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Live music venues shut their doors almost as soon as COVID-19 hit D.C., and nine months later, they show few signs of reopening. Independent venues were especially vulnerable—most had to furlough employees. After the weekly federal unemployment benefit of $600 ended in July, workers began searching for new ways to make ends meet. Five people working at independent D.C. music venues shared with City Paper how they have managed to keep busy and stay afloat without income from in-person shows.
Johnny O’Connor has been Songbyrd Music House’s primary talent buyer since 2016. Things were looking good for the Adams Morgan venue at the start of this year. Songbyrd had expanded to host small shows in its Vinyl Lounge upstairs, in addition to its larger, basement-level concerts. It also ran a successful record store, daytime cafe, and nighttime bar.
Then the pandemic hit. “All of that is just totally gone,” O’Connor says. When D.C. banned mass gatherings of 50 people or more, the majority of Songbyrd’s revenue sources disappeared. The venue was forced to furlough all but about five of its employees. O’Connor was one of the lucky ones.
The effects have been tough for O’Connor psychologically. “Anybody in live music with a job right now is extremely lucky,” he notes. But when “everybody says it’s time to pause and be grateful, I kind of just have this visceral, like, ‘Fuck that’ reaction. I really miss the people that I enjoy doing what I love with.”
O’Connor has spent the past several months rescheduling shows and helping with new initiatives to generate profit for Songbyrd during the pandemic. The venue livestreams performances, but organizing them has been complicated for a number of reasons. Recording equipment is expensive, and the lack of bar sales makes it difficult for artists and venue workers alike to profit. Another challenge is finding new acts to record this far into the pandemic. “We can’t afford to cover anybody’s travel, [so we] have to get bands that are somewhat close to D.C.,” O’Connor explains. “After a while, the ones that could make money will probably have all done livestreams already.”
For the past several months, O’Connor has also commuted to and from his home in Baltimore each Saturday and Sunday to serve brunch. Nov. 22 was his last day serving. Outdoor dining, film screenings, and livestream projects were great activities for keeping customers engaged over the summer, but drawing people in as it gets colder will be more challenging.
As prospects for the winter look increasingly bleak, O’Connor has turned to opportunities beyond Songbyrd. He has been working in management for a couple musicians in Baltimore, helping them find record deals and other opportunities. He has thought about starting a nonprofit for artists there. “You kind of have to wear both hats,” he explains. “I love Songbyrd and want it to stay in business, [but] then also, you got to think about yourself.”
Before mid-March, Zeeshan Shad spent his days booking shows for Songbyrd’s Vinyl Lounge, scheduling sound techs, and sending out venue advances and holds. He also helped schedule and prepare for events downstairs when he had extra time. He had started out at Songbyrd as an intern fresh out of college in 2016.
Then, one day, owner Alisha Edmonson told him she was planning on opening a new performance space in the room adjacent to the bar and asked if he wanted to book the shows there. Shad immediately agreed. In the years that followed, the Vinyl Lounge became a national touring room. Unlike O’Connor, he was furloughed during the pandemic.
COVID-19 hit Shad both as a booker and as a musician. “I got into this whole thing through playing music,” he explains. He first discovered the D.C. music scene as an undergraduate at Washington College while playing drums for gigs in the city. More recently, he joined a local band called Tosser. They had two tours scheduled for this past spring, one in the South and one in Europe. With the pandemic, both of those plans went out the window.
Shad moved in with his dad on the Eastern Shore as soon as Songbyrd stopped putting on in-person shows. “I kind of just locked myself out of music for a little bit,” he says. “I think I was super burned out and kind of needed to refocus my energy.”
Shad managed to keep his job through the summer. In August, he went to Songbyrd to pick up his paycheck. Both owners were there and said they needed to talk to him. They told him they were financially hemorrhaging and needed to furlough him. “It was a conversation that I knew was inevitably going to happen,” Shad says. “There just wasn’t enough [going on] to justify having two bookers.”
He had already been considering his next steps and is now pursuing a master’s in music business at Berklee College of Music. “I’m basically taking everything that I’ve learned and trying to expand it to another level, with the hopes that when this all comes back, I’ll have more options in terms of what I can [do] within the industry,” Shad explains. He is not sure whether or not he will return to Songbyrd, but he does plan to stay in D.C. “I’ve been able to travel extensively through playing music, [but] I always know I’m home when I’m here,” he says.
Jon Weiss was part of the founding team behind The Wharf’s Union Stage in 2017 and has been a talent buyer there ever since. By the start of 2020, he was booking shows for three other venues as well. In March, he started working with Union Stage to book concerts for Capital Turnaround, an 850 capacity theater in Navy Yard. The first sold-out show was scheduled for the end of the month.
“That never played out, obviously,” he says.
Nine months later, Weiss is down to scheduling events for just two venues—Union Stage and Jammin’ Java in Vienna. His workday has completely changed. Before the pandemic, a typical day consisted of answering countless emails and then sending out offers to artists and agents. On slower days, he had time to look up musicians who had not played at Union Stage before and reach out to get the venue on their radar. “That’s about 90 percent of my time now,” he says.
Another adjustment for Weiss has been planning livestreams and reduced capacity shows. At the end of September, Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office approved Union Stage as one of six venues to host events for audiences of no more than 50 people, but the plan was suspended due to a spike of COVID-19 cases in November. “It just makes things harder,” Weiss says.
Weiss has spent more time on self-care since the pandemic set in. “I’ve been trying to exercise once a day just to kind of, like, take my mind off things,” he says. “But to put it bluntly, it fucking sucks, man.”
Weiss normally takes a lot of pride in his job. “There were times where I would get yelled at [because] a big part of this job is that it is a sales job,” he says, “but at the end of the day, when I’d go to the venue and have a beer or see a band that I’ve never heard of that I helped book the show, I’d go home and go to sleep thinking, ‘That was awesome. I did choose the right job.’ That kind of feeling is very hard to grasp now.”
Like Weiss, Peter Lillis was part of Union Stage’s founding team in 2017. For three years, he oversaw marketing, sales, and graphic design there and at Jammin’ Java. In September, he was furloughed.
“I’m grateful for the time that I did get to spend [there],” Lillis says. “I kept working for the business for a long time—well into the pandemic, which I know is rare for a lot of people in my position, or really in any kind of hospitality business this year.”
Since he lost that work, Lillis has been taking some time to reevaluate whether he wants to continue working in live music. He admits that under normal circumstances, he’d probably be “chugging along, and maybe have those thoughts but [not] necessarily have time to face them.” Lillis feels good about his employment prospects in another industry, at least until a job in music is possible again. “There are tons of trade associations and non-office things like that,” he says. “In terms of marketing, it’s a lot of the same motions, it’s just what you’re talking about and who you’re talking to.”
Lillis started taking a six-month-long online coding class in October to give himself an edge. “It’s not easy, and I haven’t been in school in a very long time, but I think that it pairs well with my marketing experience,” he explains.
In the coming months, Lillis hopes to see more assistance for people who worked in live music prior to the pandemic. “In terms of providing service and relief to music venues, it must include … the people who make the venues happen—the bartenders, the security guards, the marketing managers, the cleaners who come in after-hours,” he says, “because those are the people who are at risk for health complications, [and] in terms of venues, that they are the people that make [them] alive.”
Lindsay Smyers has worked for Black Cat for the past 10 years, most recently as the primary talent buyer and as an operational owner. Before the pandemic, they spent every afternoon at the venue, booking shows and scrambling to help with all sorts of challenges that come up between shows.
“It feels like a distant dream,” Smyers says. “It’s just so quiet now.”
Black Cat hosted its last show of the year on March 12. Smyers missed it, leaving early to travel to North Carolina. “I remember I ran into [my friend] Mark, as I walked out … he said, ‘You’re not staying [for the] show?’ I’m like, ‘No, I gotta go to North Carolina … I’ll catch the next one,’” they say. “I keep thinking about that, how I used to take for granted that I’ll just catch the next one, and there wasn’t a next one.”
They are grateful that Black Cat was quick to respond when the pandemic hit. Owner Dante Ferrando foresaw the pandemic lasting for more than just a month or two, and has found ways to support his staff despite the lack of work. Thanks to a Paycheck Protection Program loan the venue received in August, many are employed part-time. Smyers was hired for 23-hour workweeks and now makes 50 percent of their pre-pandemic paycheck. “It’s enough,” they say. “I’m used to making egg noodles stretch longer than I would in other circumstances, [and I’m] reverting back to this kind of lifestyle.”
Black Cat’s PPP funds, however, will run out this month. If new forms of financial support are not approved soon, it will have to once again fire its employees.
Despite the halt on live shows, Smyers has kept pretty busy. They sell merchandise for Black Cat out of their basement and have also started their own business, Three Moon Apothecary, where they sell teas and smokable blends made from homegrown herbs like lavender and chamomile. At the same time, Smyers has found time to slow down. “It’s definitely a harder time, going back to living paycheck to paycheck, but in a spiritual way, I kind of do feel a little more free … just stepping back and seeing what’s important,”
Smyers is nervous for the future of Black Cat when it does return. “A lot of places are cleaner, sleeker, [and] definitely more digital,” they note. Black Cat, in comparison, has always been cash-only and relatively low-tech. “I think our little happy, crusty era is coming to an end,” Smyers says.