When the pandemic struck New York City in March, its impact on nightlife was unexpected and immediate. In addition to managing the new normal of staying inside and making sure one’s community was keeping more or less afloat, people put their energy into creating and watching DJ live streams, donating money to artists, and trying to help club spaces in whatever ways they could.
Unfortunately but unsurprisingly, it became clear that no significant help would come from local or national government to keep New York’s industry and people’s livelihoods afloat, both within and outside of nightlife. Throughout the summer, as people across the country protested police brutality and state-sanctioned violence against Black people, conversations also turned to the massive inequities and structural racism within the music industry at every level.
Seven months on, any path forward remains unclear. No major shift has occurred within the music industry in terms of compensation, accessibility and reallocation of resources. Public health guidelines in New York remain foggy and susceptible to sudden change, and government aid is still being withheld from people and small businesses. It’s impossible to say what comes next, but ahead of NYC Nightlife United‘s Kickstarter deadline, we spoke to venue owners, workers and artists about what the future might hold for the city.
Diana Mora, Owner and Dash Speaks, Creative Director and Talent BookerFriends and Lovers
Diana Mora: The idea for NYC Nightlife United came about at the end of March, shortly after the forced closure of bars and music venues. We were on a group call with over 100 people from nightlife, at which point I brought up the fact that everyone’s doing their own GoFundMe – wouldn’t it make a lot more sense to put our efforts together and do one larger fund and distribute from there? We launched on 15 May. It took a while to put the business plan together, build all of the resources and start putting out feelers for volunteers.
Dash Speaks: As far as objectives, [it expanded from] helping venues to also the folks that work in venues: actual staff, independent contractors, musicians, DJs, comedians, security guards, engineers. It just kept growing. In the beginning of the summer – when this country started to attempt to reckon with racial inequality, prejudice and an ongoing system of racism, homophobia and transphobia – we started to realise that it wasn’t only about supporting nightlife, but supporting the folks within nightlife who are most marginalised: BIPOC and LGBTQIA communities.
DM: Right now, we provide financial support. We are working on a skill-shares initiative and we are also using Friends and Lovers as the brick and mortar manifestation of the fund, so we can use that for live stream events and anything else we want to do face-to-face safely. We’re still closed. We went from having the best quarter of our lives to making $0 in revenue and had to almost immediately lay off our entire staff. We are very scrappy and agile so Dash has come up with some incredible ways to support some of our talent through Patreon.
DS: It’s been a fun time to think creatively about ways to fix this and try to learn how to do some other things and pivot. Where it stops being fun is that our business and our livelihoods are dependent on this, but ultimately if we can’t open soon in a safe and legal manner that is also profitable, it’s going to be devastating for all of us. But the artists here are going to make art and perform regardless, and if there aren’t venues, people are going to start setting up and busking on the streets. If the venues close permanently, new ones are going to pop up. They might be illegal, they might be totally DIY, but they’ll happen. If all venues close down forever and we lose electricity, there are going to be people singing on the street. It’s not going to stop.
DM: I’m concerned that bigger companies and corporations that don’t have unique ideas will come in and ride our coattails and buy out our spaces. A lot of that has happened in the past. There is a level of advocacy that needs to happen to protect the spaces post-Covid, because what about the businesses that can manage to hold on? Covid will affect us for years after this. How long will it take for us to make up for the money that’s lost, and at what point will we have protections?
DS: It’s so frustrating to be in this city and see that the only way for nightlife to survive is to crowdsource; the fact that we have to ask people for money instead of being like hey, we’re integral to your economy and culture in New York City, New York City needs to help us here. So the fact that the city, the state and the national government is completely silent on that; that we have to depend on connects at corporations and individuals to give us money during a depression is confounding, and we lose sleep over it all the time.
Lauren Murada, Head of Marketing and Josh Houtkin, Head of BookingGood Room
Lauren Murada: We made the decision to close the club around 8, 9 March. Around May, we decided to start doing live streams because if you can’t come to the club, we’re gonna bring the club to you. We do one to two a week with our local New York talent, people like Juan Maclean and Kim Ann Foxman, as well as our up and comers.
Josh Houtkin: At this point, we’re doing it all for the love and because we’re so invested in this culture. We’re pretty bare bones here, literally spending all our time doing this. We’re just as busy now as we were when we were open. It’s emotional because you’re here on a Friday night and the club is completely empty, except for the DJ and you. You’re walking home at midnight and the streets are empty already. We’re barely scratching the surface on what we can pay: some very basic bills and things to keep going. We have a Bandcamp where we sell our compilation and a lot of merch. Honestly, the merch sales are better than anyone could’ve asked for. Bráulio Amado, our designer, is doing shirts, and his work’s so amazing and people have been super supportive of it.
LM: I think that when clubs do reopen, it’s going to make the New York scene and community even tighter and stronger because they’re not going to have the same kind of money as they did before to pay thousands of dollars to fly someone in. I believe when the scene comes back it’s going to be all local, and a good opportunity for a lot of up and coming DJs to really make a name for themselves. We have so much talent in New York, we can still put on really big nights. [The city] has such a rich history of clubbing; some of the earliest nightclubs in the 1970s were a place for people to escape, so they could be who they truly wanted to be, without judgment, and I think we’ll always have that here. The dance floor is freedom and nothing will change that.
JH: People are going to want to still be inside a club and they’re still going to want to dance. I’m hoping people are more conscious of cleanliness and being safe, so maybe that’s one good thing that will come of all this: looking out for each other a bit more. To venues and everyone else – don’t give up and if you’re able to, keep supporting your favourite venues, favourite DJs, promoters, artists. Even a dollar here or a dollar there really does make a difference. If you can’t give any money, post a mix you like. It does mean something.
Varun Kataria, OwnerThe Turk's Inn and The Sultan Room
The Turk’s Inn is our restaurant and The Sultan Room is our music room, which was open for nine months before Covid struck. [Having the restaurant and the venue] is certainly an advantage, as we have an outdoor space on our rooftop and can take advantage of the Open Streets programme that the city initiated. That said, it’s still hard not to feel diminished in some way by not being able to fully embrace the musical experience.
Doing what we do right now, it’s almost impossible to be profitable. The reason we open up our doors is so that we can fulfil our purpose, which is to serve our community and our staff. Every operator I know is in largely a similar position, we’re courageously going forth into this great unknown with very little support in order to be present for our people. It’s a long view of helping each other get through, and hopefully meeting on the other side, to really resume our business practices.
To create culture is a multi-generational, multi-community effort. You need little stages all over to plant the seeds of who becomes our new superstars and who advances culture, who makes great innovations. It would be an irreparable loss to lose a whole generation of independent music venues. The fact that restaurants and venues are existing [now] within an inch of their life, the fact that people have been thrust into poverty at the first sign of a crisis, these are indications that there are deep structural problems within the industry as a whole. I don’t think [the government] recognises the problems, and I don’t think they’re invested in solving them.
The industry needs a reimagining: how artists get paid, how our staff gets paid, the tipping model. But that kind of mass change would need to come from a real soul-searching and recognition of the importance of these businesses to American culture and daily life, and a collective desire to address these challenges. [These spaces] aren’t just in the realm of luxury, they’re in the realm of cultural necessity.
It’s inspiring to know, especially within New York City, [the scene is] going to rely more on the locals. From the venue standpoint, they’re going to have to really put more into curating spaces for people who actually live here, which is cool to see, but right now it’s really uninspiring because all of these venues are operating halfway. From the point of view of the artist, the venues are offering really weird opportunities. Some of us do need the $100 offer to DJ for a few hours but also seeing all this fine print about how people can’t dance, it’s like a revival of that whole shit of people not being able to dance and go out. But you’re going out, and you’re the artist being told specific things you can or can’t do, and also getting paid crumbs just to do it. People that want to do it can do it and it makes sense, but I feel like it’s going to operate like this for a while.
From March onwards, I was doing a lot of work in my home and doing everything out of headphones, making the best of a shitty situation. As the pandemic unfolded, I got a crazy opportunity to get a new studio. Since then, I’ve been aggressively mixing and mastering for other people. A lot of it is other producer friends I’m close with who need a space to productively work and have an engineer, which is me. I sit there and make sure all the things they’re doing are coming out as best as possible. It’s been fun because it’s taking off a lot of the pressure of being an artist and putting yourself out there.
I’ve been seeing more artists being transparent because a lot of misspeak about artists, especially OGs and people that have been in the game for a long time, being well off. A lot of these super “successful” touring DJs are living month to month and can’t afford healthcare if shit hits the fan. It’s interesting for me to see how the barriers, hype and things you don’t really know about and see up front are kinda being broken down within music. And it’s cool to see that everyone’s willing to show out and actually help, especially when it comes to people’s health and mental well-being.
I recently saw something FAUZIA said about the music industry not being able to change until it really is broken down, all this stuff about how people are trying to do better and be more transparent. It’s not really going to stick and do anything until businesses like Resident Advisor and big things are held accountable and taken down, to a certain extent. I’m not saying they need to be completely eradicated, but the people that are in power right now are still in power.
People need to realise that everything has to shift in a racial way because the representation is so off. It’s so crazy how underrepresented [Black audio engineers] are, in other genres there’s more here and there, but in electronic music it’s so desolate, it’s very white-dominated. I’ve been personally trying to teach more people, especially Black women. But people [are] being more receptive and realising it’s possible to fully, 360, have Black people push the narrative of electronic music, whether it be music or artwork or writing or audio engineering.
Marley Marl and Pauli CakesDisCakes
Marley Marl: Before the pandemic, New York City nightlife was a sacred form of expression; it was experimental, medicinal and cathartic. When the pandemic began, I don’t think any of us could accurately estimate how life would become. This extreme sudden change in lifestyle has affected the mental health of so many humans globally, because the majority of us are lacking genuine connection, love, opportunity and support right now, especially Black people who have had to endure an extremely traumatising time in civil rights history. It’s another source of isolation, the cherry on top.
Pauli Cakes: The way I view reality as a whole has changed from the beginning of the pandemic. I was mourning New York City nightlife and my life prior to Covid-19 for most of the pandemic, and now I feel ready to see, and be a part of, a regeneration of nightlife. We’ve been working towards developing more sustainable projects such as our radio show and website, which should be launching in the next couple of months. I was surprised that a lot of venues and collectives were silent during a time of collective grief and heartbreak, and it goes to show who’s working in nightlife for the “scene” aspect of it and who’s in it for collectivism. I’m hoping venues and organisers hold space for precautions and care, uplifting those who are most vulnerable. Although most of us, primarily queer and trans DJs and organisers who rely on nightlife as a primary form of income, have lost work completely, a lot of us seem to be the main ones out here doing community work.
“I feel ready to see, and be a part of, a regeneration of nightlife”
MM: Trying to recreate DisCakes virtually has been extremely difficult, but it doesn’t mean we still can’t find ways to connect during this pandemic and show up for each other. From the start of the pandemic, we had to assess, particularly through a long-term lens, in which ways our community needed us. We needed to push ourselves to look outside our immediate community and try to start initiatives that generally would be assisting New York City as a whole. Considering that New York is rooted in such a huge capitalist, elitist framework, the priority is and always is redistributing money.
PC: We’ve been focusing on using our platform to redistribute funds to those who are in vulnerable situations, whether interpersonally or through online fundraisers. Collectives like HECHA, BUFU, Community Bread and Club Carry have been doing a lot of important work, using “virtual raves” to raise funds.
MM: Our community as a whole stepped up to put our money where our mouth is, and realise that as much as things are scary, it is essential that we look beyond our own needs. There are still loads of people who participate in generational wealth hoarding, essentially protecting their privilege. Crowdfunding and mutual aid are all only possible within a community; it has to be a network of people working together.
You can donate to NYC Nightlife United’s Kickstarter here