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, remained closed.

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 even.

"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 designated areas.

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 permitted.

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 increased competition.

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 to open.

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


(END) Dow Jones Newswires

April 12, 2021 13:09 ET (17:09 GMT)

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