We hear time and again what people miss most during the pandemic is live music. At restaurants you can get take-out. Movies? There’s Netflix.
But virtual concerts and online festivals, somehow, don’t translate. There’s just something about seeing music live, and no one has seen live music in Long Beach since March. While that’s tough for spectators, it could prove life-altering for the local business owners who own those music venues.
We checked in with the owners and operators of Long Beach’s leading live music venues to see how they’ve been managing in the last six months. In some cases they’ve been been doing pretty well and others are just desperately trying survive.
4TH STREET VINE
It was 2008 and the country was in the midst of a recession when Jim Ritson and Sophia Sandoval opened their craft beer and wine bar. Having not only survived an economic downturn but endured a battle for an entertainment license—destined to become a local favorite spot for live music—they figured the worst was behind them. Then March came and went and, you know the rest.
Like many bar owners who recently banded together to form the Long Beach Bar Coalition, the future of 4th Street Vine looks grim. It’s been six months without any revenue or concrete direction from government leaders as to when or how bars can reopen. Ritson and Sandoval say the bills are mounting and so are their fears.
“We’re trying to figure out a way to survive financially,” Ritson said. “There’s definitely a lot of city fees that are stacked that we owe. Health fees and entertainment permit fees, business license fees, and ABC license fees that are not insignificant, but rent is definitely the biggest chunk at this point.”
Despite having available street and patio space to serve in the front and back of their business, 4th Street Vine lacks a full kitchen which means they can’t serve food like their brethren with full kitchens can.
But food isn’t where the couple’s sights are set anyway.
“If we wanted to serve food, we’d have opened a restaurant,” Ritson said.
What Ritson and Sandoval value most about their space is the role it played in bolstering the city’s music scene. They provided local, fledgling bands an accessible platform to perform in a professional setting and gave music-loving locals a unique and intimate concert experience nearly seven nights a week. With so few offerings as it is, Ritson said that the impact spaces like his have on the community and the local economy should not be dismissed.
“Whenever I tell someone who’s not from Southern California about Long Beach, the first thing I think about is music. It’s part of our identity, it’s part of everything here.”
For now, though, they’re pursuing a different path, one that might allow them to reopen without serving food. Consulting with the city’s health department, Ritson said he’s putting together a set of protocols he hopes might mollify the city’s concerns about patron’s lackadaisical behavior in drinking environments.
The crux of the plan involves implementing what he calls “timed table turnover” in which patrons would be allowed to drink for a set period of time before being required to leave. This, Ritson said, will “keep people moving and from getting too drunk.”
The next best thing, Ritson said, would be financial aid, either through the $40 million CARES Act federal funds or through small-business loans similar to the PPP that could potentially support them until the state allowed for businesses like theirs to reopen at any capacity.
“The most frustrating thing is that we’re in a pandemic and there’s nothing I can do about that,” Ritson said. “I understand a lot of the different positions that the health order takes […] if the folks in charge think that bars represent a bigger threat to spreading COVID it’s not my business to tell them different. It’s my business to run my business.”
Fall has always been the busiest season for the venue on Anaheim Street. Touring season for bands usually kicks off in September, promising more shows, often featuring high-profile acts that are very good for business. In October, the bar would be packed with costumed college students and locals alike.
But, this fall, instead of wondering how they’re going to manage crazy lines at the door or whether the bar had enough limes cut for the evening, Alex and Paige Hernandez are trying to find a way to get even a handful of patrons to their space.
Alex’s Bar is also without a fully licensed kitchen and is therefore unable to serve food or partner with a food vendor, making their parking lot that could be transformed into a parklet, “a waste of space now,” Paige says. The couple hope that after their talk with the city’s director of health and human services Kelly Colopy today, their situation might change.
Aside from a brief, week-long opening in June, the only other source of revenue generated has been the drive-thru liquor store they launched in April. Paige said, it’s “basically functioning as a Total Wine.” With it, they were able to hire back some of their staff, but the venture is hardly sustainable.
“We’re grateful for the people who have come through and purchased just out of the kindness of their hearts, but that only goes so far,” Paige said. “You can’t expect people to come back and keep paying $5 over market for a bottle of Jack Daniels. Everyone is struggling too.”
Earlier this month the bar, which celebrated its 20th anniversary Jan. 27, was setting the stage for possibly closing, saying they were unsure if they’d be able to make it through the year without relief—they don’t own their building and weren’t generating any sizeable revenue to pay rent, insurance and other overhead costs.
Although hopeful, the couple doubts that they’ll see federal relief by this year from two bills recently introduced to congress—The Save our Stages Act and the RESTART Act—that could potentially offer monetary aid for independent music venues through grants or a loan program.
In a stunning response from the community, a GoFundMe campaign asking for $20,000 to help ease the burden on the business has received more than $27,000 in donations, which Alex said will “get them through the year.”
In the meantime, Alex and Paige have taken to social media, leading the charge on awareness of their situation and of their fellow bar-owners.
Recently, they began posting bios of their staff online, and on Friday, Sept. 25 Alex’s Bar will launch its debut live-streaming project geared towards bringing greater awareness and exploring all the areas in which the music industry has been devastated by the pandemic—from bands to sound engineers to venues and beyond.
This episode will feature a live-streamed concert with Fartbarf and San Pedro’s favorite bassist, Mike Watt & the Secondmen. Local journalist and musician, Nate Jackson of Devil Season will be interviewing the bands for part of the livestream.
AT THE TOP (SHANNON’S)
Ask Ron Hodges how many events he’s had to cancel at his At The Top venue and he doesn’t hesitate to answer with an exact figure: “Lots.”
That’s not just lots of live music, but lots of weddings, corporate events and product launches. And there could be lots more; Hodges says he has events booked for as soon as November while also holding on to multiple reservations in 2021.
He knows why he’s closed and doesn’t doubt the seriousness, but he also believes there is a solution that’s available right now. While watching a program on CNN, he said he learned of a “spit test” for COVID that is about 87% accurate. If you take the test a second time, the next day, the accuracy goes up to the 90s. He said he heard of a group of about 90 people in Torrance that was able to meet because they required the people to take the two tests and then to be tested at the door.
Having seen how much live music means to his customers, Hodges says he believes people would absolutely be willing to put themselves through such a gauntlet.
“Look, if it’s a normal thing, if this is just what you have to do, I believe people will do it. You know, ‘Here are my certificates,’” he said. “I think some of the health department people don’t realize how motivated people are to come see live music, even a DJ. People would adjust. If someone had to do this to get into the V Room, believe me, they’d do it.”
Hodges, who also owns Shannon’s on Pine and The Carvery, downtown, along with Shannon’s Bayshore in Belmont Shore, actually owns the building that houses At The Top, so he doesn’t feel the pressures many venues do about paying the landlord. Still, he says At The Top was often his top revenue producer on weekends, so having it closed has had a significant impact on his bottom line.
“The whole thing is integrated. One is carrying the other,” he said. “Right now, I have to keep [At The Top] dusted and run the air conditioning so it doesn’t bake. But it would be helpful to have it operating, especially on the weekends.”
To his way of thinking, the procedure to get back the weekends is already out there, as is the will to use it, which is why he has optimism; lots.
“I think if this thing is long lasting, people’s habits are going to change. But I really believe that it will come back strong. People want, need, to get out with other people. That’ll never change.”
DiPiazza’s is the only venue in the city putting on live shows. They’re mostly acoustic sets, put on Thursday through Sunday, but owner Steve Guillen said the bands and the patrons are flocking.
With live music accounting for about 60% of Guillen’s revenue, he said the city’s parklet initiative that launched in mid-June likely saved his business.Shows like the one on Sept. 11, which featured local headliner Vicious Kinids, performing in the parklet, maxed out the restaurant’s capacity of 14 tables, or 80 seats.
He’s quick to mention how lucky he is as well, to have a location with a frontage road at his disposal. The parklet on that road is one of the longest in the city—about 160-feet—and accommodates about 90% of the seated capacity he had available inside his restaurant. It’s also quite lovely to look at, thanks to artists Cody Lusby and Melanie Cristofaro.
“Our current operation is sustainable, completely,” Guillen said. “So where we’re at with the use of the parklet that the city gave us really, really put us in a good position, and basically put us back in business with the use of that parklet.”
Guillen admits it was hardly an ideal situation he was thrust into; being forced to revert to take-out only operations only 15 days after taking over the iconic restaurant. But, on the flip side, he said he “dodged a bullet” by selling his former bar, Iguana Kelley’s months prior.
He also added that he feels for the other venue owners who aren’t as fortunate as he is. That feeling of helplessness is an emotion he said he’s “all too familiar with,” as several of his past business ventures went south, well before the pandemic.
While Guillen is confident that he will see it through the pandemic, he fears for the live music scene in the city, noting that if places like Alex’s Bar or the concert space adjacent to the Queen Mary don’t return, that could really hurt the local economy for years to come.
“It’s important to the live music scene period, because there are no musicians passing through,” he said. “There are no musicians playing at the Queen Mary, and the night before they’re playing at DiPiazzas or Gaslamp or at Alex’s Bar as they tour and maneuver through the cities. There’s a whole ecosystem of live music that is disrupted right now and the sooner we get places like Alex’s Bar and the festivals down at the Queen Mary and things like that going, the more normal we’re going to be in the future.”
Owner Michael Neufeld admits it’s been “very difficult” navigating the last six months. Although the Gaslamp is actually a restaurant, they have always been positioned primarily as a live music venue.
“Our shows bring in the majority of our customers who dine with us,” he said, noting that overall revenue is down 75%, largely because they haven’t been allowed to have live shows.
Gaslamp has been hosting virtual “wall shows” where guests, stationed outside in their parking lot, can watch a projection of the band performing live from inside their venue.
“It is basically watching a huge TV while dining at socially distanced tables,” Neufeld explained.
What revenue Gaslamp is generating now is a fraction, Neufeld said, of what it was before the pandemic and hasn’t been able to bring back the majority of the staff he was forced to furlough back in March.
“I opened in 2009. I have never dealt with anything like this,” he said. “It’s crushing, but I continue to try and stay positive for my staff and my customers.”
Of all her venue-owning colleagues, Ilse Benz believes that she may be the worst off. Even if she was allowed to serve food at her bar—which she is not—she’d have no place to serve them. Put a parklet out front on 7th street? Even if the city allowed her, she couldn’t do it in good conscience.
“In the 40 years [I’ve worked here] I cannot tell you how many accidents I’ve witnessed on that intersection. People just fly down, it’s too dangerous,” she said.
Benz has been a part of Que Sera history for most of the venue’s 46 years in the city, with nearly 25 as the owner. Having now exhausted the rest of her retirement maintaining the closed business over the last six months, Benz said she’ll have to make a decision, likely by the end of this month, as to whether or not she’ll have to close her doors permanently.
Benz said by the time her lease is up in July next year, she’ll owe tens of thousands of dollars in backlogged rent. Without any sort of revenue coming in—or the potential to bring in revenue because of her location—to cover overhead costs like insurance, electricity, internet and licensing fees, she would have to take out loans, money she’s not confident will be worth the time it will take to pay back.
“I’m at the end of my career. I’m almost 70. I look at the young owners […] they at least have time to make up for this and slowly but surely get out of the red again. I don’t have that luxury, am I going to work until [I’m] 80?”
She’s applied for multiple small business grants and is even considering selling Melissa Etheridge’s gold record that hangs on her wall—Que Sera is credited with launching Etheridge’s career. Whatever it takes, Benz said, she hasn’t given up. Yet.
On Sept. 7 a GoFundMe campaign was launched for Que Sera and seeks $70,000 to help support the business until bars are allowed to reopen at full capacity, a reality Benz predicts may not be realized until Spring next year. As of today, they’ve raised over $14,000.
“Well, what can you do?” she said. “I mean, you can either lay down and die or you can try to make the best of it.”
The stage at The Prospector went dark a couple weeks earlier than most local venues. The band that had been scheduled to play in mid-March, canceled in early March because, according to owner Luis Lemus, “they were scared to perform [because of COVID].”
The time since March has been uneasy at best for Lemus, who says he lost more than $100,000 in the first three months since he was initially closed down. Live acts and karaoke have been a consistent money maker for him, for reasons having little to do with art.
“I’ll tell you, live music and karaoke make me money because people are buying alcohol and alcohol is nothing but profit,” he said. “On food, our prices are very low, so we basically break even.”
He has 10 to 12 tables outside these days, about 25% of capacity for dine-in, with that he says he’s able to “just get by.” Of course, he allows that one of the reasons he’s able to get by is that he actually owns his building.
Lemus is one of local hospitality’s great success stories, having begun at The Prospector as a dishwasher 42 years ago, working his way up—in a week—to lead cook and eventually, in 1992, buying the business. Ten years later, he bought the building, something he says is “a big plus, I can feel for other people who are paying rent.”
Indeed, he says if he didn’t own the building, “I’d probably be locking the doors.”
Since he owns the land, and part of the land includes a relatively large patio/parking lot, Lemus has been asked more than once if he’s considered presenting live shows outside. He’s fairly definitive with his answer.
“No, I will not do that,” he said. “I respect our neighbors too much to do that to them.”
Lemus doesn’t believe there will be live music until sometime next year, which bums him out because it’s “so much fun,” then, catching himself, clarifies.
“Actually, I don’t care much for bands. They kind of get on my ears. But, I love the karaoke.”
So much that he never participates.
“Oh no,” he said. “I’m too old to make a fool of myself.”
Owner Andy George promises that his all-ages venue isn’t going anywhere. Feeling both fortunate and grateful, he explained that he and his silent partner are in a “favorable position” because they own the building. It also helps that their mortgage “isn’t crippling,” as his partner bought the building when the market was more partial to buyers.
Considering that it took three years and over half a million dollars to renovate the 350 capacity theatre, George said circumstances would have to be dire for them before they’d consider selling.
That being said, he predicts that live music won’t be returning next year, or the year after. And, even if the state permitted it, he won’t reopen until science supports the safety of it, and “whether that’s until rapid testing or a vaccine,” he’s prepared to wait years until he can reopen in confidence that he won’t be adding to the problem.
It’s also why he hasn’t reopened his physical record store—adjacent to the theatre—for in-person shopping. He’s channeling all his efforts towards his online store and his other side businesses, for instance, his Etsy shop that sells vintage enamel pins, T-shirts, patches and b-movie related merchandise. That revenue, he says, has allowed him to cover his bottom line, albeit by a narrow margin, but his employees have up and left for work out of state.
Because Toxic Toast is an all-ages venue that doesn’t (and never will, George said) sell alcohol, the venue’s reliance on door sales meant that George would only book shows that could draw a sizeable crowd—at least 50— so that he could pay the bands, sound engineers and cover overhead costs.
As one of youngest venues in the city, having opened its doors in December 2017, Toxic Toast is still in the early stages of building its reputation as a touring destination for more prominent acts. This year was the first year, George said, that he and his talent buyer, Jacob Williams, had noticed a considerable change in talent relations.
“Bands were responding faster, the booking process was smoother, and it was getting easier to book bands,” George said.
By the time he’s able and willing to reopen, he hopes that he won’t have to start from square one, but he’s also banking that by the time the state is ready for live music again, competition will be slimmer and patrons, starved for live entertainment, will come flooding in.
“I know how important live music venues are to the arts community. I don’t want to see any of the Long Beach venues disappear, […] but the venues that remain open are going to be packed.”