Kate Yeager at Rockwood Music Hall, Stage 2, on July 8 / Everynight Charley

NYC Downtown Music Clubs Rebound, Anticipating a Better Fall

Many musicians are hearing applause again for the first time in 16 months. Sometimes the applause as they walk on stage can be thunderous. Music fans are enthusiastically returning to live concerts.

“Welcome to live entertainment,” Michael Dorf has said to audiences many times as he introduces his artists to the customers at City Winery NYC. “I am sure you will enjoy this live show more than any livestream.”

City Winery NYC opened its new Hudson River Park location with limited capacity in the fall of 2020 during the pandemic, then shut in December when governmental restrictions tightened. Since reopening in April 2021, the venue has hosted multiple concerts by Rufus Wainwright, Keb’ Mo’, Citizen Cope, Jorma Kaukonen, and numerous other touring talents. Many shows have sold out in advance. In June, City Winery NYC also opened a smaller room called the Loft on its upper floor.

Week by week, more music clubs are resuming the booking of live entertainment for live audiences. Many music club owners and operators in downtown Manhattan have been reporting sell-out shows, even with capacity levels returning to pre-pandemic levels. Some venues even have greater capacity than ever, thanks to the outdoor space they annexed through the Open Restaurants program in 2020.

While business continues improving, several venue owners and operators see challenges they must face and overcome in order for their businesses to return to pre-pandemic levels. Some remain cautious. The following reports are exclusive to The Manhattan Beat and shared with The Aquarian.

“I am happy to report that, in terms of booking musicians, we are at the same spot as before the pandemic,” responded Natasha Stolichnaya, who schedules the performances at the Anyway Café. “I am booking almost two months ahead again! Every night, plus Saturday and Sunday afternoon, and I started to book Friday afternoons too when I am running out of available slots. That is so great; I cannot complain!”

Like all other restaurant managers, the COVID pandemic forced Stolichnaya to halt the nightly music program at the Anyway Café in March 2020. She resumed nightly entertainment five months later, in August. For the next six months, performers played inside by an open window to an audience seated outside. During the winter months, the Anyway Café was possibly the only downtown restaurant serving music seven nights each week. As the state government eased restrictions and allowed indoor dining at gradually increasing capacity in 2021, the performers moved further inside the Anyway Café, away from the open window. Despite Stolichnaya’s present celebratory outlook, she looks forward to a better tomorrow.

“The only thing, I wish we could pay more to musicians, but we are just not there yet,” added Stolichnaya, who besides running the talent also performs in the Typsy Gypsy Girls, singing gypsy songs in multiple languages. “For now, musicians very much rely on tips. But being an Anyway performer myself, I can attest that most of our patrons are being generous, which is very much appreciated!”

“We are going about reopening exactly how I want to,” said Dan Sweeney, owner of the 11th St. Bar, speaking of his slow return to live music. In recent months, Sweeney quietly resumed hosting a down-sized Irish Seisiun on Sunday nights, then expanded to a jazz jam on Monday nights. This week, Sweeney had a test run with an unadvertised show by one of his pre-pandemic regular artists, the Brothers Yee.

“I have been busting my ass for 55 weeks in a row, six days a week minimum,” Sweeney continued. “I am going to enjoy the last few weeks of summer and then first book the musicians that made this place what it is here. Chris Campion will perform at the 11th St. Bar on the last Thursday of each month to restart his residency. Most of the bands I contacted said they wanted to wait until the fall so that is what we are going to do. We may do a spot show here or there in August but after Labor Day we will be fully operational. I am sitting at my computer now, adding the first shows to our Events web page. I already have a few shows set for September.”

The Brothers Yee at the 11th St. Bar on July 14 / Photo by Everynight Charley

The New Challenges

“The Blue Note reopened on June 15 and business has been great,” reported Steven Bensusan, CEO of Blue Note Entertainment Group. “We were one of the first venues in New York to reopen.”

The Blue Note, which had been nightly presenting some of the biggest names in the jazz circuit since 1981, also closed in March 2020 and reopened briefly in the fall under limited capacity and strict safety protocols. Bensusan closed the club in December when the restrictions made remaining open fiscally untenable. Now he faces other challenges.

“We are seeing pre-pandemic crowds, but we are operating with only 60 percent of our staff,” Bensusan noted. “Finding staff has not been easy.”

Similar cries have been heard throughout the restaurant and hospitality industry. Jobs are available, but there are not enough applicants. There are other critical issues, as well. 

“Several factors today are keeping us from getting to where we were in July 2019 – lack of staff who are back in the work force, lack of tourists allowed in the United States, ongoing trepidation about coming to large cities and gatherings, and a growing concern of where the economy might be headed,” Dorf listed, speaking about City Winery NYC. “All of that is keeping us currently at about 75 percent of where we were pre-pandemic.”

“The things determining us getting back to a pre-pandemic level is tourism returning to the city, both domestic and international,” echoed Paul Rizzo, owner of the Bitter End. “We need workers to return to the office. Also, people will need to feel comfortable going to inside venues again. New York University returning in the fall will help my situation, as well.”

The Bitter End’s calendar is busier since the venue’s reopening on April 9, but the bookings are not as full yet as they were pre-pandemic. Working with a limited staff, Rizzo finds himself seating customers, helping musicians with sound and stage logistics, and even rushing to the local store when he suddenly finds himself short on a stock item. Rizzo has been hands-on every night that the club is open, from opening to closing.

While shows are selling out, many club promoters are building slowly, producing fewer shows. They cite a shortage in staffing. Also, the majority of the acts being booked are from a limited pool because the larger-drawing touring acts will not be ready for road trips until the fall. Nevertheless, thanks to new strategies implemented by club owners and operators, the local music circuit is rebounding. Many of these principal parties remain cautiously optimistic, however.

“New York was a tough town to begin with – the outrageous commercial rents, the city taxes on top of taxes, the high bar for talent and professionalism required to succeed – none of those things changed or were forgiven,” said Deidre Bird, Office Manager for Terra Blues. “What did change was the dramatic reduction in city tourism, the increased reluctance and unavailability of performers who are rightfully cautious or took gigs elsewhere, and the lingering uncertainty that haunts the future as we come down from the euphoria of summer re-openings to meet the crucial fiscal and social realities waiting in the fall.”

“I am worried that ticket sales will not be sustainable over time,” reported Bensusan regarding the Blue Note. “As more of New York reopens, we will need tourism to rebound and people to return to their offices.”

Some club owners have reported that they have recently received their long awaited federal aid from the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant (SVOG), formerly known as the Save Our Stages Act. Venue operators led the campaign through most of 2020 in order to sustain their businesses, the bill was passed into law, but the moneys were not distributed until June or July of 2021. Due to the slow-moving government wheels, the venues reopened before the money came in that was supposed to help them reopen. Some venue operators have found that their applications remain pending, and others were flat-out rejected, left to their own devices. Somehow, the majority of these small venues survived.

“According to #saveourstages, even though we have music five nights a week, we are not a music club, and therefore not eligible for any money,” said Sweeney of the 11th St. Bar. “That being said, as I was taught growing up, ‘if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.’”