Lucid Culture


How the Depression Will Affect Music in New York City – Part One – The Clubs

Well, everybody’ll be broke and homeless, we’ll all gather in the park or in abandoned luxury housing sites and play broken-down instruments and sing until the Halliburton troops come along with their machine guns, at which point we’ll all have to make a run for it. Right?


Let’s hope not. While wishing President Obama all the best, realistically speaking we are in for a long, hard few years, probably more, certainly enough to shift the paradigm for music as we’ve come to know it here in New York. In this series, we examine some of the ways the music scene in New York will change as money gets tighter and everyone prepares for the worst. In the wake of the closing of Cha Cha’s, the Cutting Room and the Zipper Theatre, today we’ll take a look at how the depression will impact music venues in New York. Subsequent articles will look at how musicians and also the audience for live music are impacted.


When discussing music venues in New York, or for that matter in any urban area, the primary factor to keep in mind is that the majority of them are vanity operations. That is to say that only a small percentage of New York clubs actually depend on door receipts and liquor sales in order to stay in business. Many venues are vanity operations in the purest sense of the word, i.e. a club opened by a successful owner in another field of business who wants some kind of association with music, usually to appear “cool” and frequently to use the pretext of being a bar or club owner in order to pick up women (or men). More than a few are owned by sole proprietors, groups of individuals or their parents who live off inherited wealth and therefore have no interest in turning a profit. Other clubs function as a tax writeoff for the owners of other, profitable businesses, operating at just enough of a loss to be cost-effective in the proprietor’s larger scheme. Still other clubs are part of a chain of bars, venues or restaurants and are thereby subsidized by profits from their sister establishments. And there are others (bet you were waiting for this one, huh?) who are simply fronts for various types of illegal activity, usually drug distribution or money laundering. Of all of these, who’s going to survive, who isn’t, and how will that affect what choice we as concertgoers have in these rapidly changing (some would say deteriorating) times?


It’s not as easy as saying that those with money will survive and those who actually depend on turning a profit won’t. It might seem a no-brainer to assert that a club that owns rather than leases its space will outlast the competition, but that’s not necessarily true, especially if for one reason or another rent receipts are insufficient to keep the club solvent. It also might seem a no-brainer to assume that the most obvious vanity operations will outlast the competition, but that isn’t true either: what if daddy calls little Todd back to Lake Wayzata, Boca Raton or Waccabuc because he’s sick of sinking his ever-shrinking nest egg into what was obviously a lost cause from day one? Or because he’s sick of little Todd blowing (pun intended) through five grand a week on moldy old clothes, coke and internet porn?


With all these and other factors in mind, we’ve fought very hard to resist setting up a dead pool here for all the New York clubs. Rather, here’s a list of the types of places who, for better or worse, will probably have the most staying power:


1. The biggest venues, i.e. Madison Square Garden, Terminal 5 et al. Because these places draw concertgoers from a far wider geographical area than your typical small downtown club, mathematically they still stand a better chance at filling their seats. The Garden, most obviously, because they own the property.


2. The smallest venues, i.e. Barbes and Lakeside, because their rent is comparatively low.


3. The niche venues, i.e. some Dominican place in the South Bronx or a Polish bar in Greenpoint, places you’ve probably never heard of unless you’re part of those communities. Dominicans will always congregate for bachata and merengue; Poles for turbo-folk and hip-hop; Greeks for Greek music, Syrians for Syrian music, you name it.

Many of these places have also been financed on better-than-average terms by lenders in their own ethnic communities.


4. Clubs who cater to one end of the economic spectrum or the other. Look around you: a lot of the most shishi places are still pulling traffic, as are the places that serve dollar beer and pass the tip bucket rather than charging a cover.


And now for a list of who’s probably not going to make it:


1. Anybody who’s too far off the beaten path and doesn’t depend on a local crowd. That big cavernous two-thousand capacity space that just opened in Gravesend, Brooklyn? We just made this one up: it doesn’t really exist, but what if it did? Do you really think that even if they booked the trendiest, most fashionable indie posers, strippers and “celebrity djs,” they’d actually be able to pull enough of a crowd to eke out an existence a good twenty minutes from the nearest subway stop, which happens to be an hour out of Manhattan, assuming that it’s not after midnight and there actually are trains running at all? By contrast, a local bar in, say, far Bushwick or Red Hook that happens to be the only place in the neighborhood will actually benefit from the depression, as rising subway fares and shrinking wallets keep people close to home.


2. Any establishment overly dependent on a middleclass audience. By that we mean a place that doesn’t market itself as either shishi or downscale and scruffy. Your typical conformist American aims upward, i.e. he or she’d be more likely to go for the shishi place than the dark, dingy dollar beer bar. As money gets tighter, don’t expect these crowds – especially young parents from out of town – to go downscale. They simply won’t go out in Manhattan anymore. This promises to severely impact the singer/songwriter scene as well as clubs that cater to a more mainstream or corporate sound.


3. Any establishment other than the big sheds like Madison Square Garden who depend on an out-of-town crowd. That upper eastside bar where an endless supply of New Jersey bands play their first-and-only New York City gig? Those bands are going to stay right where they are in Jersey, along with their fans.


4. Sole-proprietor venues. That means any club that either isn’t part of a chain, doesn’t have multiple owners or an outside source of income.


5. Any establishment that doesn’t have a distinct identity. Branding has suddenly never been more important. If you have a friend in a band, they won’t mind if you go see them at this one East Village bar instead of that other one in Chinatown, will they? No, but that generic basement space in Chinatown (or the East Village) might not stay in business if your friend’s friends blow off the show. 


Other than mass closures, how will the changes affecting New York venues impact the music scene as a whole? Some predictions:


1. As the number of venues shrinks, it suddenly becomes more of a buyer’s market for clubs. Only the most popular bands will get consistent gigs at whatever clubs survive the months ahead. This isn’t necessarily a good thing, either: while it will certainly weed out a percentage of dilettantes who were never serious about music, it will also make it considerably harder for new acts to find an audience.


2. Concert admission charges will go in divergent directions. Many of the places who charge a cover will charge more, although the more adversely affected clubs will stop charging a cover in an attempt bring in crowds of bar customers.


3. Alternatives to the traditional music venues will spring up everywhere. That means more loft parties, more outdoor shows, and more industrial spaces, school gyms and church basements suddenly playing host to live shows. As the club scene suffers, independent promoters who don’t rip off bands will prosper (or will at least survive), and some of the most unlikely spaces will become vital parts in a scene. We’ll see a return of the speakeasy on a level unseen since Prohibition. 


4. Stereotypical, conformist “indie rock” will die off slower than you think. The whole Williamsburg/pitchfork/stereogum clique is independently wealthy and has access to many vanity venues, none of whom have to turn a profit to stay in business. Many of the children in these bands will be called home by their parents, but many won’t; some of these clubs will close their doors, but not all of them. Age alone will ultimately be the end of “indie rock,” as the children who play it turn 35, collect their trust funds, get married and move out of town to have kids (and don’t expect there to be enough luxury housing here to keep them here: there won’t be).


5. Acoustic acts will prove more resilient than electric bands. That means anyone with an accordion, a banjo, an acoustic guitar, anything you can play on the streetcorner, in the subway or the park (and can practice in a squat without electricity). Likewise, traditional sounds (Balkan music, bluegrass, delta blues, Irish dance music), all of which already have considerable popularity, will become even more prominent. Hip-hop will embrace real, live drumming on a mass scale. Jazz will return to the public eye as mass entertainment on a level not seen since the fifties. Chamber music will also grow in popularity, as corporate funding for opera and large orchestras dries up. And if you’re lucky and somehow manage to hold onto your job or find one that pays enough to sustain you, you’re in for what could be not only a very interesting but very rewarding experience.


Next: how the depression will affect bands and musicians. 

February 1, 2009 - Posted by | Live Events, Music, New York City | , , , , , , , ,

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