What Will DC's Music Scene Look Like After the Coronavirus?

Independent venues like U Street Music Hall must adapt to their new situation

June 8, 2020 1:34 pm
U Street Music Hall lies empty
U Street Music Hall door's are closed for the foreseeable future because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Melissa Beattie

When the first few cases of the coronavirus hit the U.S. in late January, I was still looking forward to seeing Little Dragon, a funky Swedish electric band, play at the 9:30 Club in mid-April. It was, in retrospect, an all-too-optimistic view of how the pandemic would ultimately play out. And yet, still, a small voice of hope inside of me continued to say, “maybe Newport Folk Festival (another event for which I was a ticket holder) won’t be canceled. It’s in August!” Wrong again, and that more recent cancellation really drove it all home: live music is fully called off through the summer, at least.

It was a sad realization, especially considering that live-music executives began the new decade with fresh optimism, looking forward to what they predicted to be record grosses in the touring business at the start of the year. What obviously changed all of that and so much more was the outbreak of COVID-19, and what initially seemed like a pause for safety turned into conditions of strict social isolation that so many now call “the new normal.” 

Add a very valid concern for one’s physical health to an increasingly uncertain economy and record numbers of unemployment, and you’ve got a recipe for the upending of an industry. 

An uncertain future

With concerts shuttered, festivals postponed and the $30+ billion global live-music industry on indefinite hiatus, few industries have been harder hit than the music business — particularly small independent artists and local music venues. A few months into this crisis with no clear end date on the horizon, many music-related businesses remain unsure if they’ll ever be able to reopen.

U-Street Music Hall, one of DC’s most beloved independent music venues, has been Will Eastman’s baby since he opened it back in 2010. This year marks the club’s 10-year anniversary, and Eastman tells InsideHook that they had a weeklong series of events initially planned for the week right after they ultimately decided to close their doors, and only a few days ahead of Mayor Bower’s official shutdown order.

Photo of U Street Music Hall courtesy of Mike Kimchi

“We were the first to close and, given the circumstances of the global pandemic, it’s looking like we may be among the last to reopen, so it’s not an exaggeration to say that this is perhaps the greatest existential crisis that the concert industry has faced in our life,” says Eastman.

He explained that, similar to other service-based establishments like restaurants, independent concert venues don’t exactly have piles of cash on hand. In fact, he says, most don’t even have enough to stay in business beyond six months without government assistance. According to the brand new National Independent Venue Association (NIVA), more than 1,000 music venues are in danger of closing for good, and they recently told Rolling Stone that 55% of their member venues say they do not have enough money to last more than three months. “We don’t have vertical integration in our business model. We have personal guarantees done on our leases, and it’s a low-margin, high-cost and high-risk business,” says Eastman. 

The night U Street Music Hall shut down for the foreseeable future, Eastman recalls the experience feeling like an episode of the Twilight Zone: planning one day for a bright future and the next day shutting down with “next to no guidance on what, when, where and how.” 

“We acted swiftly to protect our fans, artists and our staff, but after I had to lay off my 24 staff members and close the doors, I just wept,” says Eastman. “Looking at that stage empty, not knowing if we could ever host another show again … I’ve been obsessed with music my entire life. I joined my first band when I was 15. I started collecting records when I was 10. I’ve done just about every job in this industry, from radio to print journalism, a promoter, record label owner. It’s just a beautiful industry that is focused on sharing art and artistry with others.”

“That is just unbeatable. You can’t touch that remotely with internet streaming. There’s just something magical when you’re witnessing a live performance in the presence of others and the artists. So, it’s just super disorienting.”

Live music meets Zoom culture

Musicians and their fans certainly aren’t fooling themselves into thinking that live streams, TikToks and Fortnite concerts are an adequate replacement for live performances. Right now, though, they’re all we’ve got, and isolation and boredom are doing what they do best: forcing people to get creative. 

Over the past few months, the number of users engaging in live streaming have predictably surged across platforms like Twitch, Instagram and YouTube. Viewership on video-sharing platform Twitch’s Music and Performance Arts Category, for example, rose by an astonishing 524% in March, from an average of 92 thousand viewers to 574 thousand viewers. Popular electronic artist Diplo even launched a live streaming series on the platform called Corona World Tour. Pop artist Dua Lipa complemented the much-anticipated release of her new album, Future Nostalgia, by playing and commenting on each song via YouTube Live. As the future of music continues to progress, who knows what long-lasting impacts these creative, virtual integrations may have. 

For now, artists of all scales are just figuring things out as they come. Country singer Brad Paisley will be one of the first to perform a full-scale, full-band concert this Friday, sponsored by Bud Light. The caveat? The performance, featuring an opening act by Lady Antebellum, will be live-streamed on Paisley’s social-media platforms.

Electronic artist Marc Ribellet, on the other hand, announced the first ever drive-in concert tour in the U.S., a move that entertainment experts are saying could become part of the new normal. Elsewhere in the world, Danish singer-songwriter Mads Langer has already performed for about 500 fans in cars. It’s a nice enough concept for now, but questions quickly arise about how the drive-in model could possibly work in cities like DC or New York, where much of the population do not own cars and space is limited.

“It’s important for us to keep doing drive-in concerts, which we’re going to test and roll out, which we’re having some success with,” Michael Rapino, president of the entertainment firm Live Nation, told Rolling Stone. “We’re seeing lots of artists chomping to get back out once it’s safe.”

Independent venues are searching for hope

Artists, promoters and independent venue owners are champing at the bit with good reason: while these venues may still seem like small business, the estimated direct annual impact they provide to their local communities nears $10 billion, according to NIVA. And in addition to financially supporting employees and artists, the industry itself serves as a kind of financial engine for their local economy, with every ticket sale helping to bring customers to nearby restaurants, hotels and retail establishments.

Photo of U Street Music Hall courtesy of Troy Gerhardt

According to Pollstar, an estimated $9 billions in ticket sales alone will be lost if venues remain closed through the end of the year.

The idea of these unprecedented losses added to the threat of independent venues shuttering for good was what made these business owners, typically fiercely independent, come together to form NIVA. “For the first time in history, there is legitimate fear for our collective existence,” they wrote in a letter to Congress.

Will Eastman tells us that seeing the community come together has been inspiring, saying that they’re now working on creating a longer-term plan of how “we as a community, and as a business sector, get through this.” Despite all this newfound camaraderie, Eastman is still worried. While he recently decided to bring his salaried workers back, he, like many other small venue owners, will eventually be forced to repay the portion of their PPP loans pertaining to hourly workers, since it doesn’t make sense to do so when zero shows are being played. Eastman also says that if they don’t eventually reopen, he will still be personally liable for the remainder of his lease. “I will be financially ruined,” he says.

So as he and other venue operators await direction from government authorities, they’re quietly and cautiously working with artists and agents to plan out show dates for the fall and beyond, though Eastman says he has none officially planned as of now. 

“It’’s premature to even imagine a new normal at this point, because the virus is still raging, and I think, as we’ve been trying to read the tea leaves, that the bottom line is that obviously there are going to be huge changes in gathering places like U Street Music Hall; everything — from masks to multiple-day cleanings to how we wash and handle dishes, from how drinks are served to insurance — will be different.”

Eastman predicts that updates to venues themselves will also be mandatory, such as installing touch faucets in bathrooms or the elimination of cash transactions. “I think you’re gonna see an influx of new online payment systems related to tickets. I have a huge collection of ticket stubs, as a lot of music fans do. It’s a great memento, but physical tickets may be a thing of the past.”

“I think [the coronavirus] is gonna change just about everything in our society, and it’s gonna change just about every social experience,” he says. “I’ve been speaking with my staff and I believe in transparency — overall I am optimistic for the long haul. The live-music experience isn’t going anywhere. It’ll be here. It’s irreplaceable in our society. However, when people ask if things are going back to normal, that normal world that we had back in February is never coming back.”

Click here to purchase T-shirts from U Street Music Hall, currently their only source of revenue.

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