FACING THE MUSIC

New Orleans Independent Venues Fight for Survival

The owners of Gasa Gasa announced their intentions to sell their business in July. Opened in 2013, the club was an early arrival to the Tulane-Loyolafied Freret Street corridor, and quickly became a staple of the city’s scrappy indie rock scene. With good acoustics, professional live sound, and a capacity of 200, it was a perfect incubator for both local bands and on-the-rise touring acts still building their New Orleans audience. Like most independent rock venues its size, Gasa seemed perpetually on the verge of closing but somehow always managed to stay afloat. “It’s a nuclear cockroach,” Scott Thompson once told me. “It can’t be killed.”

Thompson, who started as a door guy at Gasa in 2016 (and is now the sole Louisiana rep for Bowery Presents), wasn’t alone in his optimism. Micah Burns, one of Gasa’s founders and the face of the venue throughout its seven-year run, left Louisiana months before the pandemic, but he said he’d felt confident in the club’s direction up until March. “It’s always a struggle to keep a place like that going,” he said, “But Mike Rivera was doing a great job with the booking, and things were picking up before COVID hit. Once we couldn’t operate at all, though, it left us in a place where we weren’t gonna be able to catch up.”

Rivera started working the door at Gasa a few months before Thompson and had worked his way up to Booking and Marketing Manager before the lights went out. He had bills planned through October when things went south. “We had so many good shows coming up,” he said. “I was so fucking stoked for the rest of the year.”

Gasa was the first independent music venue in New Orleans to abandon ship because of COVID, but it won’t be the last. Frenchmen Street staple d.b.a. went on the market in March, but its owner still plans on running operations there for the foreseeable future. The National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) recently polled its 2,800+ members, and 90% said they wouldn’t make it past March 2021 if they remain unable to operate at full capacity. NIVA has lobbied all summer for two bills that would provide federal aid to venues that desperately need it: the RESTART Act and the Save Our Stages Act; both have major bipartisan support. Louisiana Republican senator Bill Cassidy has signed on as a co-sponsor of the SOS bill, but congressman Steve Scalise has remained silent. But with the presidential election one month away and a Supreme Court battle brewing, it’s unlikely either will make it to the senate floor for a vote.

Howie Kaplan, founder and sole owner of Howlin’ Wolf (and leader of New Orleans’ NIVA chapter), is dumbfounded by the state’s inaction. “We have no major industry here,” he said. “We count on the 19 million tourists that come to New Orleans every year. If we don’t bring back a significant amount of those people, we’re in trouble.”

The Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans (MaCCNO) is part of the national Reopen Every Venue Safely campaign, but its staff has generally been working at a more local level, giving mini-grants (as well as food and housing assistance) to artists in need. They’ve also been talking to city officials, from the health department to the Office of Cultural Economy, to develop a plan for the return of safe, socially-distanced live music to the city. MaCCNO Director Ethan Ellestad echoed Kaplan’s worries that the slow-moving wheels of bureaucracy could spell permanent disaster for the New Orleans music industry and the artists who make it possible. “We need a more coherent plan as to what a path forward would look like, whether there be federal money or not,” he said. “We can’t allow cultural spaces to be the sacrificial lamb.”

In addition to Kaplan, I spoke with some of the people involved in running independent venues across the city: Jonathan Parish (production manager), Ron Richard (talent buyer), and Ryan Von Hesseling (co-founder/owner) of One Eyed Jacks; Kalli Tiffau, booker at Banks Street Bar [and ANTIGRAVITY contributor]; Rollin “Bullet” Garcia, founder and owner of Bullet’s Sports Bar in the Seventh Ward; Benji Lee, owner of the Saint and co-owner of Sidney’s Saloon and Santos; Rob Mercurio, bassist for Galactic and co-owner of Tipitina’s; Tom Thayer, co-founder and owner of d.b.a.; and Connie Labat, co-founder and co-owner of The Building in Central City. I’ve distilled their responses into six major categories for clarity’s sake. Together, they paint a picture of a scene creeping dangerously close to collapse.


How has getting through COVID been for you personally?

Jonathan Parish: It’s day-to-day. It’s been pretty unnerving, but I’ve basically just been sitting around smoking weed all day since March.

Kalli Tiffau: I’ve been playing a shameful amount of Animal Crossing, and I started a podcast called Secret Antenna about government cover-ups.

Rollin “Bullet” Garcia: I’m struggling right now to keep the lights on at the bar, the water, the alarm, the cable for the TV. I come in and sit here a few hours. I’ll turn the ice maker off for three days. You have to keep the necessities, you know? I could do without coming in. But I sit down, read the paper, drink some coffee, talk to my neighbors.

Rob Mercurio: I’ve learned I have to have blinders on and think more day-to-day and week-to-week. If I think about what it’s gonna be like three months from now, it’s too daunting. It makes me unmotivated. It gets me in a spiral of dire doom feelings.

 

How has getting through COVID been for you, businesswise?

JP: My career is disappearing.

Ron Richard: I used to get 30 emails a day about shows. Now I’m getting like five or six a week. But I’m keeping it going so that when we come back, we have a fire calendar to rock out. I think the independent buyers will actually be in a better position after this, because at AEG and 

Live Nation, they’re looking to cut everyone who’s on salary. And with the independents, it’s a bar. You have the general manager and you have the guy who’s booking the music. I think it’s a position that’ll stay, especially at One Eyed Jacks. We’re such a family, such a tight-knit spot that I couldn’t see it operating any other way.

Ryan von Hesseling: Our last event was Friday the 13th in March. It was a satanic burlesque act, and their whole set was onstage until just a couple of weeks ago. It was surreal to go in there and see this thing all set up and ready to go, when we’ve been closed for so long. The scary thing is not even having a date in mind when we can even plan to reopen. And we book at least six months to a year ahead. So even if they tell us we can open tomorrow, we can’t just grab a band and start playing. We would have to promote it and plan for it and set it up. You need time to do that stuff. We’re gonna need federal aid before the end of the year, for sure.

Howie Kaplan: Well, we’re a music club, so we have no music. We’re the first to close, the last to open. Even if we could open, we likely would not, because right now it doesn’t seem like people are willing to take proper precautions for the safety of those around them in a live music environment. We’ve found that people generally do not want to listen. Our whole business model is putting a whole bunch of people into a room, and we can’t do that at this point.

RM: We’re just trucking right now. It’s scary. The uncertainty is so real that I really can’t tell you where we’re gonna be in December or November.

Benji Lee: The first three months, it was like, “OK, we’ve gotta hurry up and wait.” And then it got to the point where we realized it wasn’t gonna be normal. When they let us open, we took all the precautions. I didn’t have anybody on our staff come down with it. We had plexiglass on the bars; we were following protocol. Believe me, we were not making money during that. But we had 30 bartenders who needed to get back to work, so we did all we could. When they shut us down the second time, it was a kick to the nuts. I always thought bars were recession-proof. Good times or bad, people drink. But if you can’t go to one, that’s a different story. I’m hopeful we’ll be able to make it through.

 

In what ways are you better off than other venues in New Orleans? Worse off?

Connie Labat: We’re not just a music venue. We have art exhibits. We do birthday parties, Christmas parties, wedding receptions, business events, presentations and panel discussions for Essence. My heart goes out to straight music venues. That’s rough, man.

JP: The indie scene is in a different place than the jazz scene. The overwhelming majority of local indie bands play music for passion or as a hobby. The Frenchmen scene is people who play music as a career. I feel that their sense of job security is a lot less solid, because if you’ve just been playing bass in New Orleans for the last 15 years without another side hustle, what in the fuck are you gonna do? On social media, I see local hardcore and punk musicians be a lot more flippant about this whole thing. I see them post a lot more memes and make a lot more jokes, and take on pizza restaurant jobs. The Frenchmen Street people are usually a lot older, in their 40s and 50s, and they do it full-time.

Tom Thayer: What complicated the timing of the pandemic was that I had just bought out my partners, so it’s all on me now. We were going into our busy season, March-April-May, and we never even got that to catch up a little bit. It’s just been compounded by bad timing. But I can’t sit there crying about it. There are so many others that are in the same boat or worse shape than me.

RM: Tip’s has the history. It has the love. It has the international recognition. We’re very lucky we own something that’s so cherished amongst New Orleans people. People all over the world want to buy our T-shirts. I really feel for the small neighborhood bars that don’t have that national or even regional recognition. I know we’re on the verge of not making it. I can’t imagine where other clubs are at, and it’s scary, and it’s gonna come down to the next month or two. Everybody’s been holding on, if they’ve been able to hold on, by the tiniest bit of a shoestring.

RBG: The mom and pop bars are really gonna catch it. Even with federal help, we’ll be in trouble. That stuff only goes so far. I never charged to get in, so I’ve got to pack ‘em in, in order to pay the bills. I thought about charging a cover, but I don’t think it would work, because nobody has any money right now anyway. Some spaces are even smaller than mine, so they’ll have a hard time putting a band in there, much less fitting the people. Real big places will be alright if they have enough room to get maybe 100 people in there and social distance with the band and charge $10 a head. Thank God I own my own place, and I can sit here and take the beating. When it comes time to pay property taxes at the end of the year, that’s when I’ll catch it, because in six months I haven’t made nothing. People that are renting and leasing, it’s gonna be tough for them.

RVH: The smaller venues might be OK because they have lower overhead. But for the bigger ones, the overhead is crushing, especially in the Quarter. And it will be a little easier for places on Frenchmen to reopen because it’s a local scene, whereas we rely mostly on touring acts. So they’ll rebound quicker once they’re able to open. And a lot of those places are also bars. They were able to open briefly. And some of them are still open now, serving food. Because we’re a nightclub, they won’t even let us open our front bar. We could make some profit that way, but they’re not allowing that. Because we’re known for live music, they think that’s all we do. It’s like, “No, our bar is where the money’s generated.” It’s been frustrating to try to explain that to the powers that be. It’s falling on deaf ears.

HK: I’m lucky. I’ve got a restaurant and a bar that are a part of the Wolf, so we’re able to do something. But my gross revenue is down about 90%, and that’s not sustainable.

BL: Everybody’s in the same boat, if you’re in the service industry, especially if you’re a bar. Some bars are getting away with doing food, but that doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, to become a restaurant now. We don’t know how to do that. We know how to throw a party, not how to cater one. Even if you’re getting some help from your landlord and he’s super cool, which all mine are, it’s still a business at the end of the day. He could kick me out and turn me into a boutique clothing store, and I’d understand that. We’re all just trying to stay afloat. If you don’t go under and you make it to the end of this thing, you’re a success.


Rollin “Bullet” Garcia, owner of Bullet’s Sports Bar (photo by Adrienne Battistella)


Have you found other ways to make money while the venues can’t reopen?

HK: The Wolf has not shut down one day. We’ve been there every day at 11 since March. We started a program called meals for musicians back in March, in conjunction with the New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic. Every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, we’re feeding first responders, hospitality workers, and musicians. We’ve served over 20,000 meals.

RBG: We’re looking into a way to sit ‘em all out front. I’ve been talking to the Original Pinettes all girls brass band, and we’re trying to get them involved in playing something like a food drive on the corner for the people of Lake Charles. We just want to do something for the community. They could social distance in front of our bar and maybe on the neutral ground. We just want for people to have some normalcy.

RR: I was waiting it out, thinking, “We’ve gotta come back soon. Music can’t stay down that long.” And then, after a while, I started a burger pop-up with my brother and a couple of my friends, and it’s actually been going great.

TT: I just launched a merch site, which I had never done before. And I’ll be doing live streaming. I’m gonna try to get eight to ten bands a week in [d.b.a.], evening shows and early shows, like 2 p.m. to cater to Europe. Some of my trad bands have a big following over there. Hopefully we can make some money for the club that way, and a few bucks for the musicians too.

RM: We’re working on Tipitina’s TV. It’s livestreaming, but we’ve taken it up a notch. We brought in a 10-camera crew with a jib. And it’s been encouraging. It’s still not enough that it’s gonna pay our bills. But it’s been enough to put some money in musicians’ pockets, keep some of our production staff on. It’s creating a flow of money into people’s pockets that are unemployed right now. It’s nice to see some life going on in the club. We’re just figuring out ways to use the club and the brand, other than having 800 people in there.

RVH: We’ve been thinking about doing something. I see a lot of other people doing podcasts from their venues. I’m trying to look at how they’re actually doing with that to see if it’s worth the time to put it together. We’re also looking into doing some construction in the downtime. But again, if there’s no end to this, why put any more time or effort into it?

 

What are your plans for reopening, if and when you can again?

RR: Nothing concrete. I’m letting bands dictate when they think their tours are gonna route to New Orleans. But all that could easily be cancelled. It all depends on when we can reopen. Everyone was aiming for late in the year, December, when all this started. And then it went to February, March 2021. And now I’m seeing a big trend towards May and the later months of next year, which I think is probably where it’s gonna fall.

CoL: We had a great exhibit with 15 artists the week before everything came tumbling down. So we plan on picking that ball up and rolling it again, and maybe hosting some private events. We’re gonna see what can be done safely. In terms of music presentation, we’re not gonna jump on that very quickly. I don’t see how we could.

TT: I’ll probably end up doing some more to-go stuff, some more private events, crawfish boils, renting the club out for Saints games. I’m also considering putting in the permits to do food, and maybe doing oysters. I have a friend who’s an epidemiologist, and she says we can do this, but we need to do it safely. We can’t hide from this shit forever. I’ve been flirting with the idea of making d.b.a. a locals’ joint. I know that locals take this thing seriously, and I think they’d appreciate a place that does as well. Maybe when this is all said and done, Frenchmen will come back to being a local thing. I hope that’s the case.

RBG: Have you ever been to my place? Were you here on a band night? Who was playing? OK, now guess what: At 25%, I’m allowed 12 people in here. Could you imagine that? When I was open for three weeks, I had ten people in the bar every day, all regulars, so glad to have somewhere to go. It was $140 a day. What are you gonna do with that? People keep asking me, “Why are you not open? This and that place, they’re up!” I tell them, “Look. I abide by what the mayor says, and I don’t care about what anybody else is doing.” But it’s hurting when everybody else is able to do what they want to do. “OK, you’ve got a kitchen. You’re allowed to open. But your capacity might be 15 people, and you’ve got 90 in there.” And you’re serving alcohol at a late time of night.” I play by the rules, always have. I love my mayor. I think she’s doing the right thing. But as long as you allow these places to get by with certain things, we’ll never get well enough to work again. I had the COVID. It’s nothing to play with. I like to lost my life. People are scared, and I have a much older crowd. We lost maybe four of our senior customers. I would hate to think of somebody coming in here and catching the COVID. Then I would be the cause of somebody losing their life.

KT: People email me! I am shocked how many emails I still get. They’re like, “Are you open? Are you booking?” I’m like, “Fuck no! Of course we’re not! What’s wrong with you?” (I have an auto-reply that just says, “We are closed.”) Honestly, we wouldn’t need to get too many people into the bar to make it worth it financially. Our profit margins are pretty foolproof because we just pay out a percent of the bar. But in my mind, there’s no difference between Banks Street Bar at 30% capacity and 80% capacity, as far as COVID spread. You’re not gonna be distant. You’re not gonna be wearing masks if you’re drinking. So I’ve been dumbfounded. The way I understand this disease seems to be really different from the way other people understand it, based on how they’re acting. If Banks opened up and wants to have shows, I don’t know what I’d do, if I’d go back to work. I don’t want to be complicit in encouraging people to go out. But I also need a fucking job. I haven’t worked in six months, and unemployment is super fucked right now. It’s hustle time.


Eyehategod at Tipitina’s, June 2018 (photo by Adrienne Battistella)


What do you think New Orleans live music will look like in five, ten years?

JP: It seems like the city and the state view live music as something that’s physical and unable to be distorted, a constant that’ll always be there. They don’t realize that without those musicians, there is no New Orleans. I’m really cynical. I don’t think live music is ever gonna return in the way that we’re used to. I think too many people are gonna be gun-shy about going back to the way the world was before COVID-19. I think the inevitable collapse of capitalism is going to happen in the next 10 years. Disease is going to run rampant, and live music will become a completely unimportant thing, just like art always is when civilizations fail. The idea of going back and doing what I used to do seems stupid.

RR: I’d like to say I see it coming back and thriving as it always has. I think people are gonna appreciate live music more and come out and see it, which means you can throw some more love to local acts, and they’ll get more play on stages that have traditionally been focused on touring bands. The festival scene is gonna be tougher because it’s such a big congregation of people. I don’t see how that’s gonna come back.

RM: I think the next 10 years could be very exciting. Like post-Katrina, there’s gonna be a moment where you appreciate something that you’ve almost lost. I think this time is gonna make everybody appreciate everything they used to have, and I think one of those things is going to see live music. It’s already been six months. It could easily be another three to six months before we’re experiencing it. It could be another two years before we’re experiencing it at the level we’re used to, all being in a crowded bar, sold out show, that energy. That might be a long way down the road. But when it does come, I think people are gonna be extra appreciative of it.

CoL: I think New Orleans is gonna get through this. It’s unfortunate that some venues are folding. I heard about Gasa Gasa, which really breaks my heart. But if we can hang, we’ll get through this. I know we will.

RBG: I think it’ll bounce back. I was more worried after Katrina than I am now. But music is gonna take a hit. If they don’t get a vaccine, it’s gonna be like cancer. Places are gonna try to hold on, but they’re gonna fall off. We’ve got people coming from all over the world for Jazz Fest, Mardi Gras, all the parades. If they can’t do that, a lot of places are gonna be in trouble, including me. I may make it, but it’s not gonna be pretty.

TT: This industry’s not just gonna roll over and die, but it’s looking grim right now. We were hoping the Save Our Stages Act or the RESTART Act would be there to help us out, but it doesn’t look like that’s gonna happen. Are we thinking it’s not gonna be till January 20 that we get any help from the feds? Clubs can’t last that long.

BL: Even one venue is too many. If we lose a bunch… I mean, God, this is a music town. We need our venues. We need that community to keep our whole engine going. We have a trickle-down economy. If the tourists aren’t here, the waiters and the bartenders and the hotel managers can’t come to the bar and spend their money. But if there’s no income coming in, the machine can’t operate correctly. Think about it: If we can’t have live music, Bourbon Street’s not Bourbon Street. What else do we have in this town if it’s not our hospitality industry and our tourism? I hope Congress sends us a lifeline, something to get us through to the other side. If not, I guess it’ll just be ‘80s Detroit—empty buildings everywhere.

RVH: Without federal aid, they say 90% of independent venues will close, and I think that’s pretty accurate. We still have to pay all the bills, and there’s zero income. It all comes down to how much money you have in your coffers, and nobody’s got that much. My fear is that the Walmart venues—the ones run by corporate monsters that don’t have any kind of local identity—will be the only ones left standing. That would be a tragedy. It would be a death knell for the music scene.

HK: We’re on the precipice of cultural extinction. We’ve got Grammy winners working at Lowe’s and Home Depot. People don’t get it: Where’s the next Trombone Shorty gonna come from? Where’s the next Rebirth gonna come from? We had a legislative call with Meatloaf and Senator Kennedy—one of the more bizarre calls I’ve ever had in my entire life. [Meatloaf] said, “There’s no Bruce Springsteen without Asbury Park, no Beatles without the Culture Club in London.” It all goes back to independent venues. New Orleans has always had more than our fair share, but  what the fuck’s gonna happen now? The folks that own these properties have to get paid at some point. If there’s no assistance available, our culture will go away. It’ll be Disneyfied. It’ll be Taylor Swift everywhere.

KT: I fucking hope everything goes back to normal. I hope we get to do everything we used to. It’s so hard to even daydream about going back to normal because everything is so confusing. I guess I’m being naive, but I really, really, really am holding out hope that someday we’ll be able to party again.


top photo of Gasa Gasa by Dan Fox

bottom photo by Adrienne Battistella