The outdoor stage at El Paso's Lowbrow Palace. (Photo courtesy of Lowbrow Palace)

Some El Paso music venues are reinventing themselves in order to withstand the economic shock of COVID-19, while others may not reopen their doors at all. 

In the two months since bars and venues were ordered to close, El Paso music venue owners have continued to pay rent on empty spaces while contemplating an uncertain future for live music. Alfredo Campos, owner of Monarch and Neon Rose, two 90-person capacity bar/music venues, is grateful to have had savings before this financial hit. 

“For the last five years of Monarch’s life, I have put money away every month for an emergency. And the damn emergency came like a tsunami. The worst-case scenario for me before was like, ‘What if sales fall below $20,000 a month?’ Never did I imagine that sales would be zero. That’s quite an eye-opening experience,” Campos said.

Neon Rose is a bar and music venue in Central El Paso. (Photo courtesy of Alfredo Campos)

Many bars and venues didn’t have the same level of emergency preparedness, and 35 El Paso bars and liquor serving establishments (including many music venues) are currently on the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission’s delinquency list, meaning they are overdue on payments to liquor distributors. Campos said being on the TABC list “doesn’t mean their closing, it just means that they’re having trouble with their finances.” 

Famous Austin venues like the Mohawk are also currently on the TABC delinquency list. “The Mohawk is iconic. I don’t live in Austin, but if you put your finger on Austin’s pulse you have an idea of what’s going on,” Campos said. “El Paso, we have it even tougher here trying to get people out to shows and trying to keep people in bars. If they’re struggling in places like Austin or New York or Chicago, we know that we’re next.”

Reinventing in crisis

For some El Paso music venues, this crisis has been the mother of invention. Christian Yanez, talent buyer and promoter of Lowbrow Palace, says that Lowbrow’s strategy for staying afloat has involved livestream concerts and may soon include drive-in concerts, where concert-goers sit in their cars while listening to a band perform, either with their windows down or through a radio broadcast. 

“The business model is definitely not the same, but we just have to roll with it. The first (livestream concert) we did featured three local artists and we had about 700 viewers. You have to find new ways to monetize that. I think it’s just a matter of finding a way to be creative, and seeing what else you can do,” Yanez said. 

At Monarch, COVID-19 has presented an opportunity to focus on coffee sales, something Campos has long sought to integrate into the bar/venue’s business model. 

“I’ve always wanted Monarch to be modeled after my experiences in Berlin. The coffee aspect of it was something I really appreciated, because I didn’t want to be drunk at 1 p.m., and if you go into a bar in Berlin at 1 p.m., there’s no shame in ordering a latte or an espresso.” 

However, other music venues have not been as resilient. Hector Saenz, event presenter and booker at Club Here I Love You and La Parada, says that it’s unlikely that Club Here I Love You will reopen after COVID-19. 

Limited opening doesn’t work for music venues

Economic reopening plans announced this week allow the possibility that El Paso bars could reopen on May 29 at 25 percent capacity. But Saenz says these plans don’t make sense for music venues. 

“The numbers just don’t work at 25 percent, you wouldn’t be able to sustain like that. You would need to own a place the size of Tricky Falls in order to have the capacity of Lowbrow. You wouldn’t even be able to pay your rent,” Saenz said. “And we all know that even if you have 25 percent capacity, if there’s a live concert then that whole 25 percent is going to be right next to each other in front of the stage. Are they gonna allow that to happen?”

Monarch, a Downtown El Paso bar and music venue, hasn’t been open to its bar regulars since mid-March, though it reopened to serve coffee on April 23. (Photo courtesy of Alfredo Campos)

For now, Saenz too has been reinventing his work and putting concert booking on the back-burner. He has launched Desert Merch Table, an online merchandise store for local bands. But Saenz is hopeful about the emergence of new music venue alliances, and how they have galvanized venue owners around the country.

The National Independent Venue Association and the Music Venue Alliance of Texas have emerged in response to COVID-19, calling on political leaders to “save our stages.” These organizations have motivated venue owners to take action, and have encouraged music lovers to contact their representatives on behalf of venues. El Paso venue The Lowbrow Palace is a founding member of MVA Texas. 

Local and regional venue alliances have made for strange bedfellows, Saenz said. “Venues normally operate with their elbows out —  everybody’s vying for the best artists, so we generally operate in a very siloed manner. But something I have seen in other cities is independent venues banding together and trying to figure out solutions that might work locally. I haven’t seen much of that in El Paso though. It’d definitely be nice to see something like that going on for our area.” 

Venue alliance websites emphasize the value of live music for local, regional, and state economies. According to a 2019 Texas economic impact study, direct and ripple effects of live music in the state extend to “over 209,000 permanent jobs, $6.5 billion in earnings, and $23.4 billion in annual economic activity. The State of Texas also realizes approximately $390 million in tax revenue from these impacts.”

Economic impact of music venues

Yanez at Lowbrow points out how great of a boon to the local economy music venues are. “We’ve had sold out shows at Lowbrow where 80 percent of the people are from out of town, whether it’s from Albuquerque or Las Cruces or Phoenix. You can only imagine what that can do for the local economy. And in general it’s important to support the arts. El Paso has so many local musicians, such great talent, if there’s no music venues then where are you going to be able to catch these amazing live musicians? It’s an important thing we have to support and keep alive.”

Despite ample creativity and reinvention, it’s likely that El Paso will lose beloved music venues, and this is a significant cultural loss, venue owners say. 

“For sure our venues are in danger, and I’m not saying that to be escandaloso — this is definitely going to happen if we don’t figure it out soon,” Campos said. “If we were seen as culturally significant, how would that change the way we run? Wouldn’t it be great if the city at least acknowledged it? Like said these places need to be protected? Because we are your city’s cultural ambassadors. We deal with people from Israel who come here and play a show, we deal with the people from Berlin, we deal with the people from New York. And they go back to those cities and say, ‘El Paso’s a cool place.’”

Cover photo: The outdoor stage at El Paso’s Lowbrow Palace. (Photo courtesy of Lowbrow Palace)

René Kladzyk is a freelance reporter who also performs music as Ziemba. Follow her on Twitter @ziembavision.