Bay Area independent music venues struggle to reopen

Callie Fausey

Before the pandemic hit the United States, San Francisco-based jazz band Uncle Chris — whose members include USF students Sue-ling Kaiser, Patrick Madden, Alex Wolfert, Gabriel True, and Seref Ha’Qol — was performing live around the city about once a week. Whether it was at house shows, music venues, or USF’s campus, Uncle Chris was able to rock without restrictions. 

“If it wasn’t for the pandemic, we would’ve still been playing shows,” Ha’Qol said. “Before the pandemic hit, the shows were getting a lot crazier, with more people showing up.”

Once COVID-19 restrictions began to limit in-person events, local bands like Uncle Chris had to put a pause on live performances. With historic venues like Slim’s in Downtown San Francisco and The Saddle Rack in Fremont closing, the local, independent music scene has suffered serious losses. Of the 1,600 venues connected to the National Independent Venue Association, 90% said last year that if lockdown continued, they would permanently go out of business. 

Nico Govea, the Operations and Productions Manager at the Swedish American Hall and its connected speakeasy, Cafe du Nord, on Market Street, explained how independent venues have been affected by the pandemic.

“Over the course of 2020, our service and admin staff have been furloughed or have moved on to other ventures,” Govea said. “We miss the music, the energy, and the smiles that the venue ignites.”

Venues and theaters in California were allowed to begin reopening on April 15 with guidelines in place for indoor events. This was thanks to an update to the state’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy reopening by the California Department of Public health. While this came as a relief, the revival of the Bay Area live music scene seems to depend on if independent venues can survive until a full reopening in the near future. 

Govea said that, like other independent venues, Cafe du Nord is currently in the process of scheduling and rescheduling some of the events they had on the books pre-pandemic. Despite losses and delays, they plan on getting “show ready” within the next few months. 

“As an independent music venue, Cafe du Nord and the Swedish American Hall were some of the first to see COVID-19 pandemic restrictions and we will be the last to reopen,” Govea said in an email. “We plan on shaking some things up in the venue which will allow us greater capabilities in the way of sound, lights, and stage. We will be coming back stronger than ever as a place for the community to safely gather.”

Miranda Morris, the senior director of USF’s radio station, KUSF, who has been involved in the Bay Area music scene since the 1990s, said the city has not provided sufficient economic aid to local music venues and clubs since the beginning of the pandemic. These cultural spaces have been forced to close or go into debt with little to no revenue coming in and exorbitant rent prices still in place, she said.

“A lot of the venues and clubs felt abandoned by the city,” Morris said in reference to the first few months following the initial lockdown last year. “They bring in tax and employers and add so much cultural fabric to the city just to be not helped when they need it.” 

In February of this year, however, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors formalized the $3 million Music and Entertainment Venue Recovery fund, which is currently accepting public donations, to help alleviate some of the financial stress on independent venues. These funds will only cover a small amount of the expenses venues face, though, which can be anywhere from $18,000 to $35,000 per month

“[Local venue owners] are all waiting for the grant or local money to come through to get them out of debt,” Morris said. 

In order to survive, businesses have been adapting in various ways. For example, The Chapel, a live music venue on Valencia Street, has begun to hold outdoor events and bring in revenue by selling dinner tickets. However, attendance for these events is limited due to social distancing and the guidelines of the Just Add Music (JAM) Permit.

Mayor London Breed’s JAM Permit, which grants permission to venues to hold outdoor performances, was put in place in September to help bring in revenue. Many venues have not taken advantage of it, though, since it requires them to serve food and provide adequate space for seating. 

According to Morris, venues beginning to reopen for indoor events may provide a bit of hope to their operators, but there is a large cost associated with staying open while pandemic restrictions are still in place. Reopening for indoor events depends on many different factors, such as support and guidelines from city officials, rates of vaccinations, and cooperation from artists.  

“I think the pandemic is going to have to be really under control before venues are fully able to reopen for indoor events,” Morris said. 

The pandemic has also set up the conditions for a “Tech Exodus,” where tech workers have been moving out of the city, freeing up space in newly vacant locations. Morris said that this means there is the possibility of commercial retail in the Bay Area becoming more affordable for the installment of independent businesses, like local music venues. 

“People are saying that this is going to loosen up the city and have more community spaces move in,” Morris said. However, the plausibility of this happening has been debated, since rent prices are still far from reasonable for many people. 

As the conditions around reopening continue to develop, many people are looking forward to events scheduled to occur in the summer and fall of this year. Wolfert said Uncle Chris has a few scheduled shows coming up in May, including an outdoor performance in Golden Gate Park, and a livestream set to be filmed in a San Francisco music venue. Many artists around the Bay Area used live-streaming to help independent venues stay open during lockdown. Uncle Chris is hoping for more opportunities to arise as summer draws closer. 

“We’re definitely a little nervous about venues reopening back up, but we’re incredibly excited for it at the same time,” Kaiser said. “We’ve all been recently day dreaming about playing some of our new songs live, so we’re just super curious to see how the crowd sways to these new songs.”

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