Inside Move: Clubs out of sync at ground zero

Sad state for live music venues in NYC

NEW YORK — Amble down Leonard Street toward trendy Gotham nightspot the Knitting Factory these days and you’ll see music fans lingering out front for a quick chat or a cigarette before the night’s performance.

But turn south around the corner onto Church Street and suddenly you’re face to face with Armageddon.

Like all businesses in downtown New York over the past few weeks, live music venues have carried on as best they could after the World Trade Center collapse. But many acts played to a lot of quiet rooms and empty tables in the days just after the attacks.

Club owners downtown say business has improved, with the average act now drawing about three-quarters the number of fans it did before Sept. 11. But the industry will still take a financial hit — one that locals say could reach into the millions for downtown alone — as it struggles to make up a big chunk of lost revenue before year’s end.

For audiences, the psychological aftermath has been an even mix of anxiety and defiance: Some fans stay cloistered at home for fear of more carnage, while others come out more and shout even louder to defy the specter of terrorism.

For the Knitting Factory and other clubs in Tribeca, the tony loft neighborhood just north of the disaster, the aftershock of the attacks came immediately. Police cordoned off the entire area south of Canal Street (including Tribeca) for two weeks, and most clubs in the region closed down completely.

“Obviously, those two weeks were very tough, but we’re back up to 90% of where we were before Sept. 11,” says Michael Dorf, chairman and chief exec of Knitting Factory parent KnitMedia. “We’re lucky because we’re able to open up now.”

The further downtown a club is situated, the more it has been affected. Between 14th and Canal, over a dozen venues, including the Bowery Ballroom, CBGB’s and the Mercury Lounge, faced a two-day neighborhood lockdown, but they are now moving back toward normalcy. The handful of clubs below Canal, including Knitting Factory, were roped off for two weeks, but fans there are also starting to return.

Others are not so fortunate.

On Warren Street, a mere stone’s throw from where the Twin Towers once stood, Tribeca Blues was behind the police barricade and closed until just last week, when authorities finally opened the street to pedestrian traffic.

The club is lining up talent in hopes of reopening this coming weekend, with a show to benefit police and firefighters in the area, says manager Norma Fontane.

In the meantime, “the bills are piling up and we’re just ignoring them for now,” says Fontane, who lives just down the street from the club. “What else can you do?”

Another big problem facing club owners near ground zero is getting musicians — and their truckloads of equipment — into the venue and set up in time for a gig. Even before Sept. 11, humping gear through downtown Manhattan was a headache. Now, with streets closed to vehicles and checkpoints at every corner, it’s next to impossible.

The Knitting Factory’s Dorf says that while the police have been “very cooperative,” the added delays often mean bands can’t set up and do sound checks until just before they play.

Even where the doors are open, many clubs suffered a rash of cancellations after the attacks. The single biggest blow was the postponement of the annual CMJ live music fest, which caused many performers slated to play New York shows to cancel altogether rather than deal with reskedding. Also having trouble are international acts, many of whom can’t get into the U.S. because of air travel woes and tightened visa restrictions.

The insurance companies that cover the venues for property damage and lost business have been less than helpful, say several club owners. According to one proprietor, insurance firms have seemingly made every effort to minimize eligible claims while maximizing the difficulty of filing them.

Even with their own troubles, many clubs are still reaching out to help those around them.

Allan Pepper, owner of Greenwich Village jazz spot the Bottom Line, says smaller clubs like his can’t raise money for charities on the scale of events like the Sept. 20 “Concert for New York,” but they can find their own ways to improve the well-being of city dwellers.

The Bottom Line’s contribution was a free show Oct. 8, with more than 40 performers volunteering their time and talent to get people back into the clubs. The show drew more than 500 people to hear the likes of Phoebe Snow, Jill Sobule and Jackie DeShannon.

“You’ve got to get out and you can’t be afraid,” Pepper says. “The minute you say, ‘Screw it — I’m gonna go see that show I’ve been wanting to see,’ we’ve won and they’ve lost.”

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