Black Cat's back bar area. Like many local music venues, Black Cat doesn't have outdoor space, one of many challenges venues were forced to confront.

Black Cat's back bar area. Like many local music venues, Black Cat doesn't have outdoor space, one of many challenges venues were forced to confront.

After many months of closed doors, local music venues have had to reconsider their operating model. And some had to make the difficult decision to close their doors forever.

Now, music venues in Virginia may open, at limited capacity, while in D.C. they are still shuttered. How has this reopening looked in Virginia and what might it look like in D.C.?

Produced by Inés Rénique


  • Dante Ferrando Owner, Black Cat
  • Mikaela Lefrak WAMU Arts and Culture Reporter; Host of WAMU's "What's With Washington" podcast; @mikafrak
  • Gary Oelze Owner, The Birchmere


  • 12:00:03

    KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, welcome. Later in the broadcast we'll hear from musician, rapper, poet and playwright Dior Ashley Brown about how she's making out during this pandemic. But first, music venues have been some of the hardest hit businesses in the area. In March, the pandemic forced clubs and concert halls to shut their doors indefinitely. They remained closed in D.C. still in phase two of reopening.

  • 12:00:27

    KOJO NNAMDIMeanwhile in Virginia, phase three means music venues can now operate with a number of limitations. In Maryland it depends where you are. Montgomery County remains in phase two. As reopenings continue some are left wondering what will live music look like in a post-COVID world. And will music fans ever be able to attend the show as they used to? Joining me now is Mikaela Lefrak. She is WAMU's Arts and Culture Reporter as well as the host of WAMU's "What's With Washington" podcast. Mikaela, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:00:58

    MIKAELA LEFRAKThanks, Kojo. Always happy to be here.

  • 12:01:00

    NNAMDIMikaela, you've been covering this pandemic's effects on the local music scene. What has this meant for local music venues and what does the landscape look like right now?

  • 12:01:10

    LEFRAKOh, man, Kojo, it has been so tough for local music venues. I really do feel for them. Every day venues across the country are closing down. And here in D.C. specifically the problem is that gatherings of more than 50 people are still prohibited under phase two of reopening. So it really just doesn't make any financial sense for places like, say the Anthem on the waterfront to open when, you know, they can only sell tickets to 50 people and they have a capacity of 6,000. So to staff a place like that to make sure everybody is safe and socially distant, to pay the band, to pay insurance, it just -- it doesn't add up. The money just isn't there.

  • 12:01:53

    LEFRAKSo a lot of local venues have laid off their workers. They laid them off pretty immediately so they could start collecting unemployment. And, you know, that thing that gives me hope, though, is that so much organizing at the grassroots level is going on right now. Right now a lot of venues are part of a national push to get Congress to pass this Save Our Stages Act, which would provide grants for independent live music videos. And then there's also a lot of organizing on the local level, which has been really fascinating and heartening to watch.

  • 12:02:27

    NNAMDIJoining us now is Dante Ferrando, the Owner of the Black Cat, a light music venue in D.C. The Black Cat has been in business for nearly 30 years. Dante Ferrando, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:02:41

    DANTE FERRANDOThanks a lot of having me.

  • 12:02:42

    NNAMDIYou closed your doors at the start of the pandemic. What have the past six months meant for the Black Cat?

  • 12:02:49

    FERRANDOWe've been pretty empty. It mostly meant me and my wife and partner Catherine hanging out by ourselves in a big empty building unfortunately.

  • 12:03:00

    NNAMDIBut you had shows scheduled through the spring, but you couldn't simply cancel them. Can you explain?

  • 12:03:07

    FERRANDOYeah. It's not the easiest thing to cancel a show because everything is contracted. And since this has been sort of a rolling situation where nobody knows how long it's going to on, shows gets postponed. We've now postponed some of these shows two or three times. At this point everything has been pushed into next year. And we've ended up refunding everything. But, yeah, it's hard to -- it's a hard enough situation as it is. But since we don't have a date where we know that it ends it makes it even more complicated. Every single one of these shows is an independent contract. And you have to work with a booking agent on each show. So it gets very complicated with a full calendar.

  • 12:03:48

    NNAMDIAnd the booking agent staff has also been reduced during the pandemic. So that makes that a little more difficult too, doesn't it?

  • 12:03:55

    FERRANDOYeah. We had one of our larger booking agencies layoff 1,000 people. And I honestly had no clue that anybody we worked with had that many employees.

  • 12:04:05

    NNAMDIHow have you been making ends meet over the past six months and what has that meant for your staff?

  • 12:04:11

    FERRANDOWell, for the business itself, it's just savings. We have no income other than our webstore for merchandise and upcoming webcasts, which we're starting with our anniversary on the 18th. As far as the staff goes we laid everybody off at the very beginning. So everybody has been on unemployment. We've got some people back on part-time working on these webcasts now using some of the federal money. But it's not great. It's definitely not a good situation especially since that extra $600 a week on unemployment has dried up.

  • 12:04:50

    NNAMDIMikaela, are music venues receiving any kind of financial support from the government?

  • 12:04:57

    LEFRAKWell, it really varies by state and county as you could probably expect. So here in D.C. as you might know D.C. got half as much federal CARES Act funding as the states. So that's a huge hit to how much it can support small businesses. And a lot of venues here didn't qualify for PPP loans, because they're really only fully forgeable if the company keeps paying all their employees or rehires them within a certain amount of time of getting the loan. And that just didn't make sense for a lot of venues that, you know, are expecting to be closed to what could be a year.

  • 12:05:32

    LEFRAKSo local organizers here in D.C. are pushing the D.C. Council to sign this thing called the D.C. Music Venues Relief Act and that would basically provide direct relief to live music venues and then also like small restaurants, bars that typically host live music. And so venues could receive up to $15,000 per month if that goes through.

  • 12:05:56

    LEFRAKAnd then outside D.C., again, things it's just different in Virginia and Maryland. For example, IMP the big venue company that owns a lot of venues in the area, they just got some assistance for Merriweather Post Pavilion from Howard County. And that's through federal funding. So it really depends on where you are.

  • 12:06:17

    NNAMDIHave music venues had to close permanently because of financial difficulties?

  • 12:06:23

    LEFRAKYes. And I kind of get nervous every day when I go online worried that I'm going to see another place has closed down. 18th Street Lounge is the really big one. It closed in June after 25 years in Dupont Circle. A lot of people are mourning Twins Jazz Club on U Street right now. It was a huge part of the city's jazz scene for 33 years, and that one just closed. Sotto on 14th Street hosted live jazz and soul. It's just down. And then I also just heard that U Street Music Hall's owner said that if they don't get any more federal funding by October they might not make it too. And I think a lot of places as Dante can probably say are really feeling that urgency and strain right now.

  • 12:07:07

    NNAMDIDante, how have you been making ends meet over the past six months and what has this meant for your staff?

  • 12:07:13

    FERRANDOWe've had no income at all. So it is -- it's really hard. Bills don't stop just because the door is closed. We estimated around $20,000 a month in expenses even with our doors closed up. So it's a pretty tough situation. I think everybody is kind of in the same boat at this point. We need assistance. I know NIVA did a survey of their members, 90 percent said they wouldn't be able to make it for more than six months without some kind of assistance. So everybody is in pretty dire straits. I think everybody is burning through whatever savings they've got trying to figure out ways to get little chunks of change in the door. And, you know, make it last as long as they can.

  • 12:07:55

    NNAMDIHere's Ian in Silver Spring, Maryland. Ian, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:08:00

    IANHey, people. Glad to be here. Glad you got this good panel here. I'm a musician and, you know, fortunately it's not messed things up for me too badly thankfully. But, again, of course it's slowed down our live music aspirations. Of course, it has. But, of course, there's plenty to do -- plenty to work on. But anyway that's not supposed to be about me. I'd be not afraid to go to a show. We've been to a couple of small live music events.

  • 12:08:47


  • 12:08:48

    IANI'd have no trouble going to another one. I would not be afraid. But again, we understand, you know, that isn't everyone. And it's pretty understandable. This all I think got a lot worse than I would have thought. And then we'd all hoped.

  • 12:09:15

    NNAMDIOkay. Ian, you seem to have been cautiously optimistic about going to shows and plan to continue to do so. Mikaela, you mentioned IMP and there are other ways in which music venues are organizing in the hope of at least breaking even. Joining us by phone is Audrey Fix Schaefer, Director for IMP, which owns the 9:30 Club, Anthem, Merriweather Post Pavilion. And she is the National Communications Director at something called N-I-V-A or NIVA. I'll have Audrey explain herself. Audrey, you're on the air. Can you please, explain?

  • 12:09:55

    AUDREY FIX SCHAEFERYes. The National Independent Venue Association did not exist before the pandemic. But very quickly independent venues like the 9:30 Club and the Black Cat and U Street Music Hall and the others all across the country realized that there was no way that we were going to survive this as independent businesses if we don't come together for the very first time and ask Congress for assistance because we were the first to close. We'll be the last to reopen if we're lucky enough to exist that long. We have zero revenue. Enormous overhead and no insight into when we can open up again. So that is a recipe for bankruptcy if we don't get this assistance.

  • 12:10:39

    AUDREY FIX SCHAEFERAnd the -- as Mikaela was talking about some of the other venues, having a long history of being successful as an independent music venues does not protect you from the future like this. We think of it -- I think of it as a case like imminent domain when the government for the greater good decides a highway should go through your backyard so they take your property and pay you fair market value. We're in a situation where for the greater good the government shut us down effectively taking our business for health and safety reasons, which we totally understand. But we're being hung out to dry right now with no income.

  • 12:11:20

    AUDREY FIX SCHAEFERAnd no matter how clever or creative or determined a business person is the numbers are what the numbers are. And you run out of savings. And we need Congress to get back and make a COVID bill overall and put the Save Our Stages Act in it. And I'm glad to say the Save Our Stages Act is one of those very rare moments in today's time where it is bipartisan, the support for it. We have more than 144 Congress people that say, Yeah. This is important. Not just because somebody might like music, but because our businesses are what ...

  • 12:12:02

    NNAMDIOnly got about 20 seconds left.

  • 12:12:02

    SCHAEFERBrining foot traffic to our communities. And I was just going to say, we are the economic triggers for our neighborhood. So we need to be able to open up again so the restaurants and bars and hotels and retail shops can open up again and be successful.

  • 12:12:16

    NNAMDIAudrey Fix Schaefer, thank you so much for joining us. We're going to be taking a short break. When we come back we'll continue this conversation. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:12:35

    NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about what the return of live and in-person music might look like in the DMV. And we just heard from Audrey Fix Schaefer who was telling us about the National Independent Venue Association or NIVA. Mikaela Lefrak, are there any other ways music venues are organizing in the hopes of at least breaking even?

  • 12:12:55

    LEFRAKYeah. Well, I've seen a lot of venues doing really creative things around live streaming. For example, I just tuned in to a concert last night from a venue in Nashville. The artist and her band was performing to an empty room. And then these giant TV screens inside the room were showing videos to her of people who had tuned in. And we were watching from our couch. And I know a lot of places in D.C. are gearing up to do more of that. For example, Songbird in Adams Morgan, they're going to be livestreaming a bunch of concerts this weekend as part of the virtual Adams Morgan Day.

  • 12:13:28

    LEFRAKThe Kennedy Center is preparing whenever D.C. enter phase three to start hosting concerts again. And then, you know, throughout this summer of protests I've seen a ton of go-go bands performing from buses, from big buses with open, you know, tops going around the city, which is I think a really creative way of putting on a concert in a socially distant way.

  • 12:13:51

    NNAMDIWell, Mikaela, as of July 1st Virginia entered its third and final phase of reopening allowing music venues to operate at 50 percent capacity. Just last week, Maryland shifted to phase three of reopening and did the same except Montgomery County, which remains in phase two. What have you been hearing from music venue owners who have reopened?

  • 12:14:10

    LEFRAKWell, you know, most venues that are kind of on my radar still haven't reopened. For example, the Barns at Wolf Trap, they're not going to be hosting any concerts this fall. Jammin Java in Vienna is hosting concerts, but they're mostly outside in its parking lot, which is kind of in the strip mall area. But they're really making it work. And, you know, there are places like Classical Movements, this classical music organization has access to this outdoor garden in Old Town Alexandria. So they're hosting concerts outside with these strict social distancing guidelines. But, of course, that only works during the good weather. But then, of course, there are venues like The Birchmere, a legendary organization that has started reopening and hosting indoor concerts.

  • 12:14:56

    NNAMDIWell, glad you mentioned The Birchmere, because we have the Owner of The Birchmere with us. Gary Oelze is the Owner of The Birchmere. It's been in business since 1966. And Gary has been running it since 1966. We've seen the likes of Mary Chapin Carpenter, Lyle Lovett, Dave Matthews, Emmylou Harris, K.D. Lang many others at The Birchmere. So it's really a pleasure, Gary Oelze, to have you join us. Thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:15:21

    GARY OELZEThank you for asking.

  • 12:15:24

    NNAMDIYou were one of the first local venues to reopen for in-person shows in early July when Virginia entered phase three. How did reopening go and what precautions are you taking?

  • 12:15:34

    OELZEWell, we first follow, you know, the CDC and the Commonwealth of Virginia and the Alexandria Heath Department, anything they need and want. And we -- The Birchmere is a sit down music venue. So we are kind of -- we fall under a restaurant. And so they're using that kind of guideline. They cut the capacity to 50 percent and the distancing and then all that. We follow every safety thing they suggest and we even go a step further. And we have a company that comes in with a thing called an atomizer and fogs the place once a month that supposedly, you know, keeps it safe. We've been open two months now, just weekends. Just like everybody else, all the acts that moved in on the first of the year, all your major acts.

  • 12:16:41

    OELZEAnd I had to lay off all my part-time people. I kept my management and staff crew on. And I still have them on. Of course, they're not working at full pay. And they've all been with me for 30 years. I'm not going to let them leave me. They're very important to us. So, yeah, we opened with the same idea. Let's just try to break even till this thing is over. And it's been rough. It's really been rough. And we're not breaking even, but we're prepared. After 54 years, I'm not going to give up on it and let this thing run me out of town, you know.

  • 12:17:25

    NNAMDIWell, you have many shows lined up for next month. What can attendees expect at your shows given current limitations?

  • 12:17:33

    OELZEWell, we've been doing just weekends. And we've been working on overtime. On October we have something like 25 shows. And we've not had one complaint. Everybody -- we get emails that are all just great. "I'm glad I can go out and hear live music." I think my biggest handicap is the fact that nobody else is open and people don't realize The Birchmere is open, and so I'm going to go on an extensive ad campaign starting next week and gamble some more money.

  • 12:18:19

    NNAMDIHow are the fans reacting? Are you filling The Birchmere to its allowed 50 percent for concerts?

  • 12:18:24

    OELZEOh, no. No. I mean, we're only averaging probably 70 people. Twice we went over 100. We did have 170 or 80 in there a week ago. And it was very comfortable. Nobody crowded and all the -- it's just people's fear. You know, some people are afraid to go out, some are not. And it's quite safe and quite clean and everybody is happy. They want to hear some live music. You know, I'm in sympathy with all the other clubs. They're not competition. We're all in the same business. We need people buying tickets and hearing live music.

  • 12:19:08

    NNAMDIHere is Shawn in Washington D.C. Shawn, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:19:12

    SHAWN (CALLER0Thank you, Kojo. I'll be fast. I'll call fast and I'll be as brief as I possibly can. These venues -- a lot of the venues are making a lot of money off alcohol up until March-April. A lot of the venues are not opening, because they're not going to get any money from alcohol. I think the venues have a responsibility to the musicians in the area, in the D.C. area to organize some kind of showcasing of local talent every night livestreaming. Get creative. Show people what incredible talent we got in the city. Yes, you're not going to make a lot of money off of it, but you'll make a reputation. You'll have the videos online. People will know you're doing something.

  • 12:19:52

    SHAWN (CALLER0The responsibility of the venue is to show the public the talented people we have here or the talented people who are touring not just to make money selling beer and shots of Vodka. So I'm wondering why there isn't some sort of -- or in October this thing has been going on for seven months. People are crawling all over the internet. There's nothing to see.

  • 12:20:13

    NNAMDIWell, Dante Farrando, Black Cat's 27th anniversary is coming up. Maybe you might be able to tell Shawn what's the plan for that and he might want to join you. But go ahead, please, Dante.

  • 12:20:24

    FERRANDOWe have our 27th anniversary coming up on September 18th. We're doing a livestream. It starts at 9:00 p.m. Check out for info. We have a bunch of local bands. It took us a while to get off the ground. I see what the caller is saying. It has been incredibly difficult to make it through the first couple months of this thing. I think we've finally got our taste a little bit and we are working on livestream stuff. I think a lot of the other venues are probably in the same boat.

  • 12:20:52

    FERRANDOThe first couple months of this was really hard. But I think you will see a lot of people do stuff like what we're trying to do over the next couple of months. We're going to bring some bands in. Record in an empty room and livestream. It worked really great for the anniversary so far. We've got some more stuff to do. We've got some submissions from acts from out of town like Ted Leo and Mike Watt. We've got a bunch of locals on the bill, which is Ilsa, Technophobia, King Cobra. So we started putting together a show. But it is a lot of work.

  • 12:21:22

    FERRANDOAnd you got to remember with no money coming in we can't kick out a lot of money. So we can do it. But it's tough and it's costing us a lot. So if you are going to watch some of these livestreams that we're doing or anybody else is doing, donate some money, because the club can't do this without spending some money to do it. Buy some merch from the clubs. Any kind of financial assistance would be really helpful, because it's not free to get a whole bunch of people in there and try to do a -- livestreaming is difficult.

  • 12:21:52

    NNAMDIGot it.

  • 12:21:53

    FERRANDOEspecially because it's not what we do normally.

  • 12:21:55

    NNAMDIGary Oelze, we only have about 30 seconds, but what's the next concert scheduled at The Birchmere?

  • 12:22:00

    OELZEWell, the next concert is Friday night. The Eric Scott Band with a CD release show and Saturday night we have the 33 1/3 Live's Killer Queen Experience. We're doing a lot of covers and locals. But now a few of the national acts are starting to figure out they're not making any money sitting at home. So everybody come out and see us and help us and we're all in trouble.

  • 12:22:30

    NNAMDIGary Oelze, Dante Ferrando, Mikaela Lefrak, thank you all for joining us. We're going to take a short break. When we come back we'll be hearing from musician, rapper, poet and playwright Dior Ashley Brown about she's been making out and what she's been doing during the pandemic. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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