The Day The Music Died
Baltimore magazine|December 2020
Independent music venues fight for their lives.
Lydia Woolever

Last spring, a collective sigh of relief spread throughout the Baltimore music community when it was announced that the Ottobar, the beloved, rough-and-tumble rock club in Remington and a local institution for the past two decades, would be purchased by its longtime bar manager, Tecla Tesnau.

Just six months earlier, it went up for sale, leaving fans of all ages wondering what it would mean for the city’s cultural landscape if that small black room and the dimly lit dance floor was no longer packed with sweaty bodies. Or worse, if the graffitied walls were painted over to become just another slick venue without the same gritty heart and soul.

Behind the bar since its inception downtown on Davis Street, Tesnau had seen the Ottobar through many changes over the past 23 years, from the digitization of the music industry to the gentrification of Baltimore—none of which would prepare her, of course, for what would arrive six months after she took over when the novel coronavirus swept around the world and left a sea of shuttered concert halls in its wake.

“After I got handed the keys, we were running full tilt, 100 miles per hour, setting records left and right, the lineup was absolutely stellar—even my accountant at one point was like, ‘Good work, kid,’ which is high praise from someone who is usually all about the books,” says Tesnau on a Tuesday afternoon in late September. “Then, boom, COVID landed, and we hit an absolute cinderblock wall. We got knocked on our ass.”

Since early March, the Ottobar stage has stood mostly empty. No crowds have gathered beneath its sparkling disco ball. No feet have dangled from the second-floor balcony. No lines have wrapped out the door, down the alleyway, and around the corner onto Howard Street. The bar is tidy, the barstools tucked in, not a drop of liquor spilled on the floor beneath them for months.

Shortly after the first case of COVID-19 arrived in Maryland, Governor Larry Hogan announced restrictions on public gatherings, first limiting groups to 250 people—half of the Ottobar’s capacity—then 50, then 10, before a statewide lockdown. For most venues, the weeks that followed meant navigating the quagmire of canceled concerts, refunded ticket sales, unemployment applications, and gathering paperwork for the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program.

“We were literally building the airplane as we were flying it, and are still continuing to do so,” says Tesnau. “The space feels so different now. It smells better, for one—I’ve taken to cleaning it a lot. But it’s cavernous, absolutely cavernous. I can’t tell you how much I miss having music in there. Honestly, if I had known that last show was going to be our last, I would’ve been in the mosh pit, too.”

Much like restaurants, the very existence of music venues—particularly small, independent clubs that don’t have the parent companies or shareholders of those in cahoots with conglomerates like Live Nation and AEG—was upended this year as their entire business model became obsolete overnight. Suddenly, COVID-19 made concert-going as we know it simply unsafe, with the virus spread through respiratory droplets, be it coughing or singing, plus close proximity and indoor environments increasing the risk of transmission. Tours were called off, and venues became some of the first businesses to close.

“No one knew then what extreme toll the virus was going to take on the music industry at large,” says Tesnau. “It has absolutely decimated and devastated the music industry. And it’s this massive trickle down.”

“A lot of people don’t realize how many people work in this industry,” says Abigail Janssens, owner of The 8x10 in Federal Hill. “It goes from the artists to the bus drivers who drive them to the tractor-trailers who carry the equipment to the people who load the stage to the sound engineers, the light technicians, the box-office person, the security, the bartenders. It takes many, many people to put on a show.” (Not to mention that for every $1 spent on a ticket at independent venues, an estimated $12 is generated within local economies on restaurants, hotels, transportation, and retail.)

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