Indie Concert Venues Stare Down Developers in Face of Rising Rents, Gentrification

Interior view of San Francisco’s Mezzanine.
PYMCA/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Interior view of San Francisco’s Mezzanine.

Across the country, indie concert spaces are being pushed further to the fringes — but some hope remains.

On New Year's Eve, independent San Francisco music venue Mezzanine hosted its final show, after the landlord of the city's largest female-owned club declined to renew its lease in order to convert the property into commercial office space.

The club's closure followed the loss of fellow local indie venues Hemlock Tavern and Elbo Room, and helped prompt the city's Board of Supervisors to pass a resolution in July 2019 that would require approval before a nighttime entertainment venue could be designated for other uses within 18 months after its closure.

The legislation mirrors a nationwide trend of local governments and nonprofits intervening to help protect independent venues, which have been steadily disappearing as rising rents, gentrification and industry consolidation push owners to seek help and assert their value.

In New York, the skyrocketing cost of rent has continued to drive independent venues out, with casualties in the past 20 years such as the Wetlands, the original Knitting Factory, CBGBs, the Roseland and Highline Ballroom. "My first rock club [Wetlands Preserve] was open from 1989 to 2001 in Tribeca and got converted into condos," says Brooklyn Bowl owner Peter Shapiro, who adds the location was originally selected because it was seen as residentially unviable. "The neighborhood changed. You couldn't let Disco Biscuits shows out at 3:30 in the morning in Tribeca today."

In 2019, New York officials released a study concluding that the city's nightlife industry supports 299,000 jobs, $13.1 billion in employee compensation and $35.1 billion in total economic output. New York's senior executive director of the office of nightlife Ariel Palitz has provided a road map for how the city can sustain the independent sector while maintaining quality of life for residents, including opening the line of contact between venues and their neighbors.

"From a financial standpoint, [NY nightlife] is a huge economic engine that deserves respect," says Palitz. "From a cultural standpoint, it's why people move here. It's why people visit here. It's our currency around the world."

Austin's Red River Cultural District, which has one of the few remaining contiguous music streets in the country, has been working with the city to support its remaining venues after losing nearly half over a five year period.

"Despite bringing in more than $1.8 billion to the city's economy and being its largest driver of growth, [live music] had never seen a penny of funding from the city," says executive director of nonprofit Red River Merchants Association Cody Cowan. In 2013, District venues came together to demand protection and funding from the city, which granted resources to fill potholes and fix fences, bolster police presence and extend operating hours that increased revenue to the venues as well as local musicians. "It's up to our district and community now to put up or shut up because if we don't, we're going to be the story everyone looks back on and goes, 'Oh, that was so crazy. They just threw it away.'"

In July, nonprofit Historic Seattle garnered vocal support from Seattle musicians including Guns 'N Roses' Duff McKagan and Macklemore to secure landmark status for the 100-year-old Showbox, when a developer wanted to replace it with a 44-story high-rise.

"People come to Seattle or Austin, places that have culture, for a reason, not for luxury high rise condos," says Historic Seattle's director of preservation services Eugenia Woo. "Why does 'progress' or something new take priority over what has been here and what's made this city?"

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 11 issue of Billboard.