A Scene, Unseen: LES Music Venues, Musicians Stay Visible Despite Closures
By the time this article is published, 11 weeks of self-isolation will have passed. It’s been 11 weeks since many of us have gone to work, since grocery stores have felt safe, and since handshakes have felt friendly. And those are only the most banal, everyday changes. When it comes to the moments we share together in our leisure, the sense of loss is palpable. The joyful energy of seeing live music in a packed venue seems like a vestige of some former life.
Though the music scene on the Lower East Side has endured the shifts of a changing city (sky-high rents and a scene that largely migrated to Brooklyn), independent venues and musicians are now facing unprecedented challenges in light of COVID-19 directives. Music halls were the first businesses to close, and will be the last to reopen. How the hell are they surviving? With community and creativity—something this neighborhood has in spades.
Since the forced closure in March, Bowery Electric is now following the lead of bars and restaurants by offering cocktails to go. Jacob Geskin, a recently furloughed talent buyer for the club, and a freelance artist manager, describes the current situation.
“It’ll help I’m sure, but it’s pretty negligible,” he says of drink sales. “It’s a primetime spot on Bowery (…) the rent is insane. Every venue in the country, but especially in New York where none of them own the space, is hemorrhaging money. And the venues that I’ve been involved with have had a really hard time getting any stimulus loans.”
As Geskin points out, the closures revealed that independent venues have no safety net. Unlike actors guilds and theatre unions that can offer resources for employees and rally for support, there is nothing in place like this for venues and the ecosystem of people they employ. But now, that’s changing.
Bowery Electric is one of many involved with NIVA, the National Independent Venue Association, a new coalition petitioning for government assistance. In a letter sent to Congress on April 22 (now posted on their website), NIVA points out the micro and macro impact of independent venues, citing that they gross $10 billion to local communities and are incubators for the world’s most beloved talent.
Geskin notes the importance of government assistance. “There will be a time when we open and the money is not going to be the same as it was for awhile, and we’re going to be expected to pay the same rent, and some of these businesses are going to fold, “ he says. “Without government intervention, New York is going to look very, very different.”
Since venues anticipate reduced capacity mandates in the future, owners are looking for solutions for a safe reopening. Some are considering a restaurant model, Geskin says. Others are crunching numbers to understand what limited capacity actually looks like for the bottom line. In the interim, Bowery Electric is creating a livestream series on their YouTube channel featuring legacy acts that have roots in the local punk and rock scene.
Going virtual has been an important part of the equation for musicians, too. Christian Dryden, frontman of glam post-punk band The Ritualists and a fixture in the downtown scene, has pivoted to performing live streamed sets from home. “We’ve been trying to focus on unique ways to reach our audience and expand our audience online as I think everyone is,” he says. “You try to make the best of a difficult situation.”
The Ritualists had signed their first record deal and were busy promoting their debut album Painted People in fall of 2019. After building momentum into this year, COVID-19 hit. Their tour was cancelled, and potential European festival dates were postponed. Then, their music video release party at Mercury Lounge was cancelled. When all venues closed, they were left in a tight spot, with a new album to promote, but only a virtual stage to do it.
“Touring is the best way to sell your merchandise,” he says of one source of income a tour would allow. “It’s very hard to do that with new people who don’t know you online if you’re not already a well-established, legendary touring band. It’s made it very difficult. We still have the streaming numbers, but Spotify (…) is not a goldmine for musicians.”
Until venues open, it feels like a holding pattern for musicians and fans. This purgatory has brought a lot of anxiety about who will survive and when will things open; the more quiet, collective feeling might just be how much we miss being in the same room, listening together.
“I miss everybody in the Lower East Side, it’s really a close-knit group of rockers,” says Dryden. “There’s respect and support. We’ll play a show and in the audience I’ll see some of the best musicians I’ve ever heard in my life, watching me play. I hope everyone is doing well.”