NEW ORLEANS – The venerable New Orleans funk band Galactic purchased the historic music club Tipitina’s in late November 2018 and, according to bassist Robert Mercurio, was making a go of it.
“It’s a tight-margin business but we were making our notes and fulfilling our bills and whatnot. So, it was moving along in a good direction,” he said.
That was before the coronavirus pandemic forced shutdowns of public gatherings.
Audiences last packed into Tipitina's for a March 12 performance by the Stooges Brass Band. Now, Mercurio is worried that COVID-19 could prove fatal to Tipitina's, a New Orleans cultural touchstone founded in the 1970s as the performance home for the late Henry Roeland Byrd, better known as rhythm and blues keyboard genius Professor Longhair.
For Mercurio, the problem is twofold. Galactic is a band with nowhere to tour and a business whose operating model — packing hordes of people in front of a stage for hours — doesn't work in a pandemic.
“It's terrifying,” he said. “It's extremely difficult to be a now-nonworking musician owning an unopened nightclub.”
Such fears aren't limited to New Orleans. Independent music clubs all over the nation — pop culture icons like the Troubadour in West Hollywood; the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville, Tennessee; The Bitter End in New York's Greenwich Village — are shuttered. And owners fear for the future of their businesses and of a musical way of life.
“There's no amount of history or legendary status that will protect you,” Audrey Fix Schaefer said. She is a spokesperson for the National Independent Venue Association, which was formed in the wake of the pandemic to raise awareness and money for the newly struggling clubs. She points to the iconic jazz club Birdland in New York City. “Can you imagine having the type of rents that you have in midtown Manhattan and no revenue?”