 8 years forever. He travelled with a small suitcase and his saxophone to organize an international workshop for musicians in his hometown in Slovenia as he used to do every year. After the workshop, he toured through Europe and went back to Slovenia on March 8th. Then the pandemic hit and Slovenia and the US closed their borders: “I got stuck”, says Pukl, “I was on an artist visa and I could have managed to come back to the US because I was married there but I decided not to”. The pandemic trapped him in Slovenia and brought many changes to his personal life. He was in a complicated relationship with his wife before the pandemic and the coronavirus only sped up the separation process.

Pianist Shai Maestro was also abroad when he heard a lockdown was going to be imposed in New York City and made the abrupt decision of leaving New York: “When the coronavirus started I was in Israel, I read the news and I thought: ‘that doesn’t look good’ and then I decided to leave New York, that conversation was on Friday and the lockdown was on Sunday”, explains. His friends and some movers helped him to take his things out of his apartment in Brooklyn. He came back later to say goodbye to the city where he lived for 10 years and where he consolidated his musical career.

World-music singer Kiran Ahluwalia, born in India, raised in Canada and based in New York City, saw how the tour she had prepared with her band and team for almost two years vanished: “I felt a sadness, besides the loss of income”, says. Her life as an international musician also changed drastically. She had to cancel her plans to spend the summer in Canada and instead stay in Manhattan without being able to travel. The prospects for work also got complicated: “We weren’t able to book anything for this year and even people are reluctant to book for March or April of next year”, explains. She is now receiving unemployment.

Dancer Xianix Barrera from Puerto Rico was participating in the New York Flamenco Festival when some of the shows of the festival got cancelled when the pandemic hit. Then, all of her other gigs were cancelled as well, and she had to suspend her flamenco dance lessons until she found the way to do them online.

Before the pandemic, New York state’s arts and cultural sector employed nearly half a million people contributing $120 billion to New York’s economy, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. Acting and musician jobs accounted for 280,000 jobs including costume designers and lighting technicians. Between April and July, more than half of these jobs were gone, according to Brookings report.

While in Slovenia and with a summer of gigs and festivals ahead, Pukl saw all his tours cancelled within a few days: “Japan tour, European tour, gigs in the U.S. and the whole summer of festivals were cancelled. I lost about $15,000 to $20,000 of income”. Because he was registered as a freelance artist in Slovenia he could get 7,000 euros by the end of June. “Work has been scarce and my life doesn’t resemble the one I had before the pandemic at all”, he admits.

Maestro also had all his gigs cancelled and he felt that his life changed 100 percent: “I had a lifestyle built on travel and interaction with the audience, being in New York with my bands and all that collapsed… no travelling, no rehearsals, no band, no trio, no New York, everything changed”, he explains. Maestro admits he was so shocked at the beginning but then he found an apartment in Tel Aviv and set up a home studio with a new computer: “Now I can do things that I would never have time to learn, I always wanted to explore music for films”, he says.

During this complete change of life many artists found a way to be able to connect with fans, share some music and make some money through livestream. Ahluwalia and her husband Rez Abbasi (also the guitar player in her band) were asked to do a live streaming performance for The National Artist Center, a theater in Canada, in order to raise funds for musicians and they felt it worked for them: “For us it has been great to have this outlet to do our music, to have a sense of purpose for that practice, “it gives us some money and a connection with our fans and get new fans, also we learned a lot of technology”, she says. “People have been receptive to it and I myself have been an audience for live streaming performances”, she adds.

Barrera, who also teaches flamenco dance in a studio located in the artist building where she lives in ‘El Barrio’ East Harlem, had to reinvent herself when she realized she needed to teach online to keep having an income: “I set up a flamenco tablao in my apartment’s hallway because I usually teach in the dance studio that my building has which they close because of the pandemic”, explains. “But Zoom is made to speak but of course my students have to listen to the voice, the feet and the music. I had to be creative and start giving classes on how to put on makeup in a flamenco tablao, history of flamenco, Spanish cuisine … I was working more than ever because I had to adapt”. Finally she could come back to her dance studio and now she is teaching some classes online and some classes in person. “I had to learn a lot about technology and I bought three different microphones one for my feet, one for my voice and one for the music to offer my online students a good quality class”, she says. For now, she has a gig every Thursday in a restaurant and even though she has lost so much money, she is able to make ends meet through teaching.

A delicate ecosystem of musicians and artists

For small venues owners, a venue is usually much more than just a business; it is a community of neighbors, of artists and art lovers who share and inspire one another. Shanghan believes Pangea is embedded in its neighborhood and that small businesses are the ones that will get New York back: “Small business have been fighting in New York for 30 years so I have to keep on fighting and I still think New York has something special and it is going to be the artists and small business the ones getting the city back up”, Stephen thinks. “I try to stay hopeful and positive.”

The same is true for Smalls Jazz Club and 55Bar who are part of a network of small venues that have preserved the jazz tradition in New York and which attracted tourism. Wilner is concerned for musicians knowing he bears some responsibility: “I feel a big responsibility to the musicians and the network of musicians that have spent their life in New York.”

Pukl was one of these musicians who grew up going to Smalls and benefited from the New York Jazz scene and cultural exchange. The same is true for Shai Maestro who feels of Smalls: “It is a home, when you hear they are struggling it is hard, I hope they survive. They symbolise a lot these places.”

Ahluwalia thinks in the short run many small venues and businesses will go out of business, but maybe they are going to come back in when things improve: “I am hoping that this is what will happen for the places I love, eventually things will come back and people will want a venue to go see live music,” she says.

For those who left New York, the pandemic is an opportunity to expand what they learned in New York and set up local cultural scenes in smaller cities, like Pukl, who sees an opportunity to bring everything he learned in New York to Slovenia: “I am trying to bring the New York jazz scene to my hometown, I want younger musicians here to get inspired and learn.”

The pandemic has brought many speculations about what will happen with big cities and places like New York City that have been hit so hard. Kirby thinks that so many people are going to leave New York but that will bring opportunities for business and artists to come back with maybe lower rents. “The city will be what it was in the 70’s and 80’s but without the drug wars”, he foresees. “I am optimistic, I think New York will come back.”

“If New York doesn’t come back that means that the world is really fu#%ed up,” he reflects.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store