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Arts & Entertainment

This local venue survived Covid, but it couldn’t survive crushing debts

Rob Ready, co-founder and artistic director of PianoFight, plays the guitar before a performance of “A Dating Game,” in San Francisco on Thursday, Mar. 9, 2023. | Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard

When Covid started, Rob Ready was staring down a live entertainment apocalypse and, potentially, the demise of his creative community. 

“It sucked,” said Ready, the co-founder and artistic director of PianoFight, an independent arts venue with locations in the Tenderloin and Downtown Oakland that centers local visual and performing artists. “And it’s been touch-and-go for the past three years.”

The theater quickly organized an online fundraiser that brought in $50,000—enough to keep staff on the payroll until they could sign up for unemployment. Unfortunately for PianoFight, it was merely the first act in a three-year saga that is about to end on a tragic note. The venue will permanently shutter on March 18.

PianoFight’s closure is only the latest in a long line of Covid casualties. On March 18, 2020, Boz Scaggs informed his staff that Slim’s final days would be cut short—the musician and owner had privately decided to close his nightclub in the South of Market (SoMa) neighborhood in late 2019. Two months later, the Saddle Rack, a beloved honky-tonk in Fremont (originally in San Jose) also shuttered for good

The fall of 2020 ushered in more closures. The Uptown Nightclub in Oakland called it quits. The Stud—San Francisco’s longest-running queer bar—remains in a holding pattern to this day, as its ownership collective searches for a new home. The future of countless live performance venues appeared to be hanging in the balance.

Necessity Is the Mother of Invention

D’Arcy Drollinger, a drag performer and the owner of SoMa club Oasis, quickly dreamed up creative ways to keep his business afloat, launching “Meals on Heels,” a delivery service where drag performers provided dinner and a show from the safety of the curbside. 

“It wasn’t a huge money maker, but we were able to bring sparkle into people’s lives and employ some drag performers,” Drollinger said. 

When Covid’s one-year mark rolled around, and Oasis hadn’t yet received a relief grant from the local or federal government, Drollinger said he realized he had spent all of his savings and needed to go back to the drawing board. He and his team got to work producing a live fundraiser in the spirit of Jerry Lewis’s annual Labor Day telethon.    

Oasis produced a telethon on March 6, 2021 to help keep the club from closing down. | Courtesy Emily Curiel/Golden Gate Xpress

“We were drowning in debt,” he said. “This was a make-it-or-break-it kind of moment.”  

With help from celebrity video appearances from performers like Alaska of RuPaul’s Drag Race, Cindy Wilson of the B-52’s and actor John Cameron Mitchell, Oasis hosted a telethon where donors called in and spoke with drag queens who were fired up and ready to take their calls.

Drollinger said that after 12 hours, Oasis raised $270,000 that he put toward the hundreds of thousands of dollars Oasis owed in back rent and utilities.

“It was the only way we survived,” he said. “And it was 100% community-driven. It’s like I always say: ‘Necessity is the mother of invention.’” 

Other venues followed the same rule of thumb. Kathleen Owen and Lynn Schwarz, co-owners of Bottom of the Hill with Ramona Downey, said that during shelter-in-place, several local bands organized their own impromptu livestream benefit shows for the club. Bottom of the Hill also co-produced a webathon with an alliance of independent venues that brought in $50,000 in emergency funding, which is still earmarked for dormant venues like The Stud.

Owen said that her club was fortunate to not lose any employees during the pandemic, coming up with makeshift solutions like encouraging them to cash in on sick days and even housing one worker for a brief time in the club’s green room. 

The Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco on September 1, 2020 | Courtesy Bottom of the Hill

The UC Theatre, a music venue and education nonprofit in Downtown Berkeley, hosted an outdoor music series each weekend called Out Front. CEO David Mayeri said that the purpose of the concerts was to support local bands whose income had vanished with the shelter-in-place order, provide a whisper of the live music that locals yearned for and encourage the public to support neighboring restaurants by ordering takeout. 

According to Mayeri, the Out Front series essentially broke even. “We weren’t doing it for the money," he said. "We were trying to keep people in jobs and preserve our sanity.” 

These venue owners shared one major lesson they learned during the first year of Covid: that in order to survive, they had to band together. PianoFight, Oasis, Bottom of the Hill and the UC Theatre all joined venue alliances that were established at the dark dawn of the pandemic.   

Banding Together 

In the spring of 2020, these venue operators, along with Fred Barnes of Great American Music Hall, Allyson Moulton of Bimbo’s 365 Club, Casey Lowdermilk of Another Planet Entertainment and dozens of others, formed venue alliances to provide emergency funding to struggling venues and lobby local, state and federal lawmakers to do the same. The Independent Venue Alliance (IVA) was the first in San Francisco. PianoFight and Bottom of the Hill were among its founding members. The SF Venue Coalition and the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) formed shortly after. 

Dylan MacNiven, the owner of Cafe du Nord, also joined the Independent Venue Alliance that spring. At the time, he said the alliance provided a much-needed feeling of solidarity.

“It was like group therapy,” he said.

Ready said that thanks in large part to critical support from former Supervisor and current Assemblymember Matt Haney, the IVA and the SF Venue Coalition worked with the city to pass the Music and Entertainment Venue Recovery Fund, which allocated grants of at least $10,000 to individual venues in the spring of 2021. 

According to Gloria Chan of the Office of Economic and Workforce Development, the city has provided more than $83 million to small businesses since Covid started. In an email, Chan told The Standard that the office supported California’s Venues Grant Program and the Save Our Stages Act on the federal level—a $16 billion grant package that NIVA was also instrumental in helping to pass. Schwarz said that Bottom of the Hill received its federal Shuttered Venue Operators Grant around June 2021, helping her staff to finally reopen two months later. 

The Broadway theater district in Manhattan stands mostly empty and closed as Covid-19 restrictions keep performances closed on December 22, 2020 in New York City. | Spencer Platt/Getty Images

This degree of governmental support for the performing arts was somewhat unprecedented. Mayeri noted that public funding for the arts increased by somewhere between 300% and 400% in California during Covid. Ready pointed out that the National Endowment for the Arts is typically only budgeted $150 million for an entire year, which pales in comparison to the outpouring of public funding that the performing arts and entertainment industry received over the course of the pandemic. 

“This must’ve been the biggest funding for the arts since the WPA,” Ready said, referring to the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal program of the 1930s that funded more than 10,000 artists across the country, including San Franciscan and famed Depression-era photographer Dorothea Lange. 

“We didn't know we could count on the government,” Schwarz said. “We were pretty sure we couldn't because we never have before in the music industry.”

An Uneven Recovery 

Covid may not be a global health emergency any longer, but Bay Area venue owners agree that, in many ways, things feel even more dire than they did in 2020. 

“The alliances did the thing that they set out to do—getting venues enough money to get through the pandemic,” Ready said. “But now it’s the after-pandemic.”

When clubs finally reopened in the summer of 2021, venue owners, musicians and promoters realized they had entered a brave new world of live entertainment. The Delta and Omicron variants brought on a deluge of show cancellations.

Rob Ready moderates A Dating Game, a comedy-matchmaking show at PianoFight in San Francisco on Thursday, Mar. 9, 2023. | Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard

Schwarz said that in 2022, Bottom of the Hill had 36 show cancellations that did not reschedule. Of the more than 100 shows the UC Theatre booked in 2022, Mayeri said, around 30 were canceled, postponed or rescheduled for a whole host of Covid-related issues. MacNiven told The Standard that when SF Sketchfest 2022 was postponed entirely, it eliminated several key nights for his club. Cancellations like these—along with no-shows from ticket holders translate to losses in alcohol and food sales that cut into a venue’s bottom line.

But cancellations and other Covid-related snags—like supply chain disruptions—aren’t the only forces impacting local live performance spaces, according to Ready. Gentrification is also playing a role, and the PianoFight co-founder said Covid has accelerated that process.

“A lot of people left,” he said. “When you’re 25, you’re down to hang at a bar at 11 p.m. on a Thursday. When you’re 35, 40, 45 and you have a wife and a kid and a mortgage, you can’t really do that. There’s an organic process of people moving on, but there’s always a younger group of people to take over, and during Covid, that didn’t really happen.”

Owen explained that there’s also been a blue-collar and middle-class departure from the Bay Area, meaning that venues lack the engineers, electricians, cooks and other workers that allow clubs to keep their lights on. 

As a booker, Schwarz said she’s seen promoters start to pass over San Francisco, because they no longer consider it a major market like Los Angeles or New York.

“The scene is small, and it’s getting smaller,” she said. “It’s been decimated.” 

Over at Cafe du Nord, MacNiven recently started a partnership with a primary booker at Live Nation, and he said that’s helped his venue stay solvent. For him, success as a venue in the post-Covid era depends on how much debt a venue carries, its lease situation and whether it’s booking shows for a broad enough demographic.

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Forty Feet Tall, a post-punk band from Portland, perform at Cafe du Nord in San Francisco on Friday, March 10, 2023. | Sarah Holtz/The Standard

Drollinger said his experience with Oasis’s telethon clarified the future of his nightclub, particularly in light of ongoing violence directed against queer spaces and the recent onslaught of anti-LGBTQ legislation. 

Drollinger plans to continue collaborating with local artists—particularly drag performers of color—to plan programming that resonates with his regulars. He said that in terms of gross revenue, the past year has been the most successful in Oasis’s history. With any luck, he said, he’ll also bring back Meals on Heels in the near future. 

Likewise, Mayeri said the UC Theatre is on track to continue recovering in 2023 and already put a few sold-out shows on the books this year. He emphasized that venues should maintain a “good of the many” mindset.  

“We can’t just look out for ourselves; we have to look out for each other,” he said. 

Swan Song

On the eve of PianoFight’s closure, Schwarz said she believes the venue alliance failed the performing arts venue.

“The issues are so much deeper than what we could possibly have helped with,” she said.
“But I still feel like it was a failure on our part to lose even one.”

Ready said the decision to close PianoFight was based on a confluence of factors. “There’s never one reason to close—it’s more like 12.” 

Getting down to the numbers, Ready explained that in 2019, the theater hosted around 750 revenue-generating shows. In 2022, that number plummeted to 200. 

Guests drink at PianoFight’s bar in San Francisco on Thursday, Mar. 9, 2023. | Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard

Still, he said there’s a silver lining he refuses to ignore. “It’s sad, but we’re really proud of what we’ve accomplished, producing more than 7,000 shows over 9 years in San Francisco," he said. "We’ve been able to pay a lot of artists.” 

Drollinger said he sees PianoFight’s closure as a threat to the already-fragile ecosystem of live entertainment in the Bay Area. 

“Every time something closes, it makes San Francisco less desirable as a destination,” he said. “We need a diverse scene. It’s terrifying, and the city should not let it happen. What’s going to happen next?” 

Correction: Oasis has been supported by Cindy Wilson of the B-52s.