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Industry Interrupted: Music In San Diego In A Pandemic

The Casbah’s Tim Mays, musician and organizer Mónica Mendoza, studio producer and engineer Ben Moore and freelance performer Nathan Hubbard weigh in when the music pauses

The Casbah stage sits empty on April 28, 2020. The venue closed its doors due...

Credit: Tim Mays

Above: The Casbah stage sits empty on April 28, 2020. The venue closed its doors due to the coronavirus pandemic and stay at home orders.

Closed Doors And A Staff On Hold

The last show at the Casbah was March 13th — nearly seven weeks ago. In its 31 year history, the famed San Diego live music venue has never seen anything like this.

"It was just a madhouse trying to reschedule shows," co-founder and owner Mays said of the early days. In addition to the mid-town venue, the Casbah also books shows — branded as "The Casbah Presents" — at Soda Bar, The Observatory, House of Blues, Soma and the Belly Up, depending on size. "A lot of people, us included, didn’t have any inkling of what the whole thing would look like moving forward."

Mays said that he knows that San Diegans are anxious to get back to shows. He is too, and rattled off a list of the places he can't wait to go to when the stay-at-home order lifts (for the record, the Casbah tops the list). However, he's not in any rush. "It could render this whole six-week closure useless and have to go back to square one," he said.

For now, he's focused on the difficulties of running a business during a pandemic. When the first shows were canceled, he advised his part-time employees to file for unemployment, and many were able to start receiving checks quickly.

Fresh challenges soon emerged. They received assistance from the federal Payroll Protection Program (PPP), which incentivizes small businesses to keep employees on payroll. For some of his employees, though, unemployment is a better deal and Mays worries he'll have to return unused funds.

"It’s hard," Mays said. "Trying to maneuver through the Payroll Protection Program is confusing. Nobody has any real answers."

But community support for the out-of-work staff has been impressive, including a fundraiser selling limited edition t-shirts. "We sold close to $40,000 in merch; it was just incredible," Mays said. "We were able to give our staff quite a bit of money to get them through the first couple of weeks there before unemployment kicked in."

'This pandemic is affecting the working class'

Marginalized communities were already struggling to find footing in the music industry, said Mónica Mendoza, founder of the regional music collective GRRRL Independent Ladies.

Mendoza has built a community in the cross-border region of women and nonbinary musicians. She hosts and books showcases, organizes tours and helps foster equitable connections between bands, venues and supporters in southern California and Mexico.

And she's seeing the impact of the pandemic in these communities. "It’s affecting people that are struggling so hard already on a daily basis," Mendoza said. The music industry has always been difficult for people of color, women and nonbinary and trans people, she said. For many, all their income — both from performing and their other jobs — has dried up, and with it, health care. "That's definitely something that's going to continue to affect our community in that way, especially during a pandemic."

Mendoza's own band, Le Ra, canceled spring shows and a tour, like many of the other bands she works with. For now, she's working on solo projects, and is inspired by the influx of new outlets like performances on Instagram live.

Several of the bands Mendoza supports had just recorded albums prior to the shutdown, but even if music is ready to be released (and audiences desperate to stream it), bands need to tour. "The income that a lot of us musicians get is usually through these tours and the amount of merch that we sell on tours," she said. "Obviously right now that income isn’t happening."

She said that supporting bands by buying music and merch online can help, and suggests streaming music from a variety of platforms. "Especially Bandcamp, because the artists get more incentive than they would on Spotify," she said.

Photo by Julia Dixon Evans

The band Le Ra performs at The Casbah in this July 2019 photo.

Recording Studios Go Dark But Music Is Still Being Made

Producer Ben Moore, whose many credits include Hot Snakes and Switchfoot, saw the recording industry screech to a halt. "I went from having a completely full calendar to a completely empty calendar," Moore said. "Without the ability to work with other people, it makes my job fairly impossible."

He said that some production and mastering work for an album can be done independently, but musicians need to come together first with him before that can happen. He often works with bands from the early drafts of a song, seeing them through to the finished product.

However, even with a pause in studio recording, Moore thinks that some musicians will be able to create work during the pandemic.

"Solo writers, electronic music, hip hop producers — people who do all things at once — they’re going to be doing the same process today that they were two months ago," he said, but bands that thrive on practicing and creating together will suffer. Plus, gig entertainers, cover bands and other prolific performers were making a living on their music — until now. "Touring bands are pretty much dead in the water," he said.

A Gig Musician Makes Space For Long-Distance Collaboration

Freelance independent musician Nathan Hubbard is worried about his "chops." It's an expression used among musicians, particularly drummers like Hubbard, to describe the combination of technique and endurance that comes from constant performing and practice.

One of Hubbard's last gigs was as a percussionist in Cygnet Theatre's production of "La Cage aux Folles," which canceled its run in mid-March shortly before opening. He also saw much of his teaching work dry up, citing difficulties in what is generally a very physical process. "When you’re teaching drums, it’s hard to not be in the room," Hubbard said.

He's not entirely sitting it out for the pandemic, though. He's collaborating, social-distance style, starting new projects with musicians across multiple states. By laying tracks separately and swapping files back and forth, he's able to collaborate in groups that would have seemed logistically or financially unfeasible until now.

Despite the innovation, Hubbard thinks it's no substitution for in-person work. "I guarantee the day that thing lifts you'll see a million pictures of musicians getting together to play music," he said. But the challenge will not just be rebuilding his chops, but rebuilding the audiences, Hubbard said.

The Future: No Packed Houses For A While

For now, the Casbah is still booking shows for later in the summer, but Mays said that bigger acts — the type that they'd book for the Observatory or House of Blues — are pushed out until 2021. Bands aren't looking to schedule tours until they know they won't be canceled again, or until they can play to bigger crowds.

Even when restrictions are loosened, large concerts may not happen for a while, Hubbard said. Major theaters or larger clubs like House of Blues will have to balance the financial pros and cons of reopening with much smaller crowds.

For the Casbah, Mays understands that they'd fall at the end of a multi-phased reopening plan. He said they'd find ways to operate at a reduced capacity to allow for more space between audience members, while still being financially feasible to operate.

"Whenever we are able to open, we will do so in a safe manner for our employees, our artists and the fans," Mays said. They're considering many options, such as bringing in tables and chairs or creating semi-fixed seating for the immediate future to allow for smaller shows and enforced distancing. This also means fewer shifts for staff, though.

Gradual reopenings could also bring a resurgence of local or regional acts filling the Casbah's schedule, if out-of-town bands are hesitant to book tours right away, Mays said. He added that they are considering comedy nights or movie screenings to help people get out, whenever it's allowed and safe. "People love coming to the Casbah," he said.

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Julia Dixon Evans
Arts Calendar Editor and Producer

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI write the weekly KPBS Arts newsletter and edit and produce the KPBS Arts calendar. I am interested in getting San Diegans engaged with the diversity of art and culture made by the creative people who live here.

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