Even with Mayor de Blasio announcing this week that New York City concerts will be canceled through June, Mark Kleback is opening a theme park — and is hosting rock shows in it. But there’s no need to panic: It’s going to be virtual, and interactive.
When the Bushwick-based arcade bar Wonderville closed due to the coronavirus lockdown, Kleback had to be quick on his feet. Like most New York City bars and restaurants, Wonderville had been operating on razor-thin margins ever since Kleback and his soon-to-be wife, Stephanie Gross, opened the venue last June. They were set to be out of debt in 2020, but then the coronavirus struck.
Knowing that being closed for even a couple of days can have a big impact on the business, Kleback and his staff decided to move Wonderville online. “I’m heavily influenced by [Neal Stephenson’s science fiction novel] Snow Crash and it’s idea of a metaverse where everyone can be in an online world together,” says Kleback. “So I started thinking about where those spaces existed online.”
He turned to Minecraft, the popular sandbox video game where the world is yours to create, and Wonderverse was born. Everybody with an internet access can go online and congregate in the same Minecraft world, and Kleback thought to use this and the internet-obsessed side of quarantine to his advantage. After a few clicks and a bunch of research, he decided to host music events and concerts in the new digital version of Wonderville.
Being the owner of a bar that specializes in indie video games has its perks: You don’t have to outsource game developers, since they’re already part of the team. “We’re building a theme park that’s themed around Wonderville,” explains Kleback, who says the opening night of Wonderverse will be in two weeks, on May 2. “So the hope is that we can keep doing multiple events and maybe have some semblance of being a venue again.”
Tickets to the Wonderville Minecraft lobby will be $5 each, and will grant access to Wonderverse for 24 hours. That should give the audience enough time to both enjoy the live concerts — which will be held at set dates and times — and play around with the interactive amenities of Wonderverse, which include recreations of the indie arcade games sitting inside the actual venue in Bushwick.
If Minecraft isn’t your cup of tea, Kleback and his colleagues have a solution ready. “Minecraft is $25, so for a first time user, it would cost $30 — which is a lot,” explains Kleback. “So we’ll have a Twitch stream that people can watch for free.” It’s like spectator mode — people will still hear all the music and see all of the park, but they won’t be able to interact with it.
Yet, $5 can really make a difference. With artists and musicians not being able to play gigs in real life, virtual concerts are the only hope. A percentage of the proceeds from the virtual events will go toward the performing artists, while the remaining sum will help Wonderville survive through the shut-down crisis. It helps that the venue has an understanding landlord and a piggy bank ready to use, but dipping into savings can only keep it afloat for a couple more months. “If this goes into July or August, we might have to figure out some way to sustain our savings,” says Kleback. “But I think at the moment we’re doing okay.”
It’s especially thanks to their well-organized donation channels that Wonderville and its staff is staying afloat. Whether it be through their PayPal, GoFundMe, or even the purchase of a gift card to use in the future, Wonderville is raising money on all fronts. TheirGoFundMe campaign has raised over $6,000, which helps pay part-time bartenders and sound-engineers who are now all out of a job. And for those who want to directly support Wonderville, Kleback and his staff set up a membership program on WithFriends, a platform that, through various membership tiers, offers member-only benefits while getting a steady stream of income to the business. So far, Kleback is really happy with the results. “People have donated so much more than I expected,” he says. “We’re so grateful and our staff is so great.”
With a good number of indie-rock musicians confirmed and lined up for the opening night concert, Wonderverse seems ready to take off. MATH The Band, whose genre is mainly rock, will headline together with Oliver Ackermann of bygone Williamsburg DIY venue Death by Audio, who will perform a solo set. (Ackermann also fronts the Brooklyn band A Place to Bury Strangers, which inspired an APTBS-themed pinball machine house at Wonderville.) But rock and indie-rock won’t be the only stars of the night — electronic music and experimental music will also be part of the concert. “It’s gonna be all over the place,” laughs Kleback. “And I think you will have something for everyone.”