Washington DC | October 2, 2020 1:45 pm

Can DC’s Indoor Live-Music Experiment Possibly Work?

Six venues around the city have been given permits that will expire at the end of October

john f kennedy center for the performing arts
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts is among the venues tabbed to reopen
Pictorial Parade/Getty

Concert fans, rejoice, for you are finally being offered a small break in the clouds in the form of live music permits rolling out for the month of October. The city recently announced the launch of a pilot program for a select number of DC venues to be able to host socially distanced indoor live music events until the end of spooky season — aka when the clock strikes midnight on the night of Halloween.

The Program

The pilot program, which allegedly took months of planning, grants temporary permits to six venues throughout the city: City Winery in Ivy City, the GALA Hispanic Theatre in Columbia Heights, Pearl Street Warehouse and Union Stage at The Wharf, The Hamilton downtown and The Kennedy Center in Foggy Bottom.

These select venues will now be able to schedule live performances for an audience of up to 50, and DC officials have said that while more venues could possibly be added if the program proves itself to be safe and successful, no other live-entertainment venues will be allowed to operate until the end of the pilot program.

The 50-person cap includes performers, staff and attendees, and a number of other specific rules will remain in place to ensure the safety of all involved — from requiring reserved seating and advanced ticketing to the prohibition of any dancing while at the event. Masks are a must, performances must end after a three hour mark, and a maximum of six people can be seated at each table.

The Show Must Go On

Despite these strict rules, venue operators are excited to open their doors to guests again, even if there isn’t much money to be made in the venture. It represents, in a way, the small beginnings of what can hopefully turn into a sustainable opening plan for live-music venues, which have remained shuttered and unprofitable for several months now.

Nicholas Fontana, a co-owner of Pearl Street Warehouse, tells InsideHook that “it has been terrible [since the pandemic hit]. We are mainly a live-music venue and have been trying to survive by operating as a restaurant. We are only doing about 20 percent of what we would normally do in sales, basically operating to be able to keep a few of our staff employed. We are lucky our landlord has worked with us on rent or we would not be open.”

One of the first operators to open in the revamped District Wharf area back in 2017, Pearl Street Warehouse has become a mainstay of the area, welcoming musical acts from a wide range of genres and fame. From emerging folk and bluegrass artists to globally recognized rock bands, its low ticket prices and wide open venue have made it one of the city’s favorite places to catch a show. 

Fontana, who says he’s happy to have been chosen for the program, tells us that Pearl Street plans to put on seven shows over the course of their short permits, with new shows being added once artists are confirmed. “The tables inside will be by reservation, but we are lucky to have an outside patio and garage doors that open to the street for seating that does not count toward our 50 person capacity. Those tables will be first come, first serve depending on weather.”

The Kennedy Center, another venue chosen to receive a permit, already hosted their first event on Saturday, a live performance by operatic soprano Renée Fleming and singer Vanessa Williams, with attendees viewing the performance from paired seats set up on the stage and the artists performing on a newly built stage extension. After ceasing operations back in March, the venue has said that it expected to lose more than $90 million this year related to pandemic-related restrictions.

What’s next?

It’s been over three months since DC moved into Phase 2 of its reopening plan on June 22. Shifting criteria leaves more questions than answers when it comes to the next phase of reopening, which would extend the cap on indoor performance venues from 50 people all the way up to 250. Mayor Muriel Bowser and other local officials have said that they’re looking at ways to modify current guidelines to allow more businesses to reopen in a safe manner for the time being.

After an announcement of the live music pilot program by officials, it was also revealed that eight operators of outdoor entertainment are being welcomed to resubmit their plans for outdoor entertainment events as a part of Phase 2, including: the Adams Morgan Partnership BID, Arena Stage, Busboys and Poets, Capitol Riverfront BID, District Wharf, Et Voila Restaurant, Heist Group at the Kennedy Center and The Bullpen.

The question still lingers on how and when these outdoor venues will be able to operate safely, as the Kennedy Center has already called off plans to host the first weekend of a “lounge pop-up” from scene-y nightclub Heist on its rooftop terrace only two days after the initial announcement. 

The Dupont nightclub claimed to have sold out their tickets for the event in a breakneck 15 minutes, which would have seen 360 people on the rooftop of the Kennedy Center — seven times as many as the current guidelines allow for. Ticket prices ranged all the way up to $1,000 cabana rentals with bottle service, and operators say they would have installed “contactless set-up,” including temperature checks, socially distanced tables, required masks, limited elevator trips and hand sanitizer at every table.

“The Center’s recent and successful return to hosting live performance at reduced capacity required months of rigorous planning. Likewise, we hold outside parties renting our spaces to the same high level of scrutiny and precautionary planning, and more time is needed to fully assess these plans,” wrote the Kennedy Center in a recent statement. 

For now, the pilot program is a “wait and see” situation, but many are hopeful that it will lead to safe and profitable ways for local music venue operators to stay in business.