What D.C. is Doing to Support its Live Music

by Asa Hiken

Local efforts that have been made and resources to continue providing relief.

In March, along with the rest of the country, Washington D.C. shuttered its live music scene. Down the U Street and 14th Street corridors, prized venues turned off their lights, sent home their staff and musicians, and hoped for a quick recovery to a minor setback. Seven months later and that setback is a global pandemic, that recovery is nowhere in sight, and those venues remain dark, empty, and silent. In the time since the shutdown, at least five long-standing music institutions, including Ziegfeld’s/Secrets, Eighteenth Street Lounge, Twins Jazz, Marvin, and U Street Music Hall, have closed for good, and thousands of out-of-work employees and artists have struggled to pay their rents, purchase essential items, and earn secondary income. The once uncertain stakes are now very simple: if the local music scene does not survive the next twelve months, D.C.’s cultural legacy will be “wiped out completely.

It is with these portents in mind that numerous initiatives have been launched across the District, from pop-ups to coalitions to relief funds, from third-party intervention to pivots by the venues themselves. While, individually, they run the gamut in terms of creativity and success, together these efforts reveal a desperation that is shared by all in the industry. The following is intended to highlight the courage behind this desperation, as well as be a roadmap for how the greater D.C. community can offer its help. 



Because restrictions on business can change at any moment, establishments are better off operating flexibly and under temporary conditions. Such is the logic behind pop-ups. Back in June, the Anthem launched Camp Anthem, a pop-up bar and restaurant on District Pier at The Wharf, adjacent to the beloved venue. There is no live music at Camp Anthem, no stacked speakers or droning feedback, but rather socially distant tables covered by collapsible cabana tents. The waterfront pop-up is a stark departure from the Anthem’s raucous forte, yet signals the lack of options that closed venues have to raise revenue. With its ordinary operations down for the foreseeable future, the Anthem has had to pivot to a new business altogether.

The Heist also attempted a pivot, but with bleaker results. In late September, the popular nightclub teamed up with the Kennedy Center for Heist X Kennedy Center, a weekly outdoor pop-up series on the roof of the latter’s downtown complex. Instead of dancing, there was supposed to be social-distanced bottle service, with tables capped at six people per; instead of live DJ sets, a pre-recorded playlist, likely streaming from a nearby laptop. Yet days before it’s October 3rd opening (which sold out in minutes), the series was called off, the Kennedy Center citing the need for “further evaluation.” More than two weeks later, no updates on rescheduling have been provided.



Another way venues are supporting themselves is by banding as one and supporting each other. One such coalition is #SaveDCNightLife, an awareness campaign launched by local nightclub owners. Though the group hasn’t made much progress getting off the ground, it did pen a letter in May urging Mayor Bowser and D.C. Council to enact legislative relief. With signatories including area-favorites Heist, Echostage, and Abigail—19 signatures in all—the group represents an area of business that has been largely overlooked despite its significant impact on the District’s economy.

A similar, more comprehensive effort, #SaveDCVenues, was launched in September by DC Music Stakeholders, a coalition of local venue owners, employees, musicians, activists, and non-profit leaders. In their own letter to Mayor Bowser and D.C. Council, the group outlined the DC Music Venue Relief Act, which would provide $15,000 per month to music venues and $7,500 per month to smaller bars and restaurants that also offer live music, from October through May 2021. The open letter, initially signed by some 600 local figures and organizations, asks members of the public to add their names and use the document as a template to share on social media, as well as for contacting local representatives.



By far the most popular initiatives in DC have been relief funds, likely due to the easy setup, no-frills donation process, and direct transfer of money to those in need. Some funds, like Westminster Presbyterian’s DC Area Jazz Musicians Benevolence Fund, target workers in specific genres; the Jazz Fund, launched back in March, is a GoFundMe that has raised over $25,000 for struggling jazz musicians. Another genre-specific fund, the Chuck Brown Foundation Go-Go Relief Fund, is tailored toward DC-native Go-Go music, a genre in serious need given that Go-Go bands often contain over half-a-dozen musicians.

There are also funds reaching beyond any one sound. The Musicians/Performing Artists Covid-19 Relief Fund, launched by non-profit DC Legendary Musicians, Inc. and supported by funk-band Big Like Bear, journalist Mark Segraves’ After Dark Productions, and the Westminster Fund, is aimed at any and all artists struggling to get by in the pandemic. Similarly, the DC Federation of Musicians, the local chapter of the American Federation of Musicians, has created its own donations page for the 1,400+ professional artists the organization represents—from jazz trios to rock bands to large-dance orchestras.

Finally, some funds have been launched by struggling venues themselves. 18th Street haunt Madam’s Organ is supporting its live acts and workforce through its Keep the Musicians and Staff of Madam’s Organ Alive Fund. The bar is even matching all donations with a commensurate gift card, redeemable when operations resume. Then there’s I.M.P., the productions juggernaut responsible for shows at the 9:30 Club, Merriweather Post Pavilion, the Anthem, and the Lincoln Theater, who has created the Family Fund to help its hundreds of employees who are currently out of work.


The Anthem, October 2017 (Photo courtesy of John Shore)


What the District Government is Doing

Now that hopes for forthcoming federal assistance have been thoroughly dashed, legislative relief rests solely in the hands of the District government. While Mayor Bowser has yet to announce any such plans, she has launched a tenuous pilot program to safely return to indoor performance. In what resembles more of a controlled experiment than any long-term solution, the program is allowing six venues (City Winery, GALA Hispanic Theatre, Pearl Street Warehouse, The Kennedy Center, The Hamilton, and Union Stage) to host live shows with significant caveats: a maximum capacity of 50 people (including performers and venue staff); reserve, social-distanced seating at least 30 feet from the stage; a requirement that performers be at least 6 feet from each other while performing. Among other criteria, the program is slated to end at midnight on October 30th, giving venues little time to plan accordingly, schedule acts, and decide if the negligent revenue is even worth the hassle of reopening.

In addition to greenlighting those six venues, Mayor Bowser has also invited a host of venues that offer outdoor entertainment to review the new criteria and resubmit waivers for resuming operations. But as is the case with the pilot program in total, this offer is meager at best, especially given the cooler temperatures forcing people indoors, and the rise in COVID-19 cases threatening to further restrict the District.


What You Can Do

Though D.C.’s live music scene is hurting, we—the public—can still make a difference. Every fund that was mentioned in this article is still open for donations; DC Music Stakeholders’ open letter is still collecting signatures; gift cards can still be purchased on almost every local venue’s website; and for those willing to venture outside of their homes, both Camp Anthem and venues operating via the pilot program are still seeking reservations (open thru 10/31 and 10/30, respectively). Links to all are provided below.

There is also the virtual stream route, which directly helps artists and musicians through ticket revenue or online tip jars. Consider following DC Music Review’s Facebook page, which maintains an updated list of upcoming events, and be sure to keep tabs on the social media of local performers, bands, and venues who often plan their own streams independently.

And if you know of any other funds or streaming organizers or initiatives in the D.C. area that have not been mentioned in this article, email editorial@washingtonlife.com so that we can add their links to the list below. Now more than ever, DC’s live music depends on the grapevine, and on the contributions of generous residents.



#SaveDCVenues (DC Music Stakeholders)

#SaveOurStages (National Independent Venue Association)

DC Area Jazz Musicians Benevolence Fund (Westminster Presbyterian Church)

Musicians Performing Artists Covid-19 Relief Fund (DC Legendary Musicians, Inc)

Chuck Brown Brown Foundation Go-Go Relief Fund (Chuck Brown Foundation)

Keep the Musicians and Staff of Madam’s Organ Alive Fund (Madam’s Organ)

I.M.P Family Fund (I.M.P.)

Camp Anthem (The Anthem)

City Winery (live streams only)

GALA Hispanic Theatre (tickets only)

Pearl Street Warehouse (tickets + live streams)

The Kennedy Center (tickets + live streams)

The Hamilton (tickets currently sold out; live stream still available)

Union Stage (tickets + live streams)


Related Articles