Bay Area indy music clubs still struggling as national alliance reports many may close without federal help

Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco. Courtesy: Wikicommons

A wave of independent concert venue closures swept through Texas this month, including the well-known Barracuda and four others in Austin and several in Dallas—all due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This follows the closure of other clubs like the Great Scott in Massachusetts, which are regular stops for artists criss-crossing the country.

This week, the organization that represents independent clubs, the National Independent Venue Association, released alarming survey results that polled many of its 2,000 members in March. NIVA reported that 90 percent of them might be forced to shutter permanently if the shutdown lasts six months or longer, if they do not receive federal assistance, and are also not allowed to be back in business during that time. The shutdown largely began nationwide on March 11, which leaves three months from this week.

NIVA currently has 79 Bay Area members, which includes clubs as large as the Fox Theater in Oakland and event producers like Folk Yeah and Noise Pop.

RIFF spoke to several Bay Area clubs and found that, while still struggling, they still hanging on through creative plans beyond crowdfunding to buy time in the face of a prolonged closure.

Mission Street club El Rio in San Francisco could feasibly operate as a bar for up to six months, general manager Lynne Angel said. San Francisco has approved bars to reopen in a limited capacity in mid-August.

“We can give it a shot to bring us some income … but we rely on events and larger gatherings based around DJs and bands,” Angel said. “It’s not a sustainable model to reopen as a bar. Major changes need to happen.”

Richmond District club Neck of the Woods, meanwhile, is exploring the idea of partnering with other Clement Street businesses using their full kitchen for take-out. And club booker Travis Hayes, also well-known local musician, the club has also been able to been helped by co-owner Tim Choi’s diverse holdings, giving them the opportunity to borrow from other businesses that are still able to generate income.

“There’s a few owners of the business and [Choi] owns several bars and restaurants in San Francisco,” Hayes said. “We’re on pause to wait and see how this shakes up. Maybe we’re able to wait it out a bit longer. That would be my assumption.”

Bottom of the Hill does not plan on closing any time soon, but the difficulties the venues owners have had has been crippling, said Lynn Schwarz, the co-owner and booker at the 350-capacity venue. The club is allowed to sell to-go alcohol right now and plans to apply for a permit to serve food outside, which will also create the need to buy supplies like tables and chairs, but doesn’t expect to make much money from food sales. The permits have a strict “no entertainment” policy, she said.

“People are really ready to experience live music again. I don’t think people would come to us just for our menu,” Schwarz said.

The club has been approved to hold concerts without audiences, but that, too, would not change the bottom line.

“We’re not particularly interested in doing live-streaming,” she said, adding that the owners don’t have the extra money to make that happen.

At least two Bay Area bars have been able to keep their music programming going after a brief halt in March: Amado’s on Valencia and The Riptide in the Outer Sunset.

The clubs moved the performances from the stage to the front of the front patios said David Quinby, the owner of Amado’s and co-owner of Riptide. Patrons are attracted to the venues by the music, buy food and drinks, and watch from the sidewalk. Quinby and talent booker Dana Smith have worked with city and community  leaders.  The performances have been either acoustic or with a single amp. On Thursday, two members of Hot Buttered Rum performed.

“It’s not something that will work forever, but to bridge the gap… sales are OK. it gives us hope of survival,” Quinby said. “[Patrons] having a great time. It’s drawing people.”
He added that this time helps his bartenders figure out how best to work while wearing masks. Soon, the two bars will also be setting tables outside.
“It can bridge that gap until we can have ticketed shows in our venues again,” Smith said.

One of the most hurtful parts of the problem for Schwarz has been the lack of communication with the city about which metrics will eventually allow Bottom of the Hill to reopen.

“Not having tentative dates hurts; a lot,” she said. “If not a date, what’s it going to take to get a date? If you’re looking at a number, let us look at that number, too!”

Having that information not only helps club owners plan for the future, but will also help determine how to take care of the present. Traditional loans are of no help to Bottom of the Hill, which usually just breaks even and cannot run into debt. The PPP loan the club got is only enough to pay three people’s salaries for a few months and is not a significant life raft.

“Is it worth digging into our tiny retirement funds?” she said.

The club has a daily operating cost of about $1,000, she said. That’s even though it has turned off its utilities. When tickets were refunded, Bottom of the Hill lost most of its money. Still, Schwarz is optimistic about her club.

“Were going to stay open, There’s no question,” she said.

She and Hayes said that they haven’t heard about any independent Bay Area clubs in immediate risk of shutting down.

“But tomorrow can be a different story,” Hayes said. “We need some sort of financial assistance or a break from the government. A lot of us are applying for small business loans and are being denied.”

NIVA officials have said that current levels of federal assistance, PPP funding through the CARES act, is not enough to keep clubs afloat. The alliance is lobbying for the approval of the RESTART Act, which would finance six months’ worth of payroll, benefits, and fixed operating costs; allow for loan forgiveness and flexible use of loan spending; and allow the clubs to repay loans over seven years.

In San Francisco, Slim’s called it quits in March, but the owners said the club was already planning to shut down prior to the coronavirus pandemic.

Editor Daniel J. Willis contributed to this report. Follow editor Roman Gokhman at

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