Entering a Philadelphia house show is like entering chaos. Musicians gather in the basement, focusing on soundcheck and setting up their instruments. Attendees——typically rowdy college students and twenty-somethings——flood the stairs and disappear into the basement, taking positions toward the front of the group, creating a crowded, sweaty atmosphere. Others may escape to the backyard for a smoke.
For many bands and house show organizers, it is a scene that hasn’t been experienced in a little over a year.
Many industries have suffered due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but live entertainment is especially struggling, the DIY scene even more so than large, professional venues. While it may be easier for DIY venues to reopen due to a lack of oversight, they aren’t eligible for pandemic related government relief. In addition, it’s not clear how any lack of oversight might mean a quicker or a slower return to pre-pandemic turnout levels for DIY venues as people navigate safety and comfort levels. For performers and bookers alike, the pandemic has ended a reliable revenue source and forced them to try and find new ways to support doing what they love.
“Our last show that happened was humbling because it was a small art show,” said Angel Young, co-founder of The SODA Bar, a now-shuttered house show venue in North Philadelphia. “It was a lot of people that came to the OG SODA Bar.”
When the pandemic first hit in March 2020, Young kept the venue’s Instagram account active, streaming snippets of live music to the account’s nearly 1,400 followers.
Because the pandemic forced the entire music industry to abruptly shut down, social media is one of the few ways to stay connected with fans and the broader music community, she said. Instagram Live offered one means to keep connecting fans and musicians.
“Especially with the first month, I knew it was really hard for a lot of people, so I wanted to book some of The SODA Bar favorites to play,” Young said.
Young won’t be reopening The SODA Bar once the pandemic ends. She does want to open a different kind of venue someday but doesn’t have any concrete plans.
“I do want to work to try to have my own venue in the future, but it’s just not going to be the same set of art,” Young said. “It just wouldn’t be a house show.”
Many promoters, including Young, are advocating for Save Our Stages, a movement lobbying the federal government to provide long-term assistance to live entertainers and independent venues. This effort is backed by the National Independent Venue Association, which is made up of over 3,000 venues nationwide.
“We were the first to close,” NIVA’s website states. “We will be the last to open.”
Other promoters have felt the pain of losing their venues because of the virus, like Jayce Williams, a recent Rowan University graduate and co-founder of the South Jersey music and arts organization 4333 Collective.
The last show organized by the collective was March 6, 2020, a DIY prom event where attendees were encouraged to dress semi-casual. The collective hosted shows from a rental house in Glassboro, New Jersey, near Rowan University.
“We heard that there were some [COVID-19] cases in Washington state and we didn’t think anything of it,” Williams said. “It was definitely a really special night and I’m very grateful that was our last show.”
Williams’ lease was running out, so there weren’t any plans to keep hosting shows after he finished his last semester at Rowan. They do plan on booking different events in the future, though.
The venue’s goal from the start has been to create community, mainly through its Instagram account, which has grown to nearly 5,000 followers since the start of the pandemic, Williams said.
“Rowan is a really big party school and the options are you either get drunk at the local bar, or you go to a frat party,” he said. “I think that’s pretty unappealing and pretty toxic. It was nice to be able to create a space for kids to have some fun responsibly and also enjoy music.”
Though the 4333 Collective has a large following on Instagram, Williams hasn’t considered running socially distanced shows or online concerts.
“We put together an experience and you don’t really watch it on a computer,” he said. “It’s a live show. There’s nothing like that experience. As much as I’d like to be doing the work that I have been doing, it’s not the same work. It’s a different game.”
While venues struggle with whether or not to keep offering artists a place to perform, some artists have used social media to engage their followers and boost exposure on their own, like the young indie band Beach Fuzz.
Prior to the pandemic, the band had around 1,000 monthly listeners on Spotify, mostly fans they gained since 2018 from playing house shows in the Philadelphia area, said Eric Juelke, guitarist of Beach Fuzz.
As the pandemic led to shutdowns and hundreds of canceled Beach Fuzz shows, Juelke said that COVID-19 began “taking the wind out of our sails.”
The group turned to other avenues, like TikTok, to engage their followers. Beach Fuzz has found success on the video-sharing app, amassing 23,000 followers and nearly 300,000 likes after their first few months of posting content. The young band’s videos have an early 2000s aesthetic, shot on lower-fidelity digital video cameras with a hand-held feel.
“It’s strange, because unless you have a huge following, it’s kind of hard to get raw impressions,” Juelke explained. “And that’s why TikTok is super unique because I started that page with zero followers and we were able to get to 16,000 followers very quickly, which is totally insane to me. It doesn’t even really make sense.”
The band continues to write new material and looks forward to playing shows again, especially DIY house shows.
“We’re still collaborating, writing music, and recording music, like, all the time,” Juelke said. ”We’ve spent so long building up our live chemistry. A huge part of the band was the live shows because we always had so much fun.”
Other artists, like the writing and producing R&B duo Andrew Loper and John Della France, also known as Rubber, are using their spare time to create and continue performing——outdoors.
“It was getting around to be time to take a break,” Loper said. “We were playing so regularly, and on top of that, we have day jobs and we were all doing so much. We were just really tired as a unit.”
While it was nice to have “mandatory self-care time,” Loper said, the duo was eager to play socially distanced shows during the warmer months, having been contracted by the City of Philadelphia to play shows in Love Park. They’ve also done various livestreams for Radio 104.5, WXPN, and Milkboy.
“I miss being in front of people, I miss the human connection,” Loper said. “Livestreams just aren’t the same. It’s not the same energy as a live show. It’s not the same feeling.”
Even though they have played live, the experience is also not the same as before the pandemic. Social distancing sometimes means social awkwardness as well.
“It’s still pretty awkward because a big part of the live show is, afterward, you come up and say hi,” Loper said. “We talk to [fans] intimately and that aspect is just lost. Everyone is wearing a mask, and while that’s very important and something that needs to be happening, it almost serves as a reminder as to how much the world has really changed.”
Artists and venues alike are eager for a return to normal when live music is able to be enjoyed in person once again.
“I look forward to the day that I can be crammed back onto some stupid basement where the floor is covered in beer,” Loper said. “Because, a) the best memories ever, and b) you find some of the rawest, most unpolished talent in those spaces. That’s where the most talented and serious young musicians just show up and do crazy things.”
Though the 4333 Collective is done booking house shows, Williams and his friends intend to take what they learned and book events in more traditional venues once pandemic restrictions are lifted.
“Everyone has been out of the game for however long it’s going to be,” Williams said. “Everyone is going to be back from taking a break and when that opportunity comes it’s going to be a good moment in time.”
Still, Young looks back on all that’s been lost over the past year, thinking about how the energy of shows likely won’t be the same, at least not for The SODA Bar.
“It’s crazy that the atmosphere will never be replicated,” Young said. “Once that hit me, it was emotional.”
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