Open for Business: How SoCal Venues Survived the Pandemic


Open for Business: In March 2011, we published a cover story in the middle of the pandemic that asked the question, “Can our stages be saved?

The pandemic isn’t exactly over, but it’s certainly showing signs of slowing down. The majority of the public is vaccinated and, even though case numbers have been surging slightly, hospitalization and death counts remain stable. Live music has been back up and running for months now, with masking and mandatory vaccination requirements slowly going away. How wise that is remains a matter for debate – most health professionals still advise masking in indoor spaces.

But the answer to our question, for the most part, appears to be “Yes.” Our stages were largely saved. But Jesus, it was close.

L.A.’s Hotel Cafe started life as a small coffee shop in 2000, but it has now been hosting live music for over 20 years. Over the past two decades, it has seen approximately 25,000 performances in front of over a million fans. Names as prestigious and popular as Adele, Billie Eilish, Ed Sheeran, the Lumineers, Gary Clark Jr., Katy Perry, Sara Bareilles, Bruno Mars, Haima, and Lord Huron have performed on one of its two stages.

(Gia Hughes)

“Some of the best shows at the venue were ones that unexpectedly blew us away, as well as some memorable secret shows and underplays,” said Marko Shafer of the Hotel Cafe. “I often think back to seeing Hozier’s showcase for mostly industry people, before he was a household name, and I left that show knowing he’d be a star. Hosting Chris Martin for an unannounced solo show also was as special as it gets. What turned out to be Mac Millers last show was bittersweet, but something those in the room will remember forever. Ludovico Einaudi crushing a grand piano on our stage is one the folks in the room also will remember for a long time. Once, sometime around 2004 or 2005, someone who called themselves Weezer’s manager reached out via phone. We didn’t quite believe it, as it was the first bigger name to ask to play the room. When they actually showed up for soundcheck the afternoon of the show, we all got pretty excited. Of course the show was amazing. Oh, and Dave Chappelle has had some epic nights recently.”

So that’s the pedigree of a venue that has a capacity of 200 in the main room and a modest 75 in the second stage’s room. The Hotel Cafe is an established, beloved independent venue, and COVID pushed it to the brink.

“The pandemic was extremely challenging – financially, morally and spiritually,” Shafer says. “There were times that we honestly didn’t know if we’d make it. But with the support of Hotel Cafe artists, fans and friends, as well as NIVA’s advocacy, we made it. And we feel the love more than ever now.”

Monchat Doma at Garden Amp (Jess Rodriguez)

Yes, the intervention of NIVA (the National Independent Venues Association) was vital to the survival of many venues. It was they who sent a letter to Congress: “The National Independent Venue Association (NIVA), whose members, employees, artists and local communities are facing an existential crisis as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, are in urgent need of targeted legislative and regulatory assistance.”

They received that assistance in the form of the Shuttered Venue Operator Grant, previously referred to as “Save Our Stages,” which passed with bipartisan support in December 2020. Things are better now, but still not “normal,” according to Shafer of the Hotel Cafe.

“Things are still very up and down for most independent venues” Shafer says. “Cancellations because of COVID are common. Many of our patrons are still hesitant about packing into a small space with 200 other people. We’re staying hopeful, however, and things are definitely stabilizing and starting to look up. It feels like fall will be the real test, as many artists prepare to hit the road for the first big touring season since COVID.”

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The Garden Amp in Garden Grove, Orange County, was called Festival Amphitheatre before it was taken over by new management, LFA, in mid 2017. It was primarily used as a venue during Garden Grove’s city’s event Strawberry Festival during Memorial Weekend or Shakespeare in the Park during the summer. Besides its “Locker Room” stage, it’s an outdoor venue, but still, it suffered.

“Garden Amp was completely closed down during the pandemic, but we tried experimenting with other shows,” says Anrea Santos. “We did a drive-in concert at the Citadel Outlets, which was a great turnout. We even tried a livestream concert with local bands. We also had a sold out show with Anthony Green at Oak Canyon Park in June 2021, right when live events were starting to come back. But when we opened Garden Amp again, our first couple shows sold out instantly. People were ready for live music again. Big Thief was our first show and then Turnstile last year in August 2021.”

The Whisky A-Go-Go is synonymous with rock & roll on the Sunset Strip. It’s been hosting the biggest names in music since the ‘60s, and it’s displayed remarkable staying power in sticking around. Still, COVID tested it to the fullest.

“[It was the] most challenging thing I’ve ever had to deal with,” says owner Mikael Maglieri Jr. “I didn’t survive – I’m a little dead inside. This struggle will continue for a long time. After operating for over 50 years, to just be shut down for over two years really hurt us. We’re trying [to come out of it]. It’s almost like a new start. Everything we built was torn away and it’s like we are starting fresh. At least we have our history.”

Alex’s Bar in Long Beach was purchased in 1998 and opened on Jan. 27, 2000. They have been open ever since, with the obvious exception of the pandemic.

“It was extremely difficult,” says owner Alex Hernandez. “I am still in therapy trying to cope with the emotional rollercoaster it presented to our family, as well as our staff. Thankfully the community stepped up big time and helped us survive the pandemic. There is no way we would still be here without all the love Long Beach showed up. They purchased alcohol to-go, shirts, published a coffee table book by John Mair, started a GoFundMe – the list goes on.”

Hernandez says that Alex’s Bar is showing signs of life again.

“We have seen some amazing enthusiasm from the public who were so eager to come back and see live music, their friends, and their community again,” he says. “I am still seeing a lot of friends for the first time, even as of this week, who are just now venturing out back into the world.”

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This is a survival story. The pandemic tested everyone to our absolute limits, and people died. Many, many businesses had to close their doors. It has been an absolute nightmare, and no intelligent person ever questioned the necessity to put live music on hold for a while. But that doesn’t change the fact that business owners and employees suffered because of it. So the big question is, if something like this was to happen again, would venues be better prepared? Opinions are mixed.

“I think it’s tough in our industry to be prepared for something like that, but we would survive,” says Shafer of Hotel Cafe.

Maglieri thinks differently. “No, never,” he says. “The cost to just maintain a building on Sunset is astronomical and with no money coming in, it is impossible.”

Hernandez agrees. “Nothing can prepare you for an uncertain closure or even the lack of control you have over your own business,” he says. “I hope it never happens again. It’s not for the faint of heart.”

Clearly, this has been rough but again, thankfully, the majority of the region’s venues found a way to survive. And that’s a blessing that shouldn’t be taken for granted – never, ever forget how important these spaces are.

“The artists and fans are what make a great music venue,” says Shafer. “It’s important to have a culture of kindness and accommodation — our staff consists of the best people who genuinely care about making your experience a memorable one. But it’s also important to have a culture of music discovery and community. You can come to the Hotel Cafe any night of the week and either run into friends or discover a new artist you didn’t know of before. It’s our job to create and foster a community people keep wanting to come back to. And we think that’s why so many artists come back over the years.”

We thank you, all of you, for that.

Open for Business: Visit whiskyagogo.comhotel cafe.com, alexsbar.com, and gardenamp.com.

Hotel Cafe (Gia Hughes)

Open for Business



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