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(Photos: Anna Venarchik)

“When we got the announcement, [we started having] conference calls every day between my production crew, the owners, my builders, my staff,” said Megan Zarnott, the general manager at The Bowery Electric, a music venue in the East Village. She’s referring to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s March 3 decision to allow art and entertainment venues to reopen at 33 percent capacity. The announcement precedes the anniversary of stage closures, and Zarnott and her team are wasting no time reuniting musicians and audiences. On Friday, the rock-and-roll hub announced singer-songwriter Jesse Malin would inaugurate The Bowery Electric’s live music return on April 2—the first day venues are allowed to reopen.  

The Bowery Electric shines neon over the corner of 2nd Street and the Bowery. The first floor ceiling is lined with disco balls, and the basement ceiling is—also lined with disco balls; the dress code recommends rock n’ roll chic during the week and dancin’ shoes on the weekend. 

“Before the pandemic, on a normal day, we would have shows every single day,” Zarnott said. Both levels feature stages so the venue could host two shows simultaneously, and on the weekends, the basement flipped for the dance party. “We would take everything off the stage . . . I’d be out there grabbing the drum kit, taking it to the back, guitars, whatever,” Zarnott said. “And then I’d bring my DJs in. And then we change the lighting and all the weekend kids would come in—and that has been a huge loss for us.” 

As a sector that relies on crowds and proximity, performing arts businesses, like The Bowery Electric, were particularly vulnerable to the economic consequences of COVID shutdowns. Since live music is often best in windowless, subterranean rooms where draft lists take precedence over food menus—if there’s a kitchen at all—it was particularly difficult for venues to commercially pivot under state regulations. A February report by New York’s state comptroller found that throughout 2020, employment in arts, entertainment, and recreation dropped by 66 percent: more than any other economic sector in the city. And as reported in the New York Times, many music venues that survived the first months of shutdowns, like the Jazz Standard, were ultimately forced to accept that their doors would never reopen. 

The Bowery Electric survived by acclimating. They started a GoFundMe and pushed merchandise sales, and at the end of May, started selling cocktails to go. They built outdoor seating, hired servers, and developed a food menu—even without a kitchen—to comply with State Liquor Authority regulations. But The Bowery Electric isn’t a restaurant, and selling food isn’t their objective: they needed to bring music back. 

“We have a lot of bands that have been with us for a while that still want to represent us, and this is their home base,” Zarnott said. “That’s why we decided to do the live stream—because we wanted our audience to know that we’re still here, we’re not giving up.” 

At the end of June, The Bowery Electric wired their downstairs stage with cameras and recording equipment and debuted Live Premiere Sessions, a recurring series of ticketed livestreamed shows that featured hardcore punk by Murphy’s Law, garage punk by Tracy City, rock by Hollis Brown, and more. Zarnott and her team are now working quickly to reconfigure the basement, stripping out the livestream equipment to prepare for an in-person audience.

Though the dance parties will have to wait, The Bowery Electric is thrilled to return live music to the East Village—and their fans are thrilled too. Malin’s second scheduled performance, Saturday, April 3, sold out within hours. These back-to-back shows are currently The Bowery Electric’s only bookings, and it should be noted that Malin is co-owner of the venue. But Zarnott hopes to soon regularly schedule three shows weekly.  She started by reaching out to the musicians whose shows were cancelled last March: “We’re like, ‘Hey, we’re calling you because we believe in loyalty to our bands . . . why don’t we get you a date, because we didn’t forget about you.’”

Since as far back as November, some prominent venues have been quietly offering live entertainment by billing it as “incidental music” to accompany dinner. Now, with permission to host ticketed shows once again and the city’s Open Culture initiative, these venues can anticipate a spring of economic and artistic opportunity. The Bowery Electric is opening as soon as possible to get ahead of the competition, but other live music venues are planning to welcome audiences too. City Winery in Chelsea has live shows scheduled to begin April 6, and Brooklyn Bowl and Brooklyn Steel, both in Williamsburg, and Gramercy Theatre in midtown have show dates scheduled for early May.

Zarnott is confident The Bowery Electric’s comeback will simultaneously accomplish two essential goals: return musicians and music lovers alike to the inimitable experience of live music—and keep musicians and music lovers safe. As outlined in their CDC-compliant COVID protocols, patrons will be required to remain seated at assigned tables that are separated by plexiglass. And the venue is incentivising guests by discounting food and drinks for anyone vaccinated or who presents a negative COVID test. 

“People that really love music and want to be out . . . I want them to know that they’re gonna be comfortable at our venue and it’s not going to be that different,” Zarnott said. “It might seem different at the moment, but once we have [musicians] on stage, it’ll feel the same.”