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Show Time: Live Music is Returning to the South Bay, But Local Venues Are Still Reeling

In Cover, Music
SPLICED: Live music is back at Art Boutiki in a hybrid form, but the venue isn’t out of the shadow of 2020 yet. Photo by Greg Ramar

SPLICED: Live music is back at Art Boutiki in a hybrid form, but the venue isn’t out of the shadow of 2020 yet. Photo by Greg Ramar

Two weeks ago, in a nondescript stretch of pavement in industrial San Jose, 2,000 hardcore fans gathered for one of the most unexpected music events to hit the South Bay in years: RBS (Real Bay Shit).

“It was legendary,” says Bailey Lupo, bassist of show-opener Scowl. “We soundchecked at 4pm, two hours before it started. We played one measure, and people were already running to the front and moshing.”

The packed, completely word-of-mouth event (see page 17 for full coverage) showed why San Jose is, in KQED’s words, “quickly becoming the epicenter of the country’s hardcore scene.” It also proved there is a pent-up hunger for live music in the South Bay. That’s good, because what few live music venues San Jose had before the pandemic are still reeling from it’s effects.

In 2020, the live entertainment industry lost an estimated $30 billion due to Covid-related cancellations and closures. By January 2021, nearly 90 clubs around the country had closed as a result of the pandemic, nine in California alone (the hardest hit state after Texas). After working with a color-tier rating system which ranked communal Covid spread from Purple (Widespread) to Yellow (Minimal), California ended all social distancing measures and announced it was “Fully Re-Open” on June 15 with an email press release starring some Minions.

After the devastation of the pandemic and its resulting shutdowns, no one would yet describe the South Bay’s music scene as “fully re-open.” But events like RBS and booked dates for several local venues signal the kind of robust return that local music fans have been hoping for since March of last year. 

Down Time

Due to its body-fluid-drenching nature, live music was an industry uniquely poised to be slammed by COVID restrictions. With social distancing measures and ventilation requirements in place, as well as restrictions on singing and instrumentation, the options available to venues had until very recently been shut down, shift to a different business entirely, or go outside or online.

Sadly, The Ritz was forced into the first category.

“It’s been a tough year,” says owner Corey O’Brien. “It’s been rough.”

In a regular year, the Ritz is downtown San Jose’s main full-time connection to independent touring music. One Direction and Kanye West may play the SAP Center, but when locals want to see young touring musicians on the rise, or established musicians working outside the mainstream, they often find themselves at the downtown club.

However, as an indoor venue without a kitchen, the 530-capacity venue was left with no choice but to close. When the county issued its shelter-in-place order in March, O’Brien turned off the lights and sent his employees home, and the Ritz has been shuttered ever since.

“It’s been tough to keep the business going financially,” O’Brien says.

The U.S. first attempted to address the dire situation for venue owners back in July of 2020, with the introduction of the Save Our Stages (SOS) Act, administered by the Small Business Association (SBA), which secured $12 billion in grants for small venues and theaters closed during the pandemic. The SOS Act passed back in January, and in April the government unveiled a website to allow operators to apply for a Shuttered Venue Operators Grant (SVOG), worth “up to 45% of their 2019 gross earned revenue or $10 million, whichever is less.”

The website quickly crashed, and application dates were twice pushed back. Some venues were told they couldn’t apply at all, for example if they didn’t have fixed seating, a requirement under the Economic Aid Act, or, if they had applied for a PPP after Dec 27, 2020 (later it was decided to simply deduct prior PPP loans from SVOG money, rather than exclude venues for them).

In early June, reports circulated that less than 1% of the 11,600+ venues around the US who had applied had received funding. By the end of June, that number had slowly climbed to around 13%.

“I don’t know what their deal is, but the SBA is really dropping the ball on this thing,” O’Brien says. “It’s screwing us over really bad.”

Though the Ritz did receive Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans, also through the SBA— “as many as we could”—O’Brien confirms that by mid-June, they had still received nothing in SVOG funds.

“We should have gotten it four to five months ago. We’ve just been waiting,” he says. “When we get that, we can try and start to get our building back in order.”

The Ritz is scheduled to return to live events on Aug. 8, with a wrestling night from the great UGWA, followed by the return of the Emo Night Tour and 90s Nite. On Sept 1, live music returns with zany “Danger! High Voltage” rockers Electric Six, followed by a string of bookings that currently stretches to stoner-rock band Fu Manchu on Nov. 18.

In the meantime, O’Brien and company are scrambling to prepare; a bar that’s been sitting unused for more than a year requires a lot of TLC.

“Everything’s screwed up right now,” he says. “Payroll is turned off. Our insurance is different now because we don’t have any staff. We have at least a month worth of stuff to do, but we haven’t been able to start on that because this grant has been taking so long.”

Over on Second and San Carlos, 3Below Theatres, which regularly stages live productions, has also been sitting in limbo for months, waiting for SVOG money.

“There should have been a steadier stream of support for small businesses. It was very challenging,” says Shannon Guggenheim, 3Below’s VP.

Though the venue did receive PPP funding, it was “very temporary.” Since the start of the pandemic, they’ve lost three employees.

“It’s hard enough to live in this area with a good-paying job, let alone a mediocre-paying job, and then to not even have one at all,” Guggenheim says. “A lot of our colleagues, they moved home to be with family, or moved to less expensive areas. It’ll be interesting to see how that affects the live theatre industry, since some of those jobs are so niche.”

3Below finally opened back up for regular movie screenings this April, and expects live events to return in the fall. In the meantime, they’re just hoping they can get the funding in time to stay in business.

“Our business right now is at a point where if we don’t see this federal funding come through from the SVOG, it’s just going to be really difficult, and I don’t know if we’ll survive it.”

Business As Usual

Before their Grand Reopening last weekend, it had been well over a year since there had been any laughter at the Improv. Over the pandemic, the downtown comedy club furloughed most of its staff, and for months General Manager David Williams transitioned to guarding the building from break-ins. The venue did, however, have a few things working in its favor.  

“We feed up to 450 people at a time, so we have a full-on industrial-sized kitchen,” Williams says.

As part of comedy agency Levity Live, the Improv also had a skeleton crew of colleagues at venues around the country to collaborate with throughout the pandemic.

Back in 2020, Williams went to a drive-in show at a partnering club in Southern California and took note of the venue’s new ghost kitchen. After some brainstorming by the company’s head chef, two new restaurants soon began operating out of the Improv, offering take-out and delivery from 11-9: Poultrygram and Resident Taco.

“Definitely the Poultrygram became a thing,” Williams says. “Every day there were people taking pictures of their food. I can’t tell you how many … what’s the term? Influencers? I can’t tell you how many influencers we had. We had a couple fly in just to come to the club to try the food.”

Still, even with a mob of online influencers spreading the word, there was no way that Poultrygram and Resident Taco could ever add up to the Improv’s normal income. On a good week prior to Covid, the club brought in a six-figure revenue. On a good week in the pandemic, running two new unadvertised restaurants during a respiratory pandemic, it has brought in around $7,000.

“We were able to pay off a few bills,” Williams says.

The idea, however, was more about staying on people’s radar. In that respect, Williams says it worked “for a lot of different reasons”—if not all financial.

“We were getting people back in the building, getting our name back in the community, showing we’re still here, not going anywhere, stay tuned.”

Last weekend, the Improv quickly sold out of its Grand Reopening night with “2036 Presidential Candidate” Sammy Obeid, which it followed up with a weekend of shows from the “King of the Kings of Comedy,” D.L. Hughley. The return was emotional.

“This last 16 months has been extremely difficult,” Williams says. “I really want to convey how much I’ve missed all the staff being in the building, having fun together and doing what we do best.”

Streamin’ Is Free

Over on Race St., the 150-capacity Art Boutiki also began offering takeout, although with more of a ballpark flavor.

“We were doing a Takeout Tuesday where we’d sell hotdogs and a beer to go,” says owner Dan Vado.

Since long before the pandemic, Art Boutiki have been doing things their own way. Half-comic shop, half-venue, the versatile space off the Alameda is unique in the South Bay, artfully lit and comfortably spaced out. Since opening its current location in 2015, the venue has presented select acts about three nights a week, including recent visits from contemporary jazz greats Kneebody and psychedelic skateboarder Tommy Guerrero.

Slinging dogs and beer like an Oracle Park vendor wasn’t Art Boutiki’s only creative attempt at revenue during the pandemic. Vado started a Patreon account, sold new merch designs monthly, opened a beer garden on its patio, and even sold off long-held Pokemon cards. All the while, he kept checking the mailbox for that SVOG money.

“A lot of people in our industry hung on solely on the promise of getting this grant,” Vado says. “If we don’t get the SVOG, I’m not quite sure what we’re going to do.”

Like 3Below and the Ritz, Art Boutiki received one round of PPP funding, which lasted roughly a month. Early on, Art Boutiki decided that their best option was to take the show online.

Shortly after the initial lockdown, Vado and crew invested in film and audio equipment for livestreaming. In August, the venue premiered their new series with an inspired performance by San Jose avant-R&B musician Joy Hackett. After the first song, Hackett revealed that the trio had practiced together for the first time in more than six months that morning.

These days, Art Boutiki productions include a five-camera rig with three live operators, professional sound and video mixing, and a director.

Corey-OBrien

ON ICE: Corey O’Brien, owner of the Ritz, was one of the first to close his venue last year as Covid hit. The club returns to live shows in August. Photo by Greg Ramar

“I stopped saying ‘livestream’ to describe them and started using the term ‘online concert,’” Vado says. “One of our goals was to not just be a bunch of stationary cameras in the audience. We needed to make it as if you were watching SNL or a late-night show’s musical segment.”

During a recent performance by the Jon Dryden Trio, shots bleed from close-ups on Dryden bouncing in his seat at the piano to drummer Scott Amendola’s hi-hat bouncing to the beat, back to a lush wide-angle view of the stage, framed by house plants. The film is crisp, and the audio notably well recorded and mixed.

“We have kind of a reputation for having great sound,” Vado says.

By the start of 2021, Art Boutiki had documented over 60 hours of live music performed in San Jose during the Covid era. Halfway through 2021, they’ve already recorded more than triple that number. Unlike concerts filmed at SJ Jazz’s new pop-up space, the Break Room, past performances at Art Boutiki now live free of charge on the venue’s YouTube page.

The venue had hoped to begin transitioning to holding paid events online, but that never really took root. Even with all staff working on a volunteer basis, and a note in video descriptions stating that donations are “kindly demanded,” streaming concerts online never raised much money for the venue.

Fifteen months after California’s first shelter-in-place order, Vado says the only reason that Art Boutiki exists at all is because of their landlords. As early as April 2020, he began telling them the venue would not be able to make rent. They agreed to work it out.

“The family that built this building are the family that still own it,” he says. “These are real people, they’re not developers.”

Today, the venue is still hanging on in that arrangement. Though it is now open for limited capacity, Vado says the earliest he expects to return to profitability is 2022.

In the meantime, they wait for the SVOG.

“We did pay rent as we could, but we’re still pretty far behind,” he says. “To the family’s credit, no one has come to me and said, ‘What’s going on?’ They’re being patient. But to what extent they’re going to continue to be patient, I don’t know.”

Municipal Melodies

Outside of commercial venues and DIY spaces in San Jose, live music often is presented either in city-owned spaces like San Jose Civic, or through city-supported nonprofits like SJ Jazz or the San Jose Downtown Association, a business improvement district-funded organization.

The long-running Music in the Park festival in Plaza de Cesar Chavez is an example of the latter. Organized by the Downtown Association since 1989, Music in the Park is one of the city’s flagship events, and has brought some marquee musicians to the Plaza, including Los Lobos, Cracker, Los Lonely Boys, Toots and the Maytals, Eek-a-Mouse, War and many others.

“We canceled up to four Music in the Parks [in 2020],” says Downtown Association Communications Director Rick Jensen. “We also canceled our ice rink, Downtown Ice. We didn’t do any outdoor movies either. And we had a beer tasting event that was also canceled.”

After a year of cancelations, the good news is that Music in the Park is officially set to return this August, with a headliner to be announced. The scope of this year’s festival will be significantly smaller than in years past, with a schedule pared down from four days to one. 

The Downtown Association is also poised to bring back its Starlight Cinemas series to St. James Park, a free outdoor movie screening that usually draws crowds of around 200-400 people.

Though half of its main events in 2020 were canceled, Jensen says the Downtown Association made it through the pandemic relatively unscathed. The SJDA has a yearly contract with the city to the tune of a half-million dollars, and receives regular payments from member businesses.

“We did not take an overall big hit on our finances, but we did take some hits through our loss of sponsorship and the little bit of revenue that we make with our ice rink and Music in the Park,” Jensen says.

San Jose’s Office of Cultural Affairs likewise weathered the storm, and in fact now appears flush with cash. If recommendations from Mayor Liccardo’s June budget message go through, the office is currently positioned to have an estimated $6.1 million in funding for 2021-2022.

That would be the highest funding the office has ever had, topping its previous high of $5.9 million in 2019-2020.

Hanging On

As 2,000 kids moshing in a Monterey Highway parking lot recently showed, there is clearly still a desire for live music in the South Bay. Slowly but surely, the city’s venues are returning to life. Art Boutiki now allows a limited capacity audience at shows, the Glasshouse recently hosted Trish Toledo inside and LVL Up just hosted Sunami on their patio, fresh off their RBS victory lap.

The Mountain Winery in Saratoga is also reopening, with a 2021 season that begins July 31 with country group Little Big Town, and features the return of legacy artists like Billy Idol (Aug. 19), Gogol Bordello (Aug. 31), Boyz II Men (Sept. 26), and David Lynch muse Chris Isaak (Sept. 28) among its dozens of scheduled events.

But local promoters and venues are far from out of the shadow of 2020.

“Without painting too grim a picture, I think a lot of people assume that because we’re here still, we’re ok. But that’s not the truth,” says Art Boutiki’s Vado. “There are certain segments of business that are going to take a long time to recover. Places like ours, venues and bars, that have been closed for a long time, where do you make that revenue up from?”

With live events returning in August, the Ritz is also now limping towards the finish line. In the meantime, O’Brien asks that local music fans keep the club in mind—along with everywhere else music has taken root here—and to come out for a drink or three when the doors finally reopen.

“I hope people know to support all the bars and nightclubs around here, because we’re hurting really bad,” O’Brien says. “We’re just trying to survive.” 

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