Back in the New York Groove?

The return of live music in NYC – being safe without being sorry


The leather-jacketed throng at the Bowery Electric surged toward the low-slung stage, nearly eye-to-eye with the thrumming musicians, the room resounding with raised fists and excited, off-key singalongs of “Baby I’m born to lose” and “I’m living on a Chinese rock.” The stench of spilled beer and sweat hung in the air as beanie-clad punk roustabout Handsome Dick Manitoba leapt into the packed revelers, throwing his arms around audience members as he spewed the MC5’s incendiary “Kick Out the Jams.”

That was then—November 16, 2016—this is now, April 2, 2021, to be precise. Jesse Malin—rock ’n’ roll king of below 14th Street and proprietor of clubs the Bowery Electric, Lola, and Berlin, also performed at that iconic L.A.M.F. (for the Heartbreakers’ Like a Mother F*cker album) tribute gig in 2016, a show celebrating the power of live, dirty, dangerous rock ’n’ roll.

For the past year, rock has been dangerous for another reason—a highly contagious disease that until fairly recently had no vaccine and still has no cure. On this very first night that live music is legally allowed back in New York City’s five boroughs, Malin is on the Bowery Electric stage again, doing his level best to bring music back to the (socially distant, masked) masses.

If being safe means numerous plexiglass room dividers hanging by chains from the ceiling, separating the (brand-new) tables and chairs for the limited-capacity, masked audience (who face higher ticket prices and mandatory drink and food purchases)—and it does—Malin’s on board. It appears the sold-out crowd, presumably at their first live show in more than a year, is down with it as well.

That said, there are music fans and musicians alike who are definitely not ready to congregate en masse, and still others who grouse that real “live” music can’t be constrained and government-mandated.

In any case, on April 2, around 7:30 p.m., Malin and Co. descended the stairs to the stage to the triumphant strains of Ace Frehley’s “New York Groove,” and through song and personal tales about the city and the past year, Malin eased tensions, despite the awkward audience restrictions.

In March 2020, like thousands of other musicians, Malin was on tour. He was in the U.K., promoting his recently released Sunset Kids album, produced with Lucinda Williams and Tom Overby. He had another six months and about 100 shows and festivals ahead of him.

Or so he thought. Voicing the disbelief of literally every other musician in the world at the time, Malin says, “I could never in my wildest years ever have imagined that I’d come home and my tour would be done. Or that every venue I’m involved with would be shut at once.”

The numbers on that, just for Malin, were staggering: He laid off somewhere over 200 people from his clubs, and canceled shows for the upcoming weeks … then months, then the rest of the year. “I never looked at how many acts, between all the stages, we had,” he mused. “But when the music plug was pulled and silenced—rightfully so—we found it was something around 90 shows a week.” (Malin says he currently has only about 25% of those people back at work.)

Multiply those numbers across the city, state, and world, and it’s almost too much to comprehend. If you need the stats, Ariel Palitz has them. The senior executive director of the NYC Office of Nightlife, and a longtime club proprietor herself, said on a recent panel that at the start of 2020, New York City’s five boroughs had about “27,000 entertainment and hospitality venues.” This translates to a “$35.1 billion dollar industry, with 300,000 jobs.”

Then came the saddest toll: COVID-19-related deaths in the close-knit NYC rock music community. The Arrows’ Alan Merrill, Stephen B. Antonakos of the Blue Chieftains and New York Loose, esteemed record and concert producer Hal Willner. For starters.

“Then of course, someone close to me, Adam Schlesinger from Fountains of Wayne,” Malin says somberly. Schlesinger was 55, and died almost a year to the day that we’re speaking.

It seems simultaneously like a million years ago and just yesterday.

Live music venues, called “the first to close and the last to open,” are now legally, with myriad restrictions, allowed to open up again, though it’s not an overnight process. The return of live music—congregating in rooms with like-minded fans to pay homage to and experience the artists who help give voice to our souls—can be a sublime experience. And, to the minds of many, a necessary one.

So the question has been, since easily the summer of 2020: When and how could that live music experience be codified again, at venues both small and behemoth? A February 2021 episode of the online “Conversations” series presented by the Recording Academy’s New York Chapter had a panel of music professionals discussing the return of live music in the city. NYC Office of Nightlife’s Palitz stated, “We can no longer wait for the virus, the pandemic, to be over. We have to figure out ways right now to get open for our mental, economic, spiritual health.”

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Over the past year, many people fled New York. Musician Camille Trust had to give up her city apartment, put her things in storage, and decamp to her family home in Florida, a living situation she terms “hilarious.”

Since 2018, Trust and a few friends have run a monthly all-female-led jam session at Brooklyn’s C’Mon Everybody club. Every other month, they would donate half the door earnings to a local charity of their choice.

Now, she says, “Two of four of us are not even in New York at the moment, one of them being me…. You pay to live in New York and New York is not New York,” she adds, of 2020.

Trust, who does wedding gigs and more, says, “I lost all my income. I’m collecting unemployment, I do some commercial jingles and things; I did get a few. But nothing that would sustain me.”

That said, she and others have been creative and productive, even if inspiration often arrives between days of shuffling around in pajamas in a pandemic overwhelm.

“I actually just released a single last week, called ‘Florida,’ Sort of as a love letter to my home state. I’m working on an album that is going to be completely written over Zoom. It’s called New York to Florida and sort of tells about this time.”

Another local musician, multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter Jake Pinto, stayed hunkered down in his tiny Brooklyn studio apartment for most of the pandemic, doing livestreams, cooking, learning new ways to record without a live band, and diving into Ableton Live, a digital audio workstation used for studio work as well as live performance. He continues to closely monitor COVID infection rates in New York, and stays double-masked in public.

“I felt lucky relatively speaking,” he says, during a walk in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. “Even before COVID I wasn’t relying on live gigs as my primary source of income. I had, over the course of a few years, found some success as a songwriter, and recently landed a movie trailer for The YeahTones with Position Music—movie trailer money. I wasn’t really in the green yet, but I wasn’t in debt either.”

Pinto planned for 2020 to be his breakout year, the culmination of building skills and contacts. But as advertising budgets dwindled, even these revenue opportunities pretty much ground to a halt. He received unemployment and $1,000 from Music-Cares, but only one of the three stimulus payments. He has no idea why.

Since graduating NYU in 2012, Pinto has been touring and performing around NYC, and even as a 24-year-old was making “an estimated $15,000 to $20,000 a year via music.” He would fund tours with his band, the YeahTones, Airbnb-ing his apartment—back when it was legal—while he was on the road. He had planned to release the first single for his debut solo record in mid-March 2020; after agonizing over whether to debut a new record in the middle of a global pandemic, he went ahead with an independent single campaign, releasing four singles over about six months.

“The second single, ‘Home,’ was my most successful independent release to date. For a natural growth, without any sync components [such as film, TV, or video games], I was happy.” Pinto’s Sad Songs for Happy People LP will be out in the fall, and he’s looking forward to writing rock songs for the YeahTones again, which he found virtually impossible without being able to play with the band and “feed off their energy.”

Live performances and touring are Malin’s lifeblood, though he’s diversified via numerous music and club arenas. All that went away in 2020, and he says that in the past year, he “probably lost 80% of my income. As an artist, none of us really saved for this kind of rainy day. Because I could always go play a show somewhere.”

One saving grace is the newly formed group NIVA (National Independent Venue Association) and its Save Our Stages movement, which have been instrumental in organizing venues nationwide. Malin calls independent venues “the petri dishes for the next Lady Gagas and Duke Ellingtons and Madonnas. New York is already, in my opinion, too corporate and too much into the chains. If we lose the little-guy clubs, the only people going to survive are big companies, the Live Nations and such. For little bands, the way I grew up at CBGB or A7, where you could be off the grid and figure it out—build your audience, build a scene—where someone’s gonna let you get up [onstage], that was great.” 

Even in the best of times, the compensation for bands and musicians on the small-venue level is notoriously low, and there’s no standard or union to advocate or offer a united front. As one musician notes, “As a bandleader, your whole life is unpaid hours, which is something sidemen also need to understand.”

Malin notes that the pandemic brought club owners together. “I was on some really wonderful group calls with everybody from the Blue Note to Birdland in Midtown to people on Avenue C like Nublu—a real mix. At City Winery, Michael Dorf is always very knowledgeable, him and Shlomo [Lipetz] there.”

As of April 2, Berlin, Malin’s underground venue at Avenue A and 2nd Street, is open, along with the storied bar Niagara. But with operating costs prohibitively high, it’s not easy to break even, much less make a profit. “I mean, the rents are high, in the $40,000 [per month] range for all these businesses,” he says. “Landlords, commercial leases don’t want to give a break. Sales tax, insurance, the electricity—the rent being a huge one—the liquor license yearly. There are so many [expenses].”

Lola, which used to be Coney Island Baby, and before that, Brownies, is not open at all. “Lola doesn’t have room for a sidewalk café; there’s a bus stop,” Malin says. “We only can operate inside. So we’re really hoping we get some help from the city’s Shuttered Venues Operating Grant. They say you’re qualified by being 70% closed, or 90% closed in some cases. Well, Lola has been 100% closed. We can ease into it now, I guess.”

While 2020 was a roller-coaster of emotions, Pinto still believes that when it comes to his career, “It’ll all work itself out, which is basically how I’ve lived my life so far. I have assets: music, which hopefully will make money. But I lost all the little things that helped keep the ship afloat, a couple nights of doing live sound and things like that helped me not dig into debt.”

Onstage in front of a live audience for the first time in more than a year, Malin looks around the re-jiggered Bowery Electric and observes, “It feels like some kind of hope is happening.” Riding that wave, he has released a new single, “The Way We Used to Roll,” from his upcoming September LP on Little Steven’s Wicked Cool label.

But although Trust will be fully vaccinated by next month, she says, “I think that upon my [return] to New York in May, I will definitely be having some hesitation before entering a live concert venue.

“It’s still a weird thing,” she muses. “It’s like you’re uncovering an old wound. There’s been so much emotion toward gathering in a space together and enjoying music and having a good time. So now how is it possible, on a spiritual level and on a human level, to reconfigure that to just like, ‘Okay, no, we’re good now’?”  ❖





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