The coronavirus pandemic has had an unprecedented impact on the arts in New York, and the live music scene has been particularly hard hit. The prospect of multi-million dollar deficits at major organizations like the New York Philharmonic or the Metropolitan Opera is bad enough, but the situation is even more precarious for the smaller venues that have always been essential to the city’s artistic ferment.
The club Elsewhere in Bushwick isn’t exactly small. It has multiple stages, and on a typical weekend night, you could have 1000 people dancing to the latest electronic music. On a night like that, Elsewhere will employ 40 to 50 people. But nights like that are not happening now, and those bartenders, ticket takers, and sound crew are all out of work. Rami Haykal, the director of programming and one of the owners at Elsewhere, estimates that less than half of them have received unemployment benefits – a common complaint as the system is deluged with record-shattering numbers of new applicants.
Haykal also says the government’s Paycheck Protection Program hasn’t helped yet. “The PPP loans were supposedly something that was gonna help cover payroll stuff," he says, "but it’s kind of unclear, and not really tailored to venues.” Specifically, the loans are only forgiven if the applicant spends at least 75% of it on staff salaries. But if you use the loan to pay worker salaries, there isn’t enough left to pay rent. And if the venue can’t pay rent and goes under, those jobs disappear for good. For many club owners, though, that’s a purely theoretical problem: even the application process is a major roadblock.
“There’s a lot of weird wording in a lot of these loans,” says Melody Henry, co-owner of Lucky 13 in Gowanus, “and it seems like they don’t want to help bars or anything on the fringe.”
Lucky 13 is genuinely small; it measures audiences in dozens, not hundreds or thousands. It’s essentially a bar that welcomes metal bands, and therein lies a problem when applying for other loans. Facebook, for example, is offering small business loans, but the application process has very strict eligibility requirements.
“Some of them make sense,” Henry acknowledges, “like, do you have illegal activity? No, of course not. But one of the things was promoting alcohol. So how can I be a bar and not promote alcohol sales?”
Much of New York’s image, and a fair chunk of its economy, is built on an ecosystem of clubs, theaters, and concert halls that present live music. For many of them, especially the smaller ones, alcohol sales are what pays the rent. Or the insurance. Those are two big costs that don’t go away when a venue is closed.
Insurance, by the way, presents an interesting wrinkle. Rami Haykal at Elsewhere says they actually had pandemic insurance at one point, but it’s not in their current plan. “We also pay for Business Interruption Insurance,” he says, “and there’s a lot of venues lobbying for this with various insurance companies.”
Elsewhere is part of several groups of independent venues, here in New York and across the country, that have begun in the last few weeks to try to pool their efforts. The question, Haykal says, “is whether we qualify with all the fine print and if there is room to battle with the insurance companies to get that paid out.”
The biggest venues, naturally, have more resources. Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center have endowments and wealthy philanthropists. Radio City Music Hall and The Beacon Theater are part of the Madison Square Garden Company and have a corporate structure to support them. The small, independent venues have to rely on two things. Well, three, actually, but I’ll get to the third one in a moment. Mike Zuco, co-owner of the Bed-Stuy club C’mon Everybody, lists first “understanding landlords who are willing to work with us,” and second, “guidance and support from the government as to the best ways we can operate in a way that’s safe for everyone, and also allows us as a business to remain viable.”
Seems reasonable, but ask Zuco and his partner, Eric Sosa, if they’ve gotten either of those things, and you get a perhaps predictable response: “uh, not really,” Zuco says; and Sosa adds, “No, we, like many small businesses, are still waiting on any sort of word from the SBA (Small Business Administration) or from one of the PPP lenders, so we’re still kind of in this limbo like many others are.”
But there is another source of support: the communities these venues serve. C’mon Everybody and Lucky 13 have joined the list of venues using GoFundMe campaigns. Melody Henry says Lucky 13 will be splitting that money 50/50 between fixed costs (rent) and helping their furloughed staff.“
I can’t even tell you how humbling that is or how much I appreciate that," Henry says. "But the people feel like it’s their home and they wanna make sure it’s there to return to when we’re able to open again.”
“Able to open again.” Those are the magic words. C’mon Everybody’s website shows a concert listed for June 25, a rescheduled event that includes the Colombian-American band Salt Cathedral. But Eric Sosa now admits that may have been overly optimistic and it’ll need to be rescheduled yet again. Meanwhile, the months go by with no live music. The city feels different – almost surreal. As Elsewhere’s Rami Haykal says, “It’s always been part of the appeal for New York, and it’s just a tough thing to even think about New York without that.”