How D.C.'s Music Venues Navigated The Shutdown, Reopening And The Delta Variant
This summer provided an opportunity for D.C.'s music venues to come roaring back after more than a year of silence, but the delta variant has caused a hiccup in their recovery.
Music venues, which serve as cultural anchors for a neighborhood, have a reliance on packed crowds that made them particularly vulnerable to the pandemic. While restaurants pivoted to takeout, delivery and outdoor seating, large indoor venues struggled to find ways to bring in revenue.
Not all of the city's music venues survived the pandemic, with some spots like U Street Music Hall and Twins Jazz Club closing permanently. Those that did survive said it wasn't easy, and government relief money provided a lifeline that prevented some from shutting down. Bisnow spoke to the owners of D.C. music venues The Anthem, 9:30 Club, Echostage, Soundcheck and Black Cat about how they managed reopening this summer and how the delta variant has impacted their business.
The turning point of the recovery came June 11, when Mayor Muriel Bowser lifted all restrictions on businesses, allowing music venues to return to their full pre-Covid capacity levels. Her announcement of the full reopening came less than a month earlier on May 17, leaving some venue owners surprised about the suddenness of the return to 100% capacity and unable to ramp up operations that quickly.
I.M.P. — the company that owns The Anthem and 9:30 Club and operates D.C.'s Lincoln Theatre and Maryland's Merriweather Post Pavilion — was one of those venue operators that wasn't anticipating such a quick reopening timeline. I.M.P. Chief Operating Officer Donna Westmoreland said the challenges of bringing back staff and booking touring artists to play shows pushed its reopening back.
"We had actually been asking for a while for some benchmarks that would help indicate that we might be opening soon, for the very specific reason that ours isn’t an industry where you flip a switch," Westmoreland said. "We were surprised, and we were like ‘Great, let’s get going,’ and we did start to get going, but here we are in the second week of September and we’re finally up and running."
The Anthem reopened July 30 with a comedy show from D.C. native Dave Chappelle. The 9:30 Club opened early this month with a series of concerts capped by the Foo Fighters on Sept. 9. At that show, frontman Dave Grohl, a Virginia native who frequented the old 9:30 Club before playing there as Nirvana's drummer in 1991, broke major news for D.C.'s music venue scene.
Grohl said at the show, and I.M.P. officially announced the next morning, that the company would be opening a new venue next to the current club that would be an exact replica of the original 9:30 Club that operated from 1980 to 1995.
I.M.P said the venue would open in the former location of Satellite Room at 2047 Ninth St. NW. I.M.P Communications Director Audrey Fix Schaefer said the company doesn't have a timeline for the venue's opening, but it sees the project as an important investment to help create opportunities for emerging musicians.
"You want to be able to develop artists when they’re starting and emerging," Fix Schaefer said. "So the smaller the club you have the better, then you can grow into 9:30 Club and then to The Anthem and then to Merriweather. It’s a crucial investment not just from the perspective of having a nightclub but really for having artists for tomorrow."
While it is looking ahead to the future with the new venue, I.M.P. said it isn't yet out of the woods from the crisis that rocked the music venue industry.
The company's venues are requiring guests to show proof of vaccination or a recent negative test result. Westmoreland said the increased safety measures add costs that make it more expensive to operate the venues, but it is important to prevent outbreaks so the venues can keep putting on concerts in the months ahead.
"We can’t shut down again. We cannot," Westmoreland said. "We’ve lived through the last 18 months by the skin of our teeth and relief came, but it came late, and it’s a long way from making us anywhere near whole. So for survival, we cannot shut down again, and it is very clear what will keep us from having to shut down again, and that’s having people be vaccinated and take the proper precautions."
The operators also must enforce the mask mandate that Bowser reinstated July 30. Westmoreland said the rise of Covid cases with the delta variant and the mask mandate has dampened some of the optimism around the recovery, but she said D.C. still has many people eager to see live music.
"I think certainly it’s had some effect," she said of the variant. "There are plenty of people who are being cautious and who are deciding that’s not something they want to do, but there are more people that are vaccinated, wear a mask, do the right thing and have some fun, too. Everyone’s finding their own comfort level, their own balance, and it’s working out pretty well."
The federal relief bill passed in December included $16B in emergency aid for music venues. The bill allows venues to receive a grant of up to 45% of their 2019 revenue or up to $10M, whichever is less, though it took several months for many venues to receive the funds.
Westmoreland said I.M.P. received the relief funds for its venues, and it helped pay the bills, but she said it is still operating on small margins as it ramps back up from the pandemic.
"We got some money from the government, but that is really assigned to bills. We had lots of bills to pay during the course of the time we were closed," she said. "We know how to be austere and make good deals, and that’s what we’ll continue to do, and we’ll just have lower profits."
Echostage, a 3,000-person dance club venue in Northeast D.C., hit the ground running as soon as the mayor lifted capacity restrictions. It quickly announced five concerts between June 12 and June 26 with some of the most famous electronic dance music DJs in the world: Zedd, David Guetta, Tiësto, Alesso and Tchami.
Club Glow CEO Pete Kalamoutsos, who owns Echostage and downtown D.C. venue Soundcheck, said he was able to land these top DJs that quickly because of existing relationships he has with them, and because they weren't on tour and were looking for opportunities to do one-off shows.
He said individual DJs can be easier to book on short notice than bands that schedule tours months in advance. He also said Echostage was well-suited for the quick reopening because it offers all of its own lighting and production equipment for DJs.
"We have an in-house team to do lights and sound and visuals so it's pretty plug-and-play for everybody," Kalamoutsos said. "So we were able to open a lot sooner than venues that are more geared toward tours and bands."
Most of Echostage's venue staff were part-time employees who stayed in the area and were eager to come back to work, he said. Its first string of shows all sold out quickly.
"Pretty much everything sold out in June and July right off the bat, people were waiting to come in," Kalamoutsos said. "We were really lucky there was huge demand. Our crowd is younger as opposed to some other venues that might have an older clientele that might be more hesitant to come back. Our crowd was ready to go."
After July, when fears about the delta variant increased and Bowser reinstated the mask mandate, Kalamoutsos said he saw a slowdown in ticket sales. But he said some of those shows were lesser-known DJs that wouldn't normally sell out, and many people just delayed buying tickets until the last minute.
"Yeah, not gonna lie, it definitely impacted it a little bit, delta, definitely," he said. "I think people are waiting now to buy their tickets the week of. Our shows are still doing well, it's just usually you sell most of your tickets the day you go on sale, but now I think people are waiting to make sure they're not sick and know they can go before they buy the ticket."
Kalamoutsos said his venues didn't receive federal relief money because of a joint venture partnership it reached just before the pandemic with Insomniac and Live Nation, a publicly traded company. He said that partnership gave his venues the financial stability to survive the pandemic, and he used the downtime to make venue improvements.
Echostage began requiring proof of vaccination or a negative test Aug. 21, a move Kalamoutsos said was necessary to make its staff and customers feel safe. He said he thinks D.C.'s music scene is in a better position than other areas where vaccination rates aren't as high.
The other D.C. dance club Kalamoutsos operates, Soundcheck, is now doing better than it was before the pandemic, he said, because he is scheduling more shows per week. He said he has also increased the number of bookings at Echostage, a strategy that has helped his business recovery financially.
"We’re definitely on the right path," he said. "We have a lot of shows. It's not rocket science. The more shows you do, the better you are, and we have a lot of shows right now."
Black Cat, a 10K SF venue on 14th Street NW that specializes in indie and alternative bands, reopened July 9. During the roughly 16 months the venue was closed, owner Dante Ferrando said he was losing $20K per month, including thousands in property tax payments because he owns the building and the city didn't exempt closed venues from paying taxes.
Ferrando said he was able to survive the pandemic because he had money in savings and because he received local and federal relief, including the federal grant for 45% of 2019 revenues.
"I’m happy it looks like D.C. survived with a lot of its venues intact because it was a pretty terrible situation," Ferrando said. "I'm grateful there was grant money on the table. That’s made a huge difference."
Since July, Black Cat has been hosting about two shows per week. He said business was strong the first month, with ticket sales slightly above the pre-pandemic average, but the rise in delta variant cases in August contributed to a slowdown in activity.
"The combination of the delta variant and everybody having had a chance to go out a little bit, now I’m seeing people picking and choosing much more carefully and seeing turnouts on the lower end of what I would expect," Ferrando said.
Ferrando said he has also required proof of vaccination or a negative test result to enter Black Cat in order to make customers and staff members feel safe.
D.C. Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development John Falcicchio applauded venues for requiring proof of vaccination and said it has helped the city with its efforts to encourage young people to get vaccinated.
"They were actually some of the first to actually put in place vaccine requirements for their guests, and having it industry-led makes it even more impactful because it’s not the government mandating you to do something," Falcicchio said. "And that was at the time the audience, the younger crowd, we were trying to get vaccinated."
Falcicchio said he is glad to see many of the city's venues were selling out shows after reopening and are still holding steady, but he worries that another rise in Covid cases this winter could hobble their recovery.
"We have to be mindful that we're heading into the winter season where we hopefully don't, but could possibly see the flu season and people being indoors more, hopefully we don't see another wave," Falcicchio said. "That would be the greatest threat to their continued comeback."
Ferrando also said he is concerned about the pandemic continuing into the winter and what it could mean for music venues.
"Delta’s not going away this winter; it’s not going to happen," Ferrando said. "So there’s going to be ebbs and flows. I would expect things to get worse before they get better — at least I have to plan that way."