A Nightlife Industry Stuck in Purgatory Seeks Survival Tactics

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On an average midnight outside Up&Down on Manhattan’s 18th Street, crowds of hundreds of clubgoers in shiny dresses and expensive sneakers would throng five-deep outside the velvet ropes, elbowing each other to get to the dim, hedonistic cavern within. Inside, they would find tables spilling over with oversized magnums of champagne and rowdy revelers, thumping music and shoulder-to-shoulder crowds. They might spot Drake hidden in a booth, or Leonardo DiCaprio, or Naomi Campbell. The sparkle, the sweat, the crush of flesh: as nightlife shutdowns drag into their fourth month in some U.S. cities, these hallmarks of a big night our are relics of a pre-pandemic U.S., before “social distancing” ruled and physical contact became a health concern.

For Richie Akiva, the man behind Up&Down and a lucrative portfolio of similarly glitzy clubs around the world, this was also an entire way of life. He spent almost every night of the last 20 years out partying. In mid-March, that came to an instant halt as Akiva, like every other non-essential business owner, temporarily shut down his clubs. They’ve sat vacant ever since, dance floors gathering dust, with his staff on unemployment. “I miss people’s smiles. I miss being there for a twenty-first birthday. I miss giving people that outlet—being free, letting go of their everyday problems,” Akiva told TIME in May, when he was starting to make tough decisions about his business’s future. Akiva has been a nightlife mainstay since he was a 90s scene teen promoting parties and hosting guests like Jay-Z . But the pandemic, more than the 2001 Sept. 11 attacks and the 2008 economic recession, seems to have shaken him—and his cohort in the nightlife business.

richie akiva rihanna
Richie AkivaRichie Akiva and Rihanna at one of Akiva’s nightclubs.

“It’s going to be a long, tough road to get back,” he said. He’s not alone in his concerns. Even as other industries reopen with health precautions, nightlife remains uniquely vulnerable to the long-term effects of both the economic and social shifts COVID-19 has wrought. Estimates put the bar and nightclub industry at over $25 billion in annual revenue in the U.S. for 2020, while the concert business was predicted to reach about $35 billion this year. But none of these venues can open at their normal capacity. None know when that might be possible. And no one, they know, is clamoring to hang out at an empty or partially-empty club. Instead leaders like Akiva are looking to ways to simply stay afloat while stuck in shutdown purgatory.

“You almost don’t want to open”

“As a business, you almost don’t want to open,” Akiva cautioned. “There is no business. There’s not going to be any tourism, any travel. With the rent and the expenses that it takes to run these places how they used to be run, it’s very hard to sustain yourself when there’s none of that.”

By July, any hope for a return to normal had been squashed, with fuzzy reopening timelines extending into the fall in many cities and nightlife centers. And even as businesses began opening in fits and starts across the country—and around the world—the nightlife industry in the U.S. remains shuttered. (Indoor nightlife isn’t even listed at all on the extended roadmap of New York’s phased reopening plan, and reopened clubs in places including South Korea have been linked to viral spread, while illicit international raves are meeting resistance.)

Meanwhile back in the U.S., people can find underground parties in Manhattan basements with a little bit of hunting; people have skirted the rules at L.A. hotels that are accepting guests; and plenty are already taking ill-advised risks at bars that have opened back up entirely. (Facing local case rate spikes, some have closed again as governments backtrack on health policies.) But for nightlife businesses and venues looking for above-board solutions to their shutdown woes, the answers are not yet out there, and the science cautions that reopening at regular capacity will only be safe once a vaccine has been distributed, amid concerns about airborne infection in indoor spaces. Of course, that hasn’t kept the industry’s proprietors from trying to keep their businesses solvent.

Suiting up

The Micrashell would not look out of place in the Tron movies, or worn by Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century on her Disney-approved spaceship. Designed to keep people safe from infection even while gathering en masse, it’s a Hazmat-like, airtight partial “rave suit” with neon panels and a shield helmet. At first, the futuristic prototype garment, complete with attached gloves and slots for a phone and drink canisters, seemed like more of a video game concept than a real, workable solution as it circulated on Instagram in its concept phase. But for Miguel Risueño and Corey Johnson, the founders of events production business Production Club, it is very much real—and very much their proposed response to the conundrum of industry-wide shutdowns that have cleared their slate until, they expect, well into 2021. Production Club helps put on large-scale festivals and parties that cater to thousands, exactly the kind of events that will be last to return.

micrashell-prototype
Production Club

“We felt like, after humans have been socializing for thousands of years, we cannot just go and substitute that with virtual [events]” Risuenõ said, expressing concerns over the potential impact of isolation on mental health. They also were spurred by their need to maintain their own company’s viability, as well as images of partiers pursuing life as normal—with potentially infectious consequences. Their answer was to use the tools at their disposal to come up with a way to gather in-person, at scale, with sufficient safeguards in place. The prototype is soon to be completed. And if it looks a little strange? They’re not bothered.

“I thought people would say, Aw, that’s weird. But if it means you can go to a show and see people, it outweighs the weirdness,” co-founder Corey Johnson says. “It doesn’t look like a hazard suit; we’re kind of on the boundary of going one step beyond medical gear and actually doing something that people would want to wear and has a certain style about it, but also checks the medical boxes as well.” The suit is intended as a business-to-business product, something that large venues or promotion companies will purchase to distribute to end users for a conference, arena concert or rave. Imagine showing up at L.A.’s Staples Center for a stadium concert, and wearing a Micrashell for the evening before returning it for industrial cleaning: the show would, at least, go on—at some higher level of capacity than what current social distancing measures require.

Banding together

Other ideas have emerged, too: drive-in concerts where you stay safely ensconced in your car. Virtual club nights conducted from the comfort of your living room. Speakeasy-style gatherings, held underground. Socially-distanced raves, replete with masks. But these are all temporary fixes, as Akiva said: they don’t meet the economic standards the industry is founded on, and early hype for each has fizzled as the novelty wears off. In the interim, one of the biggest problems to the industry as a whole is a lack of adequate access to funding to help keep venues and clubs from shuttering while rent payments continue to pile up. “I think the government response overall has been lackluster, to put it mildly,” Johnson says. “The government works with airline companies, it works with energy companies, it works with military companies. So it makes sense when something goes wrong, it will work with those people. The government does not have a great relationship with restaurants, hospitality, nightlife. I just don’t think those bridges really exist.”

That’s where the National Independent Venue Association has stepped in. In March, Audrey Fix Schaefer—publicist for Washington, D.C.’s popular 9:30 Club—began organizing the far-flung constellation of independent venues staring down an uncertain spring of closures. In a matter of weeks, over 1,600 members—representing once-vibrant bars, clubs and performance spaces from every district in the country—signed up, aligning in an attempt to lobby for government funding for the first time. “We have to lobby like an industry whose life is on the line, because it is,” Schaefer told TIME. As many as 90% of the venue owners surveyed said they wouldn’t be able to hold on past six months from the shutdown; 55% only predicted three months. As the months wear on, the countdown clock to bankruptcy and mass closures is ticking. “Frankly, I’m surprised if it will be that long,” she said. “We were the first to close, will be the last to open, have zero revenue and all the expenses.” While some venues have successfully nabbed some of the $659 billion earmarked by the CARES Act for low-interest small business loans, many others remain out of luck.

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Brooklyn’s Elsewhere is one of the venues working with NIVA. Opened in 2017, it’s a multi-level, multi-room warehouse that hosts rooftop parties, concerts and club nights, drawing acts from cult-favorite pop star Charli XCX to rapper YBN Cordae to alternative party collective Bubble_T. Their normal capacity is over 1,000. In an average summer week, they would bring in six figures, according to founder Dhruv Chopra. Now, as they’ve cautiously reopened with stringent social distancing and mask policies, including temperature checks upon entry, six-foot spacing, mandatory mask-wearing except while seated and a max rooftop capacity of 50 people, that’s down to a few thousand dollars.

For now, they decided to work with a food partner and create a kind of “beer garden,” repurposing their outdoor space in the one way they can. “It’s not like Elsewhere is wildly profitable,” Chopra said. “We’re better than your average bear, but it’s a rough business with single digit margins.” And even though the much-discussed PPP program has included some nightlife venues in its loans, including Akiva’s, Chopra has little long-term optimism. “We are in the same purgatory we’ve been in for a while,” he says. “We’re scrambling to try new things, but it’s a drop in the bucket. We’re still staring down the barrel of 12 months of existential dread.” He predicts it will take two to three years to get back on track, and in the meantime is anxious about what happens after unemployment benefits for his staff run out. And while he’s still paying their health insurance, funds are dwindling. The result is a “war of spirit attrition” for the industry as a whole, he says, with bankruptcy likely looming for many.

In the meantime, NIVA coordinated an email campaign and sent an open letter to Congress in June signed and supported by a range of top artists — Lady Gaga, Billie Eilish, Cher, Willie Nelson — many of whom depend upon these venues for concerts in a “#SaveOurStages” campaign. The push continues. Nightlife is a varied beast; it’s the hallowed bottle-service halls of Akiva’s empire, but also the dive bars that support open mic nights where performers get their start, and the club spaces where DJs can spin culture into being. In early July, the U.K. government approved $1.5 billion in culture funding, part of which will go towards supporting music venues. The U.S. has no such plans in place. The potential result will be huge loss—and not just on the economic level.

Cultural evolution on hold

“Music venues, nightclubs, nightlife: we’re part of what I call the holy trifecta of cultural evolution,” Chopra says. The shutdowns mean the exchange between artists and audiences is on indefinite pause. “As a result, there won’t be as much artist evolution; you won’t see artists breaking out,” he says. Plus, parties matter. “These are places where outside ideas, freaks, weirdos, fringe ideas, fringe art—these concepts come into our venues, become cool, and become more mainstream and more accepted. Every civil rights or human rights movement has also generally been accompanied by a musical movement,” he adds. “It helps create space for those of us who don’t fit in to be ourselves and become accepted. Culture and art help us become a more just, egalitarian society. From the beginning of time until now, that’s happened at night.”

But for now, the night is not the same. Justin Kleinfeld, founder of dance music PR agency Rephlektor Ink., is playing a waiting game and looking to the reopening of sports venues to lead the way. He shut down the tours of his roster of acts, which includes DJs like Paul Oakenfold and festival mainstay Above & Beyond, while they pivoted to virtual events. In the meantime, he’s hoping the pause offers artists like those he manages a chance to reimagine their work while touring is on hold. “X amount of months down the road, we will see an incredible array of new music,” he predicts. He imagines a “hybrid” scenario in which clubs consider minimal in-person attendance with a live act, while selling tickets to the livestreams.

2019 Electric Zoo Festival
Getty Images,—2019 Taylor HillFans in the DJ Booth for Above & Beyond during the 2019 Electric Zoo Festival at Randall’s Island on August 31, 2019 in New York City.

Creativity is taking center stage for businesses, too. Schaefer has seen venues rent out their marquees to individuals as a small but fresh income source. The live-streaming industry is booming with a glut of programming, including special dance parties, concerts and DJ nights. More intimate events, limited house parties and invite-only experiences are already re-directing social interaction towards curation, more relationship-building and less ostentation—or at least, less social media sharing and more authentic connection. But these alternatives rarely result in anything other than nominal revenue.

To Production Club’s Risueño, however, this remains an opportunity to think differently about the range of experiences that nightlife can be a part of, too.

And when something like normalcy returns to social interactions, everyone predicts the appetite for the nightlife world will also come back more voraciously than ever. It’s one thing to have a Zoom dance party in your sweatpants with friends. It’s another to be in a sweaty, glittering space, sharing your joys and frustrations, dancing along to a pulsing soundtrack, surrounded by a great rush of humanity. “This country was built on freedom and being able to express yourself, not in fear,” Akiva says. “When this is all said and done, I’m going to throw the biggest party anyone has ever seen. And when this pandemic is settled, nightlife will be bigger and better than it was.”

Please send any tips, leads, and stories to virus@time.com.

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