Independent Venue Alliance Offers Hope for Local Music Ecosystem

Same Girls perform at Bottom of the Hill on night two of the 2019 Noise Pop Music and Arts Festival. (Estefany Gonzalez )

Before the coronavirus pandemic, surviving in San Francisco was already tough for venues like Bottom of the Hill.

On most nights since 1991, the scrappy Potrero Hill club filled up with fans eager to see up-and-coming bands, with tickets typically under $15 a head. The venue bet on smaller acts rather than well-known artists on tour, with local bands making up an estimated 70% of their recent bookings.

In the weeks since shelter-in-place orders came down, co-owner and head booker Lynn Schwarz has found herself steadily refunding $20,000 of canceled show tickets while fielding phone calls from agents postponing bigger concerts. The safety measures necessary to stop the spread of the coronavirus have only exacerbated the challenges businesses like hers face simply by operating in a city as expensive as San Francisco. So Schwarz was relieved when Make Out Room booker Parker Gibbs and Fred Barnes, general manager of The Chapel, invited Bottom of the Hill to join the Independent Venue Alliance, a new organization they formed to advocate for San Francisco bars and clubs reeling from coronavirus closures.

“For the first time ever, I don’t think we should do this on our own,” says Schwarz. “This alliance, of all the hands being extended right now, is the one thing that sounds like it may actually work.”

King Woman’s Kristina Esfandiari returns to the Bay to perform a rose tinted set with her solo project Miserable on night two of the 2019 Noise Pop Music and Arts Festival at Bottom of the Hill.
King Woman’s Kristina Esfandiari performs her solo project Miserable on night two of the 2019 Noise Pop Music and Arts Festival at Bottom of the Hill. (Estefany Gonzalez )

“[Independent venues] serve such an important role in culture and in society, but there’s not really any safety net for them at all in a situation like this—or before this,” says Barnes, pointing to the numerous San Francisco venues that shuttered before the pandemic. In 2018, longstanding rock bar The Hemlock closed to make way for condos, and dance club The Mezzanine followed suit on New Year's Day 2020, with building owners planning to convert it into offices.

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In the economic turmoil of the pandemic, independent venues have fallen through the cracks of most local relief efforts. The San Francisco Arts & Artists Relief Fund is geared towards individual artists and nonprofit organizations. And the city’s Small Business Resiliency Fund offers grants for small businesses with five or fewer employees—a criteria most venues don’t meet. City and federal loans are available, but repaying them when it’s safe to reopen will be an added challenge for venues already struggling to cover operating costs through ticket and bar sales.

“All of us independent venues—we’re all hovering around breaking even, if not running at a loss or barely profiting,” says Schwarz, adding that Bottom of the Hill launched a relief fund for its employees. “Right now my partners are digging into their retirement to keep us open, and the act of opening our doors is going to take another influx of money when we eventually do.”

Fellow alliance member and Mission district bar El Rio, established in 1978, faces similar challenges. It recently laid off its entire staff of 20 in what’s typically the bar’s busiest season. (The venue raised around $15,000 for its former employees via GoFundMe.) “We have monthly weekend get-togethers on the patio, and those vary in terms of population but it’s very, very Mission, very, very local. We try to center queer, POC, working class folks,” says general manager Lynne Angel. “And right when we were getting started, everything kind of shut down.”

Independent venues face much greater hurdles than those backed by AEG or Live Nation, the world’s two largest events presenters, which control bookings at several prominent venues in the Bay Area, including the Fillmore, Regency Ballroom and The Warfield. Barnes hopes to use the Independent Venue Alliance to create a collective fundraiser that can be doled out among participating bars and clubs so they can continue to pay their staff. The goal is to give individuals and corporate donors alike one official, centralized location to support the local music ecosystem.

The crowd at The Chapel in San Francisco on the third night of the 2018 Noise Pop Music and Arts Festival. (Estefany Gonzalez)
The crowd at The Chapel in San Francisco on the third night of the 2018 Noise Pop Music and Arts Festival. (Estefany Gonzalez)

“We employ a lot of people who are San Francisco natives, Mission District natives and are in the service industry,” Barnes says, adding that the Chapel is fundraising for its 80 workers, most of whom are paid hourly. “They live often paycheck to paycheck in terms of their rent. ... It’s already difficult for them.”

Another of the alliance’s ambitions is to give owners and managers a collective voice when advocating for independent venues’ unique concerns in City Hall. The alliance also wants to promote consumer awareness: San Francisco has a conscious consumer culture, but oftentimes the average patron doesn’t know whether they’re supporting a corporate-backed venue or an independent, Barnes reasons.

In addition to The Chapel, El Rio, Make Out Room and Bottom of the Hill, the Independent Venue Alliance has enlisted Neck of the Woods, The Knockout, Rickshaw Stop and Amado’s, and a telethon fundraiser is in the works. Each venue serves a different music scene and clientele that Barnes hopes will band together to ensure the local ecosystem can endure for years to come.

“[Musical] movements have always been attached to specific venues that have become famous, and they’re always independent venues,” he says. “That’s a really important point because that’s where culture grows.”