Walking around Frogtown music venue Zebulon on a recent Friday afternoon, you’d be hard pressed to tell that the independent club and bar has been closed to concerts for 14 months.
Pristine bottles of mezcal, bourbon, and beer glint from the well-stocked front bar. Flyers advertising the venue’s famously eclectic bookings — from jazz to punk to Afrobeat — flank the entrance to the space’s 300-person main room. Next to the stage, a drum kit, bass, and amplifiers await their players.
“The last show was great, it was The Mummies,” recalls Zebulon co-owner Jef Soubiran. “We were very excited. We booked them like four months prior. And then it was the date when we closed, and they played in the afternoon. And by 5 p.m. we closed the place.”
Soubiran’s presence is the only outlier to the venue’s otherwise Pompeiian feel, sidling up to his laptop at the bar as he gets back to the long-awaited work of booking shows and preparing for reopening.
When exactly that might be, however, remains more uncertain for Soubiran and the dozens of other indoor concert venues in the LA area.
Music venues were the first to close and will be among the last to reopen in the waning pandemic. Though some larger, outdoor venues, such as the Hollywood Bowl, will see concerts return as soon as this month, indoor music clubs say they likely won’t return in earnest until late summer or fall as they navigate a complex ecosystem of safety regulations, financial constraints, and touring schedules.
In California, venues are largely waiting on what fully reopening looks like — Gov. Gavin Newsom promises that would happen on June 15 — and if masks, vaccination cards, and other new operating procedures will be addressed, or left to the discretion of businesses.
First, however, they need money. Most independent music venues are grappling with debt, with many having lost upwards of 90% of their business during the pandemic while still needing to pay rent, mortgages, insurance, utility bills, and other expenses.
On the road to reopening, the biggest factor has become federal assistance, as many of these venues wait on funding from the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant (SVOG) program, which includes more than $16 billion for closed venues.
For independent clubs like the Troubadour in West Hollywood, reopening and surviving are two different things. Amy Madrigali, who books the venue and is also the local chapter head of the National Independent Venue Association, said that without the critical grant assistance, most venues can’t rehire staff, adapt to safety regulations, and otherwise plan for the future.
“Venues across the country are still in survival mode,” Madriagli says. “Some people can open partially, some people can’t open at all, depending on your state and local regulations. But we're still in survival mode until the grants come. And that'll be a big sigh of relief and exhale, so people can just hang onto their buildings and hang onto their businesses.”
The amount of funding provided by the SVOG program varies according to each venue’s needs. Those who have lost 90% or more of business during the pandemic are expected to receive around 45% of what they earned in the previous year of normal operation.
Federal funding was secured through the Save Our Stages Act in December, but venues have yet to see any money. With no precedent for such a program, the grant application website crashed when it initially opened in early April. Upon its return at the end of the month, the application website received more than 17,000 applications in its first 24 hours. Grants are now expected to come through within a month.
“We're kind of in limbo,” says Dalton Gerlach, co-owner of the Lodge Room in Highland Park. “There’s an allocation you set up of how you're going to spend the money across employees, payroll, renovations, COVID safety, different upgrades. What's tricky is figuring out aligning that with reopening, and having the time to do that.”
At the same time, venues are tasked with navigating the complex, interdependent ecosystem of rescheduling shows and locking in new ones as COVID outbreaks and reopening guidelines continue to vary across cities, states, and countries.
“Canada, for example, is way further behind us in terms of vaccination,” says Duncan Smith, booker for the Moroccan Lounge downtown. “So if you're a band that's based out of the Pacific Northwest, and a big part of your West Coast tour includes LA as well as big money-making Canadian cities like Vancouver, then you might be saying to yourself, ‘Well, let's just wait until 2022.’”
All the while, independent venues are tasked with the age-old challenge of industry competition, and the business of vying for artist bookings amongst each other and corporate-owned clubs. Concert venues operate on razor-thin margins even in the best of times. So while smaller indoor venues technically can reopen as soon as next month, and some have already begun booking local shows for summer, most say it doesn’t make sense to do so until they can confidently and safely operate without regulations that might impede business as usual.
“Our product, our business model, completely hinges on being open seven nights a week, having multiple bands for a night,” Smith says. “It's a volume business for us, in the same way that you wouldn't expect a movie theater to open up and just have one screening of ‘Frozen 2’ or whatever. So we're not going to reopen even if it's legal on June 15, until we're confident that we can do seven nights a week of shows.”
Unlike bars and restaurants, switching to an outdoor model doesn’t make sense for most indoor music venues unless they already have that infrastructure built in. Independent venues tend to be smaller and lack the space to do so, or say it’s simply not financially viable to build an outdoor space. Others are restricted by noise regulations or sound pollution from the busy streets and urban neighborhoods in which they are located.
“It's very hard for us to imagine doing shows outside,” says Soubiran, despite the fact that Zebulon has a large outdoor patio and parking lot. “Fletcher Drive is right there and the street is very loud. How would we function? Creating a show like that is very difficult. We just hope to eventually be reopening at 100% like we closed.”
When that does happen, concertgoers can likely expect the same changes seen in other indoor spaces, such as temperature checks, air filters, and encouraging distancing. Some venues have also used the time to give their interiors a facelift, though that might mean saying goodbye to the gross punk bathrooms of yore. Expect touchless faucets, better ventilation, and plenty of hand sanitizer. Still, that doesn’t mean losing the community spirit that defines these venues.
“You can use and have the touch-free sink and still have a bunch of stickers that say ‘skateboarding is not a crime,’” says Lodge Room booker Raghav Desai.
Music fans may have to be patient before they can plan to hit the concert circuit seven nights a week. But in a business literally based on gathering crowds in intimate spaces, doing so will make it that much sweeter upon its safe return.