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A Community-Funded Future For Kava Lounge

After an announced closure due to the pandemic, the electronic and local music community rallied around the small live music venue.

A DJ performs a set at an Afternoon Umbrella Friends event at Kava Lounge in ...

Credit: Javier Luna

Above: A DJ performs a set at an Afternoon Umbrella Friends event at Kava Lounge in December 2019.

San Diego's underground music scene is vibrant and diverse, thanks in large part to the small venues that provide community for musicians and audiences, showcasing local talent and bringing in touring acts. Venues like the Che Cafe, the Casbah, Soda Bar, Til Two Club have struggled to stay afloat financially during the pandemic — one underground venue, San Diego Content Partners, closed permanently this month.

RELATED: Industry Interrupted: Music In San Diego In A Pandemic

Kava Lounge, nestled between freeway on-ramps, airport parking structures and an SDGE power facility, isn't really anybody's idea of a "neighborhood" bar — but the tiny live music venue has a devoted following of fans, beatmakers and customers.

A few blocks north of the Casbah in an industrial part of midtown, Kava Lounge features live music or DJs two or three nights a week. Generally too small for loud punk or rock bands, owner Scott Bell said they tend to book a lot of electronic acts.

"We’ve got a pretty simple slogan: We’ll let anybody play as long as it’s real," Bell said. "But chances are if you come down here you’re going to hear underground electronic music."

With no outdoor patio, no ability to serve food and no practical, worthwhile way to innovate like offering take-home cocktails, business screeched to a halt in mid-March. Much of his bar staff, with just a few shifts available per week, would not have benefited from any COVID-19 Payroll Protection Program funding for the business.

Kava Lounge sold some merch online, and recently hosted a livestream. But without live shows, and the energy and connectedness found in sharing underground music, there was little Kava Lounge could do.

Photo credit: Javier Luna

DJs perform at San Diego's Kava Lounge music venue at an Afternoon Umbrella Friends event in December 2019. The venue announced its closure but after an outpouring of support from the community, will be able to remain open longer.

During the pandemic, the staff discussed the possibility of a GoFundMe campaign to help cover rent and licensing fees. But while protests and the Black Lives Matter movement took hold of the city and the country, Bell thought that it wasn't the time to ask for money. He'd even set up a campaign, but never made it live.

Kava Lounge was quick to reopen mid-June, and was excited to welcome customers. "Some really diehard supporters of the Kava Lounge came by," Bell said. Ultimately, he said that only a half dozen people came at one time. "It's not a place you're gonna go to have a hamburger and a beer," he added. "We weren't making enough to pay all the bills and stay open."

Ultimately Bell made the call to close the business. He let a few of the bartenders know, posted an announcement on Facebook and even started closing some accounts. But the outpouring of support blew him away.

"One of the bartenders said, 'You gotta put that GoFundMe up,'" Bell recalled. So he sent her the link. Within days, they'd received hundreds of donations from their community. After five days, the venue amassed nearly 250 individual donations for a total of $14,035 — and still climbing.

"And I was shocked. I'm still shocked at the support," Bell said. "The amount that we've already got so far is going to pay my back licenses and things like that. It's really incredible support."

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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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