Local music venues face uncertainty as pandemic wears on

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The exterior of jazz club Keystone Korner. Image via Facebook.

Jazz impresario Todd Barkan has been putting together concerts for nearly half a century. In 1972 he acquired the Keystone Korner club in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood and turned it into one of the decade’s premier jazz venues. He relocated to New York in the 1980s to produce albums, work with the Boys Choir of Harlem, and, in 2001, became Jazz at Lincoln Center’s artistic administrator. He was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master in 2018, and in 2019 he revived his Keystone Korner club in Baltimore’s Harbor East neighborhood.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t care one bit about those career achievements, however. “I’m one of the most elder and experienced jazz presenters in the world, but that doesn’t help me in this situation,” Barkan says by phone in September, adding that, at 74-years-old, “I’m facing by far the most difficult challenge in my entire life in music.”

Around the country, independent music venues have been shuttered since the novel coronavirus started spreading. In Maryland, music clubs, symphony halls, and theaters have been closed since Gov. Larry Hogan issued a stay-at-home order on March 30. Since then, club owners, booking agents, sound engineers, and entire house staffs have been having to improvise to stay alive, as Barkan puts it. Some clubs have started streaming concerts from their venues, some that serve food can have very small, socially distanced audience members in attendance. Some venues have taken their shows into the streets. Far too many are in a holding pattern, applying for small-business loans, grants, or crowd-sourcing fundraisers to cover costs long enough for something, anything to bring the pandemic safely under control enough to permit some kind of social gatherings.

“The comparison I keep coming back to is that we’re building an airplane while we’re flying it,” says Tecla Tesnau, the owner of the Ottobar who started bartending at the venue when it first opened in 1997 and became the owner last year. The club’s last show was March 11, and after that, Tesnau started writing emails to all the club’s vendors pausing services until whenever reopening might be possible. When to reschedule shows, however, remains as unanswerable as it was in March.

Tecla Tesnau. Credit: Shane Gardner.

“There’s no expiration date for the pandemic yet,” Tesnau says. “And we don’t know what live music even looks like at the end of this. Are we going to be at half capacity because of restrictions? As COVID 19 has progressed, we’re learning more about the virus, and we’re trying to adapt as we go, but it’s definitely been a constant learning process.”

“We basically changed our concert hall into a television studio,” says Henry Wong, the owner of An die Musik. Wong has produced concerts in An die’s intimate downtown Baltimore venue in 2002, and following the stay at home order, he wrote the governor’s office to request permission to broadcast concerts from the venue. With the assistance of some students in Peabody Institute’s Depart of Recording Arts and Sciences*, An die started broadcasting shows from the club in late March, which continue—as have Keystone Korner, where Barkan says the pandemic accelerated his plans to livestream from the club, and the Red Room at Normals Books and Records, whose collective organizers also transformed their annual High Zero Festival for Improvised and Experimental Music into a virtual event.

It’s an imperfect substitute for the live music experience—a screen cannot replace the audience-artist relation of a stage—but for venues capable of livestreaming, it’s something.

Some assistance may be coming. Gov. Larry Hogan’s recently announced Maryland Strong: Economic Recovery Initiative pulls $250 million from the state’s rainy day fund to assist restaurants, small businesses, local entertainment venues, and arts organizations around the state. For Baltimore’s independent music venues, who’ve yet to receive any federal or state assistance thus far during the pandemic, continued survival remains precarious.

The Ottobar’s Tesnau says the club will be casting its hat into the state’s relief efforts in hopes of securing a sorely needed grant, but so far venues have had little luck in that department.

“I’ve applied for everything from American Express small business grants to some Maryland state grants and I haven’t received any,” says Sarah Werner, owner of the Metro Gallery. “We keep trudging along, but it’s hard. Most of the people on our staff have been with us for almost a decade now, so they’re just really good friends. I’ve bounced a lot of questions off of them, trying to get the vibe of how they feel. And as much as all of us want to get back to work, we’re all in the same boat where we just don’t feel like it’s the right time to open it at any capacity.”

The pandemic presents an existential threat for local venues and the music community at large because these aren’t merely small businesses but communities of people who support a sprawling, interconnected economy. There are roughly 20 dedicated live music venues in the greater Baltimore area, ranging in size from intimate spaces such as the Metro Gallery and the Crown in the Station North Arts and Entertainment District to mid-sized clubs like the Ottobar and Baltimore Soundstage and large venues such as the Royal Farms Arena, Merriweather Post Pavilion, and MECU Pavilion. That tally doesn’t include multipurpose halls or art galleries/centers that hold concerts (such as the Current Gallery, 2640 Space, the Eubie Blake National Jazz Institute and Cultural Center, the Motor House), college/university venues or museum stages and concert halls that also hold concerts (such as the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall or the Lyric), the bars and churches that also have weekly or periodic live music series, nightclubs where DJs spin dance/house/club music, or DIY/warehouse venues that operate in the margins.

Altogether, they’ve created a vital local ecosystem for the artists and fans in the greater Baltimore region and in the larger Mid-Atlantic, the East Coast, and national touring circuits. It’s an economy that employs musicians, of course, but also a whole host of precariously employed bartenders/wait staff, sound engineers and operators, bouncers, talent bookers, and more.

Nationwide, some of those professionals recognized how devastating the pandemic would be for that ecosystem early on. In the wake of the City of Austin canceling the tech, film, and music festival SXSW 2020 in March, a coalition of festivals, venues, and promoters formed the National Independent Venue Association to start lobbying the federal government for some form of relief through the #SaveOurStages campaign and creating an Emergency Fund Relief Fund. Also in March, a trio of entertainment professionals around the country started the Bring Music Home to tell the stories of music venues and the people behind them; veteran local music photographer Josh Sisk has been working with the organization locally. The organization is creating posters, a photography book, and a documentary, proceeds from which will go directly to relief efforts.

“Seeing Austin shut down a festival that has for 20-plus years brought Super Bowl-levels of income to the city made the pandemic very, very real, very, very fast,” says Tamara Deike, of Bring Music Home’s co-founder who is based in Austin. Deike and her co-founders Amber Mundinger, an executive at Artists Den Entertainment in New York, and photographer Kevin Condon reached out to their contacts in the industry and started putting together the network of local collaborators.

It was challenging at first because, as Mundinger acknowledges, the current situation isn’t exactly cheerful.

“In many cases, we’re looking to the federal government to step in and to do something for these spaces that are truly part of the cultural zeitgeists of our community,” Mundinger says. “What we set out to do was to tell the truth and give the people who are frequently behind the scenes a platform for their stories to be told—really, we want to share the passion and tenacity that drives and motivates them because music is more than just a job for them. It truly is what they’re passionate about and pulses through their veins.”

Dana Murphy is one of those people. The Ottobar junior talent buyer started in 2012 U+NFest to highlight a wide array of local, regional, and national punk activity. It has evolved into an event where she and her festival-planning collaborator Emily Ferrera are “are in an enviable position of having bands contact us saying, ‘Hey, we want to play this awesome fest,'” Murphy says. “And that’s great, but right now, we can’t.”

The Metro Gallery’s Werner brought up local promoters for the work they’ve done to bring bands to town. Older music fans can recall when touring bands skipped Baltimore in favor of nearby Washington, D.C., or Philadelphia. Independent local promoters have “worked really hard to make sure we don’t get skipped in touring routing,” Werner says. “And I’d really hate for that that hard work to go down the tubes for something that we have absolutely no control over, but I think the whole touring landscape is going to be different after this. And if you pull out one or two key clubs out of the Baltimore music scene, a lot falls after it. If one of the larger clubs in Baltimore close, if booking agents have only have one club to talk to, they’re going to be more likely to pass us over. If there’s not a competitive market, we could go from a second-tier market to a fourth-tier market pretty fast. And that’s really scary.”

Eze Jackson. Image via “The Whole Bushel” on Facebook.

Artists are experiencing that fear, too. “I’m not hearing enough people talk about depression,” says local emcee Eze Jackson, who says he was in a dark place during the pandemic’s first month. Music, he says, has been part of his life for the past 15 years, and even when he was working a full-time job, he was still making music at night and on the weekends. He was looking forward to dedicating 2020 to touring and further developing his career. “So to just suddenly not have that be a part of my life and to have all of these opportunities that I had canceled, it put me in a bad place,” he continues. “Recently I actually have been doing a better job or personally checking on my friends, just hitting them up and seeing how they’re doing. For artists, a lot of times music is our therapy. We don’t have the luxury of sitting in a therapist’s office. We put it all out on stage.”

The situation is not entirely gloomy, however, because music industry professionals are incredibly resourceful. The Creative Alliance at the Patterson started its Sidewalk Serenades series of outdoor neighborhood concerts for intimate, socially distanced audiences very quickly after the state’s stay-at-home order went into effect. Creative Alliance performance director Josh Kohn says he initially told musicians to perform about a 10-minute set, or three songs, which eventually became closer to a 20-minute set as the series progressed over the summer and into the fall.

“One of the positive things I think that has come about is that artists who have gone through the program figured out how to do it themselves and continued with their own serenades and their own private bookings, which is awesome,” Kohn says.

Local venues that turned to livestreaming concerts have been getting viewers from around the country and world, expanding their audience base. And because artists aren’t touring, Keystone Korner’s Barkan says the pandemic has enabled his club to start cultivating relationships with regional artists. “The upside of this situation is that we are blessed with a tremendous number of world-class performers in the Mid-Atlantic area,” Barkan says. “So it’s incumbent on the club to be developing regional artists.”

The Ottobar recently started holding events in its outdoor “Ottopatio” area, enforcing public safety best practices and the like, and Murphy reports its first outdoor music show sold out and the vibe was good. Tesnau says the outdoor events are a positive countermeasure to closing altogether and provides both staff and patrons a reprieve from pandemic doomscrolling but economically it is only putting a band-aid on a wound. Tesnau started an Ottobar Go Fund Me campaign in the summer when she realized there was no federal relief package on the horizon—”I was completely humbled by the tremendous outpouring of support that came in from the community in a time when I know people aren’t cash rich right now,” she says—and was so moved by the support wanted to figure out a way to give something back to the musicians hit by the pandemic as well.

Later this year, the club will release “NO STAGEDIVING: A Stage-Free Baltimore Playlist and Ottobar Fundraiser,” a digital compilation of 50-plus songs from local bands past and present, proceeds of which will go to the bands affected by the pandemic and the venue. (Recently, the 8×10 started a GoFundMe campaign as well.)

How long venues have to improvise to stay alive, however, remains the unanswered question. Winter is coming, which will put an end to outdoor performances, and sadly COVID-19 infection rates around the country have been climbing. But in talking with venue owners about the situation, it’s inspiring to hear them continually find resolve in the face of such uncertainty.

“I’m here to promote music as a culture,” says An die Musik’s Wong. “We know that’s always going to be hard, but we still have figured out a way to survive. I’ve been working in music for 30 years this year, started doing live performance in 2002, and have done more than 4,500 shows since. And I’d say with a majority of our shows, we never make a dime, but it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t keep doing it as long as I figure out a way that we can stay afloat.”

* Note: The author is a senior writer at the Johns Hopkins Magazine.



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