Let’s think back to the “before times” for a minute. What was the last concert you saw pre-pandemic? What did you already have tickets for that you never got to see?
During that last comparatively normal weekend in March 2020, my mother came to visit. She spent her days going to museums while I was in the office, and on March 7, I took her to a concert at Lincoln Theatre. Bonnie “Prince” Billy — he of the soaring, melancholic voice with songs as haunted as Appalachian ghost stories — opened for the avuncular, optimistic and earnest Jonathan Richman, who sang his uplifting folk songs in several languages and quoted the Persian mystic-poet Rumi. Together, the two very different artists brought something eclectic and magical to the air.
Even more than the beautiful performance, however, I think back on all those intimacies with strangers. I remember so many smiles and laughs unhidden by masks, the crush of people at the bar when I bought two glasses of red wine, the hugging and kissing of friends and lovers greeting each other as they filtered back to their seats, a woman handing a mint to a stranger who promptly put it in her mouth before reapplying lipstick at the bathroom mirror.
Just days later on March 11, with Mayor Bowser’s mandate declaring a state of emergency banning large gatherings, I.M.P. announced upcoming March shows would be postponed. Seminal punk band The Dead Kennedys played to a sold-out crowd at 9:30 Club that same evening for those clamoring for one last rock fix. Within days the music stopped as all performing arts and live music venues closed.
“When we shut the doors we didn’t think it was going to be as long, maybe a few weeks or maybe a month,” shares 9:30 Club Assistant General Manager Karim Karefa.
In 19 years of working at 9:30 Club in many capacities — starting with security, a stint barbacking, becoming manager on duty, and as a recording artist opening for Lupe Fiasco in 2008 and Common in 2010 — Karefa has seen a lot onstage and backstage. But nothing could prepare him for this. Filled with anxiety and doubt about a possible extended closure, his mind was full of questions.
“We asked: ‘What is the company going to do if they don’t have any income coming in? If they don’t have any ticket sales coming in, what are they going to do for the employees?
I.M.P. Goes DIY in Furloughed Staff Relief
Over 95% of the staff at I.M.P. venues — 9:30 Club, The Anthem, Merriweather Post Pavilion and Lincoln Theatre — were furloughed during the first few weeks. Looking back at the venues’ Facebook pages during March 2020, the messaging remained optimistic. Venues stated shows originally booked for March, April and May 2020 would only be postponed and rescheduled, rather than canceled altogether.
Taking the cue from DIY punk efforts, chairman of I.M.P. and owner of 9:30 Club Seth Hurwitz and COO Donna Westmoreland immediately started working on relief efforts. He created the I.M.P. Family Fund to aid employees, an in-house grant program for those struggling to make ends meet. Hurwitz kickstarted the relief effort by promising to match donations, ultimately giving over $100,000 of his own money.
The District’s music lovers quickly and generously responded, donating directly to I.M.P.’s Family Fund, buying I.M.P. gift cards for the music venues and purchasing special 9:30 Club merch. Concertgoers forwent the cost of their cancelled tickets to donate to the cause. The fund swelled to over $300,000.
“Their support shows a couple of things,” states Audrey Fix Schaefer, communications director for I.M.P. “First, that the community really cares about our employees and wants to make a difference. It also shows they had faith in us that we would hold on until it was safe to come back.”
As the pandemic raged on and local laws kept most venues from opening in any capacity, I.M.P. leaders had to move from short-term relief efforts to long-term survival planning.
The concert venues became food pantries for furloughed staff, giving away over 25,000 pounds of fresh and non-perishable food. Employees who were previously enrolled retained 100% of their health insurance while furloughed. I.M.P. lobbied for additional unemployment insurance and applied for all local and federal grants available to aid furloughed staff.
Yet, all of these relief efforts were temporary solutions to larger ongoing issues concerning if and when concert venues could reopen and employ staff again.
“Darling, Can’t You Hear Me? S.O.S.”
Fix Schaefer retained her position at I.M.P. working on crisis communications, but also quickly became the vice president of the board of directors and communications director for National Independent Venue Association (NIVA), lobbying for Congressional support of closed venues and their staff through the Save Our Stages (S.O.S.) campaign.
She worked tirelessly to coordinate and communicate nationwide to everyone from fans who wrote to their local representatives and signed online petitions, to a bipartisan coalition supporting a relief package. S.O.S. was covered in Rolling Stone, NME, NPR and many more national outlets with artists such as Paul McCartney, Dave Grohl, Joni Mitchell, Lady Gaga and hundreds more speaking on behalf of the bill put forth by Senators John Cornyn (R-TX) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN).
Jordan Grobe, I.M.P. communications coordinator and club photographer, was one of the many staff members furloughed. In 2019, he had worked over 175 shows but now he had time on his hands, and he knew he could help Fix Schaefer tell the story of America’s struggling independent music venues and their unemployed staff.
“The fact that we didn’t have to separate our work and friendship because he was right there with me meant the world to me,” Fix Schaefer shares. “It meant everything.”
Grobe adds, “All of us working for NIVA were fighting to save this thing that we love so much. If we didn’t do this, there wouldn’t be that bright light at the end of the tunnel.”
In December 2020, the Save Our Stages bill was passed into law to the tune of $16 billion dollars, but the process of distributing funds was delayed until June 2021. Senators Cornyn and Klobuchar introduced the SOS Extension Act in September 2021, asking to extend the timeline for using Small Business Administration Shuttered Venue Operators Grants to spring 2023.
“The fact that we made it through is a testament to successful collaborative work,” Grobe says. “Everybody involved was either doing so in a completely volunteer capacity or on top of trying to keep their own private businesses afloat. Everyone was juggling these duties in addition to all of the emotional stresses of going through the pandemic but [we] had this community of people to get through this together.”
Meanwhile, Back in Da Club
Other staff continued with administrative duties at 9:30 Club, preparing to reopen the stages.
“We kept a team of people who worked together to help us forge ahead,” Karefa says. “We made sure certain things were kept up to date so when we did open, we would be ready because it would be a big undertaking.”
“We were always on deck, prepared to get a call anytime,” states Cherise Rhyns, general manager of the Lincoln Theatre. “One thing positive for us at the Lincoln was we were the onsite location for some live streams and some recorded projects. Because of the livestreams, we didn’t get rusty.”
Starting last spring, the pace of the recorded and live streams picked up, which kept the smaller team at Lincoln Theatre busy. Monthly events included performances by Sweet Honey in the Rock, the National Cherry Blossom Festival’s opening ceremony, and even President Barack Obama taking the stage in November 2020.
“President Obama sat down with the young men of the My Brother’s Keeper organization talking about being a Black man in America, and Jonathan Capehart [of MSNBC] facilitated an excellent discussion,” Rhyns says. “I was surprised when it came together so beautifully and so quickly. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life — but there was no audience. It was just essential staff [and] a tiny crew, but we were able to pull it off.”
During the worst of the pandemic, venues reopened on occasion — just not for concerts in front of live audiences. The Anthem became a pop-up vaccination site in April 2021, complete with a marquee declaring “We’ll Get Thru This.” 9:30 Club became a refueling point during the Black Lives Matter protests of August 2020, where protesters could use a clean bathroom, grab a bottle of water or cool down before marching again. But the following month, the beloved club celebrated its 40th anniversary without audiences and fanfare.
Without live music, Karefa says life “was like this void you could feel, so thick you could cut it, this feeling of really missing going out, listening to music, being with friends.”
Unmute, Unpause + Play Loud
By midsummer 2021, there was some hope for music. Many in D.C. were fully or partially vaccinated and the warmer weather meant that outdoor venues, such as Merriweather Post Pavilion could unmute, unpause and play loud. And they did, with a full July 4th weekend of hair metal bands for the M3 Rock Festival.
The other I.M.P. venues soon followed suit. The Anthem reopened at the end of the month with the comedic stylings of one of D.C.’s favorite sons Dave Chapelle. British rockers The Struts reopened the Lincoln Theatre on September 7 and 9:30 Club celebrated with a week of events, starting with the District’s favorite ‘90s cover party band White Ford Bronco on September 3. LGBTQ+ dance party Bent: Out of Shape quickly followed, along with ambassadors of D.C. go-go Big Tony and Trouble Funk, and the triumphant return of the Foo Fighters in a surprise show at 9:30 Club.
“I always knew we were going to come back,” Steve Lemz, a DJ for the ongoing Bent dance party says. “It was going to be scary but super important — just letting go of all the bullshit. The first Bent back was electric, just to be back in that room and see all these familiar faces. I opened with Kylie Minogue’s ‘Say Something,’ and I edited a remix to repeat the lines, ‘Cause love is love, it never ends. Can we all be as one again?’ I had literal chills.”
Karefa shares, “I’m thankful for the resiliency of the staff [who] were able to stick around, and for the company for making it through because it wasn’t easy for anybody. Unfortunately, we lost quite a few smaller but significant gems, so I feel fortunate to be part of a company that made it through and who took care of their employees.”
With the reopening of their venues came new policies asking patrons to be masked and, as of mid-October, fully vaxxed. And there have been other exciting surprises, too. While 9:30 Club celebrated its 40th birthday quietly in September 2020, for its 41st birthday, Dave Grohl announced to the audience at the Foo Fighters’ show the defunct Satellite Room next door would become a new club replicating the smaller, original 9:30 Club.
While Merriweather’s 2021 season has concluded, there are already a few acts lined up for summer 2022. 9:30 Club’s calendar is packed with shows pretty much every damn night announced through mid-May, with sold-out shows sprinkled throughout the roster. Even The Anthem has shows listed several nights a week into mid-April.
The Lincoln Theatre, the crown jewel of D.C.’s Black Broadway, will be celebrating its 100th anniversary next year. At this time, the team is working on historic research and digging through the archives to learn more about the fabled theater where Duke Ellington, Pearl Bailey, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday, Nat King Cole, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong and Sarah Vaughn all played regularly. For Rhyns, who is celebrating her 13th year at the Lincoln Theatre and comes from a local family who has always created and enjoyed music, the Lincoln’s centennial has a deep personal resonance.
“There are so many emotions for me for many different reasons,” she says. “Considering that the Lincoln was purposely created to give Black people the opportunity to see performers they wouldn’t otherwise see because of segregation, the significance of this building and the history it symbolizes is not lost on me at all. I’m very humbled and grateful to be here at this time in history.”
Karefa says he basically takes it day by day when reflecting on what’s next.
“Every day that we have music and people are willing to convene, have a good time and watch a band, I think we’ll be just fine.”
Being A Good Patron
DJ Lemz shares that despite being fully vaccinated, he suffered a breakthrough case of the coronavirus in July that knocked him down for almost two weeks.
“It’s a scary thought and I don’t like going down that rabbit hole,” he says, thinking what his illness could’ve been if he weren’t fully vaccinated.
“As someone with a job in the queer nightlife scene where we’re all about protecting our own community, I’m so thrilled to be able to share my story. I’ve gotten messages from friends who were getting too comfortable but are now taking a lot more precautions after seeing what I went through.”
He says it’s easy to be safe and keep everyone else safe, too.
“Respect the rules on masking and take it seriously, because coronavirus isn’t gone yet.”
During the José González and Rufus Wainwright show at The Anthem, I observed staff walking between the seated rows, occasionally pointing to a patron whose mask had slipped under their nose or who was holding a beer but not actively sipping it. Expect more of those friendly reminders to keep your mask on during shows.
“Patrons say, ‘Thanks for reminding me,’ and it is something that everybody has to get used to,” Rhyns says. “But for the most part, our patrons are very compliant. It’s also important to note that many of our talent were actually requesting if a vaccination policy was something we would be willing to do.”
As of October 17, all patrons entering I.M.P. venues must be fully vaccinated and able to show proof, whether by bringing their vaccination card, having a photograph of their vaccination card or having a digital record using the Bindle app alongside a photo ID. They join many of the District’s theaters and a growing number of bars and restaurants asking for proof of vaccination before entry.
“We always try to create a safe environment for our patrons where people can feel safe and say, ‘I’m in a room full of people who have taken these steps to help create this safe atmosphere,’” Karefa adds. “That experience starts at the front door with our door staff. Something I’ve always admired about concert halls is that a bunch of strangers get together and watch their favorite band, and they may not be aware of each other or [haven’t] seen each other before. But in that space, everyone is friends: brothers and sisters in music because of this band that’s onstage. They’re singing along and dancing together — arms and shoulders and rocking back and forth. It’s communal and spiritual. Let’s protect our brothers and sisters.”
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