How are Philly music venues surviving through COVID-19?

by Lauren Silvestri

The COVID-19 crisis affected every industry in the world, but the music industry in particular suffered a huge blow. Music venues were among the first businesses ordered to shut down, and it is still unclear when they can reopen. When they do reopen, they may need to follow stricter capacity guidelines, further cutting their profits.

Jesse Lundy, Co-Owner of Point Entertainment, a full-service, boutique entertainment company that books rooms such as Ardmore Music Hall, the Colonial Theatre, the Keswick Theatre, The Locks at Sona, MilkBoy Philly, Bourbon & Branch and more, understood that this pandemic was not going to go away anytime soon.

“My initial reaction was that we need to see what this all means before we react. We need to gather data and figure out what the right move is, however, the concert industry has been understandably reactionary and spent the first two weeks moving shows around the calendar like chess pieces, rescheduling shows for time periods that are now irrelevant. Those first two weeks, all I could think about is ‘are we all going to die’ immediately followed by phone calls from agents. It was a bit of a mental conflict.” – Jesse Lundy

“Nobody in those early chaotic days could’ve imagined we’d be hearing lots of conversations about 18 months’ drought for live events,” recalls Chris Perella, Co-Owner of Ardmore Music Hall in Ardmore, PA and 118 North in Wayne, PA.

Quote by Dan McGowan of Crofoot Presents in Potiac, Michigan

Some venues have explored alternative methods of income. Ardmore Music Hall created their series “From The Archives,” that sells downloads of dozen of concerts recorded by their production team over the years. The proceeds benefit the artists and the AMH staff. “It feels like a fulfilling way to celebrate the proud legacy of AMH these past six years, while connecting with our community and also doing our part to support our people and our performer partners,” says Perella.

Other venues, like 118 North, have relied on their food programs to keep business somewhat open. “118 North takeout is a challenge, in part because we’re a great intimate music club that just became a dynamite restaurant this fall, and we were in the process of building our food & drink reputation and business when this came crashing down,” explains Perella. “Now, we’re working on ways to get creative with virtual streams and performances out the front windows of 118 North onto the street to help continue with our mission of marrying top notch music, food, and drink to create an unparalleled entertainment experience.” 

Photo by Ron Adelberg
Photo by Ron Adelberg

Celebrity chef Jen Zavala, who recently took over Underground Arts’ kitchen, has so far held two pop-up kitchen events for the venue.  Bourbon & Branch on 2nd Street is open 7 days a week for curbside pickup and delivery only, but recently announced they are selling margaritas to-go.

The uncertainty surrounding the music industry today understandably finds venue owners anxious, especially independent venue owners who do not have surplus funds stockpiled to weather the storm. “I feel so horribly for the venues we work with. The ones that are non-profits are suffering as the arts continue to slide down the priority list. The for-profit rooms are dealing with the same thing, but without the benefit of grants. I think we’re going to lose a lot of really great rooms,” says Lundy.

“The music industry needs legislation designed for our unique circumstances… the reality of a 12 to 18+ month shutdown… so that we can survive,” says Perella. He suggests mortgage and rent forgiveness until the doors reopen, changes to the Paycheck Protection Program to suit venues’ longer-term needs and subsidizing the insurance industry to cover “Business Interruption” for venues. 

The National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) was created in response to the needs of independent music venues across the country, with the main goal of “securing financial support to preserve the national ecosystem of independent venues and promoters.” It now has over 800 members across 48 states and Washington, D.C. Most recently on April 22nd, NIVA sent a letter to leadership on Capitol Hill proposing solutions to address the unique and dire situation facing the industry. The organization has also started the social media campaign #saveourstages.

#saveour stages from The National Independent Venue association aka NIVA

In an email, Senator Bob Casey responded about what he is doing to help. “There still remains much work to be done to support small businesses and non-profits. I joined several of my colleagues in sending a letter to Senate leadership urging assistance for independent live event venues in a future COVID-19 relief package,” he says. He encourages constituents to visit the COVID-19 page on his website for comprehensive resources on the latest updates related to the pandemic.

For decades Philadelphia has been lauded for its fertile music scene, thanks to the independent bars and clubs that opened its doors for new talent. How else would The Hooters have exploded without the support of clubs like the 23 East Cabaret? Before this crisis, Philly already lost gems such as the Legendary Dobb’s on South Street, The Trocadero in Chinatown and The Tin Angel in Old City, among others. COVID-19 will accelerate these losses if certain measures are not taken.

If we still want to see live music in an intimate space after the threat of COVID-19 dissipates, we need to support these venues now in their time of need. Some venues have started GoFundMe campaigns – see if your favorite venue started one. NIVA has a form on their website that makes it easy to reach out to our elected representatives. You can also donate to an organization like Philly Music Fest (aligned with WXPN thanks to a hefty donation made to them by the radio station) that is deploying “micro grants” directly to artists, performers, and workers in need.

Photo by 215 Music on The Philadelphia Globe
Photo by 215 Music

“My advice to everyone is use your vote in November to right the wrongs. Science is real, I promise. And it’s very easy to look back in time to see who de-prioritized the arts,” says Lundy.

In the meantime, live music may look different right now but it’s anything but dead. Every Friday at 6pm, Ardmore Music Hall, in collaboration with, broadcasts live streams of past performances on their Facebook account via their “Rewind” series. The series is free but donations are encouraged to support the musicians and staff. The annual Make Music Philly festival that happens on June 21st throughout different Philly neighborhoods will still happen this year, albeit virtually. Many local, national and international artists are live streaming performances on social media and uploading new content on YouTube (imagine how much more difficult this quarantine would be if it was during the pre-Internet era).

Check out WXPN’s Concert Calendar for upcoming live streams.

Mobilizations like these are a reminder that the live music industry, especially in Philly, is resilient and will continue to provide a communal atmosphere in the toughest of times.

Lauren Silvestri has been a music journalist for the past 10 years. 
She has a huge passion for rock n' roll, the Philly music scene
and independent music venues.
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