Los Angeles indoor concerts in limbo as independent venues await funding and guidelines


Walking around the Frogtown concert hall, 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.

Mezcal, bourbon and beer bottles in pristine condition are reflected in the well-stocked bar. Flyers announcing the venue’s eclectic bookings – from jazz to punk to Afrobeat – flank the entrance to the space’s 300-person main hall. Next to the stage, drums, bass and amplifiers await their players.

“The last show was awesome, it was The Mummies,” recalls Zebulon co-owner Jef Soubiran. “We were very excited. We booked them like four months before. And then that was the date we closed, and they played in the afternoon. And at 5 pm, we closed the place.

Soubiran’s presence is the one exception to the venue’s otherwise Pompeian feel, slipping past his laptop at the bar as he returns to the long-awaited job of booking shows and preparing for the reopening.

However, when exactly that might be, it remains more uncertain for Soubiran and the dozens of other indoor concert halls in the Los Angeles area.

Posters announcing Zebulon’s pre-pandemic shows still line the entrance to the venue’s main hall. Photo by Andrea Domanick.

Concert halls were the first to close and will be among the last to reopen in the waning pandemic. While some large open-air venues, such as the Hollywood Bowl, will see concerts return as early as this month, indoor music clubs say they likely won’t return until late summer or fall. , as they navigate a complex ecosystem of safety rules, financial constraints and tour schedules.

In California, sites are widely waiting to know what the full reopening looks like – Gov. Gavin Newsom promises it would happen on June 15 – and whether masks, vaccination cards and other new operational procedures will be discussed or left to corporate discretion.

But first, they need the money. Most independent music venues are struggling with debt, with many having lost more than 90% of their businesses during the pandemic while still needing to pay rent, mortgages, insurance, utility bills and costs. ‘other expenses.

On the road to reopening, the most important factor became federal aid, as many of these sites await funding from the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant (SVOG) program, which includes more than $ 16 billion for closed sites. .

Read more: Under threat of closure, famous concert halls unite to pressure Congress

“Cinemas across the country are still in survival mode,” explains Amy Madrigali, Troubadour booker. Photo courtesy of the National Independent Venue Association.

For independent clubs like the Troubadour in West Hollywood, reopening and survival are two different things. Amy Madrigali, who books the venue and is also the local chapter manager of the National Independent Venue Association, said that without the crucial help of the grant, most sites cannot rehire staff, adjust to safety rules and plan the future differently.

“Theaters across the country are still in survival mode,” says Madriagli. “Some people can open partially, some people cannot open at all, depending on your state and local regulations. But we’re still in survival mode until the grants come in. And it will be a great sigh of relief and exhalation, so people can just hang on to their buildings and hang on to their businesses.

The amount of funding provided by the SVOG program varies according to the needs of each site. Those who lost 90% or more of their business during the pandemic are expected to receive around 45% of what they earned the previous year from normal operation.

Federal funding was secured through the Save Our Stages Act in December, but the sites have yet to receive any money. With no precedent for such a program, the grant application website crashed when it first opened in early April. When it returned at the end of the month, the nominations website received over 17,000 nominations in its first 24 hours. The grants are now expected to arrive within a month.

“We’re kind of in limbo,” says Dalton Gerlach, co-owner of The Lodge Room in Highland Park. “There’s an allowance you set on how you’re going to spend the money between employees, payroll, renovations, COVID security, various upgrades. What is difficult is finding alignment with the reopening and having the time to do it. “

At the same time, venues are tasked with navigating the complex and interdependent ecosystem of rescheduling shows and locking down new ones, as COVID outbreaks and reopening guidelines continue to vary by city, state and city. the countries.

“Canada, for example, is much further behind us in terms of vaccination,” says Duncan Smith, booker for the downtown Moroccan Lounge. “So if you’re a band based in the Pacific Northwest, and a lot of your West Coast tour includes Los Angeles as well as big, lucrative Canadian cities like Vancouver, then you might be thinking : ‘Well, let’s just wait until 2022. “”

“Our product, our business model, is based entirely on being open seven nights a week, having several groups for one night,” explains Duncan Smith, booker for the Moroccan salon. Photo by Matt Draper.

Meanwhile, independent venues are burdened with the age-old challenge of industry competition and competition for artist bookings with each other and with company-owned clubs. Concert halls run on razor thin margins, even in the best of times. So while smaller indoor venues can technically reopen as early as next month, and some have already started booking local shows for the summer, most say it doesn’t make sense to do so as long as they cannot operate confidently and securely without regulations that could hamper business. usual.

“Our product, our business model, is all about being open seven nights a week, having multiple groups overnight,” says Smith. “It’s a big deal for us, in the same way you wouldn’t expect a movie theater to open up and only have one screening of ‘Frozen 2’ or whatever. We are therefore not going to reopen even if it is legal on June 15, until we are sure 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 concert halls unless they already have this infrastructure. Freestanding rooms tend to be smaller and lack the space to do so, or say that they are just not financially viable to build an outdoor space. Others are limited by noise regulations or by noise pollution from 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 noisy. How would we operate? Creating a show like this is very difficult. We just hope to reopen to 100% as we closed it. “

Onlookers can expect places like the Lodge Room in Highland Park to feature renovations like touchless sinks. Photo by Laure Joliet.

When this happens, onlookers can likely expect the same changes seen in other indoor spaces, such as temperature controls, air filters, and encouraging distance. Some rooms also took advantage of this weather to give their interiors a facelift, although that might mean saying goodbye to the crass punk bathrooms of yore. Expect touchless faucets, better ventilation, and plenty of hand sanitizer. Yet that doesn’t mean losing the community spirit that defines these places.

“You can use and have the touchless sink and still have a bunch of stickers that say skateboarding is not a crime,” says Raghav Desai, Lodge Room booker.

Music lovers may need to be patient before they can consider joining the seven-night-a-week concert circuit. But in a business that literally involves gathering crowds in intimate spaces, that will make her even sweeter when she returns safely.

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