As states across the country creep into the next phases of reopening, nightclubs and music venues are near the end of the list of places allowed to resume normal operation. Northern Virginia enters Phase 3 of its reopening plan on July 8, and will allow performing arts venues to reopen with half capacity indoors (D.C. and Maryland have not yet allowed indoor concerts). Among the venues trying to recapture normalcy, the Birchmere in Alexandria will resume indoor concerts on July 10 (with the Billy Price Charm City Band) and Vienna’s Jammin Java will follow suit on July 19 (with Griffin House).
Daniel Brindley, who co-owns Jammin Java and D.C.’s Union Stage, has been using his suburban venue’s strip mall parking lot for free outdoor concerts that will continue throughout July. However, Brindley knows that this is a bandage on what needs to happen to keep his businesses alive.
“[National artists] just are not going to come out and not playing anywhere in July, August, September and maybe beyond,” Brindley says. “It may seem like Jammin’ Java is reopen, yes, technically, but we’re talking about a literal drop in the bucket of what we normally do and what we’re able to present.”
The indoor concert schedule at Jammin Java is still a work in progress because the club will have to lean more on local artists, as opposed to its usual mix of locals and nationally touring artists. The performance space, which usually has a capacity of 200, has been reoriented into an all-seated venue with banquet-like tables, which run parallel to the stage and can be reconfigured (and separated) according to markers spaced a foot apart on the ground.
There is no set blueprint for reopening, and venues are still formulating plans for what will work best for them. The Birchmere initially announced that it was going to require a $25 food and beverage minimum per patron and that tickets would be sold only at the door, but it quickly nixed both requirements. The club, which has been in operation since 1966, will charge what it’s calling a “$5 Covid fee” for all tickets and require temperature checks at the entrance. The upcoming shows, which will be an assortment of Birchmere staples such as the Nighthawks (July 24), will remain general admission for seating at tables (with its typical 500-person capacity slashed to 250), and guests will be escorted to their preferred viewpoint by masked staff.
Both Brindley and Birchmere promoter Michael Jaworek said that once guests are seated, they will not be required to wear a mask, deferring to government guidance and regulations (current Virginia guidelines allow patrons to remove their masks when seated at a table).
Over the past three and a half months, artists have tried to simulate some fraction of the concert experience through live-streamed performances. Venues have eased into the world of socially distanced concerts with rudimentary outdoor speaker setups — with some even taking cues from other media with drive-in concerts.
But these efforts barely qualify as stopgaps as venues wait to reopen at full capacity. Meantime, frustration with government inaction — particularly regarding financial relief — is echoed throughout the industry. Most music venues are unable to qualify for paycheck protection program loans because forgiveness of these loans require continued payment of employees or a rehiring within eight weeks of receiving the funds.
Audrey Fix Schaefer, communications director for I.M.P., which owns venues including 9:30 Club and the Anthem, has led efforts from the newly formed National Independent Venue Association, which represents more than 2,000 venues in 50 states as well as the District, to lobby Congress to provide long-term relief in the form of public financing, tax credits and loans — the association indicated that 90 percent of surveyed members said in June that they would permanently shut down in mere months without further assistance.
Schaefer says she believes the federal government should provide more relief to businesses across the country such as music venues, likening the situation to governmental use of eminent domain. She says that I.M.P. has furloughed 95 percent of its employees since the start of the pandemic.
“If you’re going to say, ‘We’re taking your business from you, you may not open,’ then the government has a responsibility to provide financial assistance,” Schaefer says. “So that they don’t extinguish an industry.”
It’s hard not to hear this refrain of impending doom blaring out from music venues around the region. Some have already shuttered their doors: The once mighty Eighteenth Street Lounge’s sprawling lines (and its patrons’ half-remembered nights) will not return; owner Farid Nouri announced last month that the downtown nightclub was closed indefinitely. Sotto on 14th Street won’t reopen, depriving local jazz stalwarts and upstarts of a reliable workshop to tinker in. The Soundry has permanently closed, two years after it opened in Columbia.
“We are literally in the business of bringing people as close as possible together in a room. The very thing these people exist to create for all of us is the very thing we’re not allowed to do anytime soon,” Jammin Java’s Brindley says. “If this drags on two, four, six, nine, like, 12 months? The money runs out for most of us, if not all of us, and the clubs will close.”