By Laura Cooper | Photographs by Mark Kauzlarich for The Wall Street Journal
Live music has returned to New York City, though more with a
whisper than a roar.
On April 2, a few performance venues across New York City sprung
back to life after the Covid-19 pandemic had shut them down for
more than a year. But many venues, burdened by capacity
limitations, ongoing financial pain and the high cost of reopening,
The state allowed small and medium indoor arts venues to reopen
starting April 2 only at one-third capacity, or a maximum of 100
people indoors, which some venue managers say isn't enough to break
"It's pretty simple for us: it's not financially viable," said
Kae Burke, a co-founder of nightclub and performance space House of
Yes in Brooklyn, which hosts everything from live music to circus
performances and dance parties. The space generally saw about 800
people filtering through on a given weekend night before the
pandemic. She said she estimates House of Yes has lost millions of
dollars in potential revenue since it closed last March.
In addition to the financial cost, she said, the venue had
decided not to reopen because the restrictions in place wouldn't
allow for the "high energy physical interaction" that patrons at
House of Yes had come to expect.
"We don't want to be the dance police," Ms. Burke said.
Owners of live-music venues say they are working to adapt to the
state's restrictions for holding indoor events. Changes include
maintaining social distancing often by separating groups at tables
6 feet apart, enforcing mask mandates -- except when eating or
drinking -- and keeping their patrons from dancing out of their
While some venues like City Winery and Bowery Electric held
shows the same weekend that restrictions were lifted, a large
number of venues have chosen to reopen in the coming weeks and
months. Some will remain closed until full capacity is
A number of factors have played into venues' decisions to delay
reopening, including money. Venues are awaiting relief funding from
the federal Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program, which includes
some $16 billion in grants.
Many music venues in the New York City area rely on packed
crowds many nights a week to turn a profit. Even before the
pandemic struck, independent venues faced rising rents and
A nightlife study commissioned by Mayor Bill de Blasio's Office
of Media and Entertainment found that as of 2016 New York City had
2,400 venues, ranging from concert and entertainment venues to
informal cultural and performance spaces. The 2019 report found
that the venues generated close to 20,000 jobs, $373 million in
wages and $1.2 billion in economic output.
NYIVA, a coalition of nearly 200 New York venues, is a local
affiliate of the National Independent Venue Association, a group
formed last year to lobby Congress for financial aid. Its members
include music venues, promoters, festivals, comedy clubs and other
performance spaces across the state.
The coalition said it estimated that typical mid-sized venues in
New York City lose an average of $58,344 every month they are
forced to remain closed during the pandemic, according to a survey
of 41 city venues.
A recent survey of 45 of NYIVA's New York City-based members
found that the majority of large venues, which have capacity for
more than 250 people, plan to open in the fall. Eleven small venues
and four large venues plan to open this month, according to the
survey. Next month, five of the smaller and two larger venues plan
Justin Kantor, a founding board member of NIVA who is a co-chair
of NYIVA and co-founder of Greenwich Village arts venue Le Poisson
Rouge said that smaller venues that have capacity of fewer than 100
people and mainly host local artists might look to open before
their larger peers, many of which need to have 90% to 100% capacity
to break even.
The burden is often greater on larger venues, he said, because
they have higher reopening costs and talent that would need more
coordination as well as employees including marketing teams, floor
managers, security and technical directors.
Le Poisson Rouge, which has a capacity of 800, is making plans
to reopen for the fall, he said. But even then, he said, if the
venue weren't able to open at full capacity "we would take a little
bit of a bath," financially.
For some of the city's larger venues, which rely on touring
bands and have higher overhead costs, opening at reduced capacity
isn't viable. Anschutz Entertainment Group and Live Nation
Entertainment, global corporations that operate many of the larger
venues in New York City, including Brooklyn Steel and Irving Plaza
respectively, have said they don't plan to reopen until closer to
full capacity can be met.
For other venues, bringing back live music was a labor of love.
During the shutdown, independent-music mainstay Bowery Electric
would live-stream shows of performers playing in the empty venue.
It held its first shows with an audience on April 2. The club --
which drew 1,200 concertgoers on typical pre-pandemic weekend
nights -- held two nights of seated shows with two performances per
night for 50 attendees each.
Rock artist Jesse Malin -- who partially owns Bowery Electric --
took the stage with his band to Ace Frehley's version of "New York
Groove" in front of a backdrop of the Williamsburg Bridge. With the
cost of bringing in food, security and cleaning for the shows,
Bowery Electric was able to pay the staff that night but was unable
to pay rent and many other bills that have been accumulating for
many months, Mr. Malin said.
"We're doing this as a venue to represent and celebrate live
music and keep our name out there," Mr. Malin said.
Write to Laura Cooper at firstname.lastname@example.org
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
April 12, 2021 13:09 ET (17:09 GMT)
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