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INDIE CLUBS FORGE STRATEGIES OF SURVIVAL

The first time the general public was able to see the interior of the new Brooklyn Bowl club in Nashville was on Friday, 5/15, when Jason Isbell livestreamed a record-release performance from the empty club. That’s not how the venue’s debut was supposed to go down.

Music City’s 1,200-capacity Brooklyn Bowl—the others are the original in New York and Las Vegas, both of which can accommodate 800 people—was set to open in mid-March, but before a single ball was rolled down a lane, the lockdown hit the U.S., shuttering venues from coast to coast.

“Each situation is different and evolving at a different pace,” says Brooklyn Bowl owner Peter Shapiro (pictured below right), who also owns the platform hosting the stream, FANS.com. “Nashville is very different from New York. We wanted to do a show as soon as we could, with no audience.”

Shapiro is not alone. In late March, Michael Dorf (pictured at right) was preparing to open a new flagship City Winery in New York, an $18m project along the Hudson River at 15th St. For now, City Winery generates income by selling wine to go from its locations in seven cities, among them City Vineyard in Manhattan. Wine-selling, Dorf says, could eventually be a driver when the clubs, which had capacities of about 400 people seated, return to presenting live music.

“Most of our spaces have outdoor cafe areas, so we're looking at part of our transition being selling wine and food to go, then letting people sit in our outdoor areas—six feet apart—and get people used to slowly coming to a place where they can sit and drink some wine,” Dorf says, noting they were pouring 200,000 glasses of wine per month at the clubs.

“Once the weather's good, we introduce some music to create a little more vibe. Then, as people start to feel more comfortable, maybe September, October, going indoors and consuming culture and food and wine.”

On the West Coast, the Belly Up has built a side business by selling downloads of concerts recorded at the 600-capacity club just outside San Diego. In early May, the venue doubled down on its live offerings, posting 40 shows by the likes of Toots & the Maytals, Rufus Wainwright and Ozomatli for $7.99 each. They also struck a deal with Fat Possum to bundle X’s new album, Alphabetland, with a live recording from 2010.

“We were doing so well as a club that we never really had an urgent need to focus on it,” says Belly Up Entertainment President Chris Goldsmith (at left), who estimates they’ve posted 70 concerts for sale over the last seven years.  “All of a sudden, people want to support the club, and this is a way to donate directly to the club and directly to the band.”

Uncertainty hangs over independent clubs like few other businesses. By and large, they have no means to generate income without live entertainers—witness the GoFundMe campaign for West Hollywood’s Troubadour and the Kickstarter bid from Le Poisson Rouge in New York plus the recent creation of the National Independent Venue Association that’s lobbying governments. Brooklyn Bowl and City Winery, which has locations in Chicago and along the East Coast from Atlanta to Boston, face the same dilemmas as Minneapolis’ First Avenue, but they have alternatives that others don’t.

Brooklyn Bowl, for example, has a large footprint because of the bowling lanes—the Vegas location is 80,000 square feet—which could work to the clubs’ advantage when determining capacity down the road; the lanes could be converted to audience space, for example. On the other hand, Shapiro says, “we may see bowling return long before we have music.”

To reopen, Dorf says, “everything needs to be recalibrated. We have had conversations with every single one of our artists, which means we've had to talk to every single agent and manager and say, ‘Please rip up the old offer.’ Our new offer basically says that we can't tell you what the capacity is, and therefore we can't tell you what the gross will be—and therefore we can't give you a guarantee. Work with us as a partner and we're going to give you 90% or a 100% of the tickets that we can do safely and legally, less a couple of dollars for the production person and the sound engineer.

“We hope that by then we're gonna have some better streaming options that will allow us to have a second layer of ticketing, whether it's a three, four, five or $10 ticket.” (City Winery’s Mother’s Day streaming event raised nearly $50k for the UN charity that focuses on reproductive health for women).

City Winery’s bread and butter has been singer/songwriters who can quickly sell out a 400-seater—Steve Earle, Dave Alvin, Shelby Lynne, etc. He plans to continue booking similar acts but expects the initial emphasis to be on regional performers rather than national or international acts. Best-case scenario is an established artist who's comfortable performing solo and willing to drive up the East Coast and play each City Winery.

“We spend every day trying to figure out what will be the comfort level when we’re be able to put on a show,” Dorf says, noting they could open in Atlanta but have chosen to be “safe and practical.”  “And then, how do we make our audience, our staff and the artists comfortable knowing that we're doing everything we can to keep them safe and do what we're supposed to do, which is entertain.”

“I don’t think we’ve even seen the technology we’ll be 
using—somebody is working on it right now.”
—Peter Shapiro, Brooklyn Bowl

Livestreaming drives Goldsmith’s plan for the Solana Beach, Calif., Belly Up as well. Thanks to the download store, the company is already set up for e-commerce and delivery, and his club is “a turnkey solution for band that wants a concert vibe.”

With the OK to operate as an essential business in the entertainment industry, the Belly Up will livestream local reggae act HIRIE on 5/18 with no audience. “It’s for artists who are tired of playing in their pajamas, in their kitchen, on their iPhone, and for audiences who want real concert production with real lighting.”

Step two involves a small live audience. Goldsmith has heard that 30% of capacity is the number they’ll be allowed, so a show for a crowd of 100 people will make it feel like a VIP experience for a  livestream taping. He’s already getting interest from bands, X among them.

“After that, it's got to become like more of a merit-based business model than just a show of support,” Goldsmith says. “The show probably has to evolve so that it's trying to be more than just a concert—more interactive, maybe some pre-roll content that's spliced in, some backstage stuff—a more robust experience.

“I see a day in the future, when bands have returned to touring,    where  most venues will have a livestreaming component that's mainly targeted toward the people in the club's market. Maybe those streaming revenues are less than during the pandemic days, but they become a part of the revenue stream of the club. If we never get back to a 100% capacity ever, maybe we can start making back money we've lost for being closed for the last six months.”

Back in New York, both club owners are putting plenty of holds on dates in 2021—Shapiro says the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, which he runs, will soon have every weekend on hold—as they brace for a chance at a new normal in 2020.

Shapiro, whose clubs generally book jam bands, funk acts and New Orleans-related music, predicts there will be a rapid health test by the fall: “I don’t think we’ve even seen the technology we’ll be using—somebody is working on it right now.” That will have an impact on when the doors open and how they keep people entertained.

“I think people will start to go to shows earlier because there will be a health check as well as security,” he says. “People won’t want to stand on long lines, so we’ll have to find a way to keep them entertained. At the Capitol, we can book a band to play at Garcia’s before a show. We have to figure out how we do that at the Bowls.”

Shapiro’s emphasis is now on Brooklyn and Nashville, but he points out that Las Vegas is its own animal, highly dependent on tourists. “I think that in 2021, we’ll see people traveling in the States rather than going to Europe or the Caribbean. That’s going to help Vegas. We’ll see more locals on an average weekend and a lot of jam bands that were playing Mexico or doing cruises are likely to stay home.”

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