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Future Of Small Baltimore Music Venues Unsteady As Pandemic Looms On

Emily Sullivan/WYPR

As the coronavirus pandemic rages on, non-essential businesses like bars and retail outlets are slowly re-opening. But concert venues like the Ottobar in Baltimore’s Remington neighborhood face a particular challenge: they were the first to close and they’ll be the last to fully reopen.  

In the before times, a typical Friday night at the alternative music venue involved dancing, drinking and “absolute madness,” said Tecla Tesnau, the Ottobar’s owner. 

“Some of our dance parties, the floor just becomes saturated from the humidity of all of the people in the building and the dancing and the singing,” Tesnau said. “It can be overwhelming, but it's absolutely joyous.”

The venue’s floors haven’t been sticky with spilled drinks since mid-March, when it shuttered amid stay-at-home orders. And the alternative music venue is not alone: Baltimore’s live music scene is dormant. Venues are fighting to financially survive. Some are serving takeout; others, like the Ottobar, have built makeshift patios for drinks outside. But the fact remains that all of these places pay their bills largely through tickets.

“Our main product is music and good times,” Tesnau said. “That's just one of those things that people aren't able to enjoy right now.”

Even as Maryland and Baltimore loosen restrictions on indoor gatherings, venue owners and music industry experts say that opening venues at partial capacity just doesn’t work: artist pay, rent, and payroll doesn’t operate on a sliding scale. 

“It would be like asking a 12-story hotel to open it up, but just rent out two rooms,” Audrey Fix Schaefer, the communications director of the National Independent Venue Association, said. 

The group of more than 2,800 independent venues was established as the pandemic began. Venues like Ottobar, which opened in 1997 and has been called a hidden gem by Rolling Stone magazine, are much more vulnerable than venues like Madison Square Garden.

Credit Emily Sullivan/WYPR
Tecla Tesnau, owner of the Ottobar, sits at the venue's empty downstairs bar.

“They don't have corporate sponsors, they don't have stockholders to prop them up,” Schaefer said. “They are going from their own pocket and they're going from their own savings.”

Schaefer said that 90% of NIVA members say they’ll close permanently in a few months without federal funding; the group is currently lobbying members of Congress to pass the Save Our Stages Act. The one kernel of hope in this dark period, Schaefer said, is the broad support the bill has received from Republicans and Democrats alike.

Tesnau of the Ottobar, sick of waiting for any more relief, took matters into her own hands and launched a GoFundMe to help keep up with bills. So far, she’s raised almost $140,000. 

If the Ottobar closes, its loss would be felt throughout Baltimore. For every dollar spent on tickets at a small music venue, $12 of economic activity is generated for area businesses such as restaurants and hotels, according to a study 

That’s to say nothing of cultural impact. The Ottobar hosts an eclectic roster of artists both large and small, both local and international, from bands like the White Stripes to acts like School of Rock, a local showcase of youth bands. 

Unique Robinson is a professor at the Maryland Institute College of Art and a renowned local music artist. The Ottobar and independent clubs like the Crown in Station North are essential places for developing Baltimore artists to cut their teeth, she said.

“A lot of us don't have managers and a lot of us don't have promoters. We have us,” Robinson said. “Having these small independent spaces are the best way to get directly to the people.”

Tesnau, the Ottobar’s owner, is hopeful the venue will make it to the other side of the pandemic -- but that ultimately, it’s a waiting game.

“I miss terribly having artists and musicians on this stage, being able to interact with people and have the kinetics of a concert, like being surrounded by music and by people,” she said. “It's a tremendous loss.”

In the meantime, the community pillar is as open as it can be, serving drinks on its patio.