SF’s Bottom of the Hill could reopen live music today. Here’s why they won’t.

In late February of 2020, we checked in with Bottom of the Hill for a story about how the legendary 1990s indie rock venue was faring in a changing San Francisco. There were growing pains, of course, but the overall answer seemed to be “just fine.” The owners of the Potrero Hill club were preparing for a week of Noise Pop Festival shows and griping about new techie neighbors snatching up their parking — usual San Francisco stuff.

But they couldn’t have anticipated that a few weeks later, their stage would go dark — and that over a year later, their club would still be quietly collecting dust.

“It was unbelievably awful for the first six months,” said Bottom of the Hill co-owner and booker Lynn Schwarz. “It was so unfathomable that we could be closed for even four days in a row, much less two weeks, much less three months, and then all of a sudden we’re like, ‘Oh this is really, really happening. We’re in it for the long haul.'”

On March 13, 2020, the band Knuckle Puck was on stage sound checking for a sold-out show at BOTH when Mayor London Breed’s citywide shutdown order came down.

Since then, the venue’s owners have kept their noses to the ground, getting help wherever they could: a grant from Hardly Strictly Bluegrass and a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan, plus fundraisers with the Independent Venue Alliance, a pandemic-era organization they helped create with 31 other San Francisco venues.

Bay Area-based Nobody's Baby plays at Bottom of the Hill during the annual Valentine's Day Heartbreak Club show.

Bay Area-based Nobody’s Baby plays at Bottom of the Hill during the annual Valentine’s Day Heartbreak Club show.

Leslie Hampton

While Schwarz credits “blind optimism” to the fact that they never really considered the possibility the club would close for good, things are really, actually starting to look a lot more promising. Outside Lands is scheduled to take place in October. California officials announced that indoor concerts, theater performances and other private events and gatherings can reopen April 15 with reduced capacity and other safety precautions.

On Wednesday, San Francisco released some guidelines for indoor events and performances: Venues may reopen with 35% capacity, as long as all participants wear masks, distance and show either proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test before they enter the venue.

“I’ve continued booking the whole time, so I have booked so many shows three or four times and kept moving it down the line,” said Schwarz. “It started to feel like I was Sisyphus pushing that boulder up the hill, you know, like it was never going to happen. So that’s what’s particularly nice now to think that maybe, unless we have a fourth wave, we’re going to open soon.”

That said, don’t expect BOTH to fling its doors open today. While some larger outdoor festivals such as Stern Grove Festival are looking at returning as early as June 20, smaller indoor venues like BOTH, which has a capacity of 250, will hold out a bit longer. That’s in part because for now, they could only reopen with a significantly reduced capacity — which just doesn’t make sense for a business with such tiny profit margins.

“Our overhead is such that it doesn’t make sense for us to open with half measures, and it’s going to cost so much money to open and put in all these health measures,” explained Schwarz. “… You struggle to break even on a good year, so knowing that that people will still be hesitant to go out if you’re still 6 feet away from everybody, I don’t see it being open until we’ve really conquered this disease and we have herd immunity.”

Alternative rock band Foreign Air plays at Bottom of the Hill.

Alternative rock band Foreign Air plays at Bottom of the Hill.

Leslie Hampton

Similarly sized independent San Francisco venues echoed this sentiment, such as comedy and music cabaret PianoFight.

“To open, anything that’s less than full capacity is going to speed up your burn rate, and it’s a money losing proposition,” said Rob Ready of PianoFight. “So I think most venues are going to probably stay closed until they can open at full or close to full capacity.”

Plus, added BOTH co-owner Kathleen Owen, “If we had 20% capacity, you would get 20% talent. Nobody’s going to go on tour across the country and play for 20% of our capacity.”

Instead, BOTH is looking (optimistically) at an August or September reopening. They already have a few shows on the schedule: Surfer Blood on Aug. 17 and King Buffalo on Sept. 15.

But to do so, they’ll need more help: The venue’s owners are applying to the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant and also looking to secure another PPP loan. Their return won’t be cheap — from finally switching to a system that takes credit cards, to installing hand sanitizing stations, to upgrading their ventilation system and hiring back staff.

They also don’t want to jump the gun on reopening for safety reasons.

SF-based singer-songwriter Travis Hayes plays at Bottom of the Hill.

SF-based singer-songwriter Travis Hayes plays at Bottom of the Hill.

Leslie Hampton

“[If they say,] ‘You can open in May at full capacity,’ I would feel really weird about that. … We wouldn’t have our staff do that,” said Schwarz. “Until it’s easy to get an appointment to get a vaccine, I wouldn’t feel comfortable opening.”

But once it’s safe to welcome back crowds, the BOTH partners are anticipating a huge surge in demand for live music, from both bands chomping at the bit to tour and fans eager to sing along.

“I do envision that we’re going to be given the green light and all of a sudden, it’s really hard to book a tour quickly,” said Schwarz. “So I’m going to get on the phone — and I’m already starting to line this up  — and go to all of my strongest local bands and be like, help me fill dates for these early times. But then yes, I absolutely think my inbox is also going to be completely full of tours trying to book. But I’m ready for that. I’m ready to work really hard.”

Other independent San Francisco venues, however, are looking at this unprecedented reopening period more warily. Noah Bennett of dance club 1015 Folsom projects that when concerts first start up again, small venues will be at a disadvantage.

“Corporate companies have used this time to consolidate their power and fill out their calendar,” said Bennett. “It’s going to be hard for smaller rooms or independent rooms or mom-and-pop shops to be able to keep up. … So before you go out and support a large national corporation, say, ‘Hey, what can I do to support the local venues?’”

Los Angeles indie band Chotto Ghetto plays at Bottom of the Hill.

Los Angeles indie band Chotto Ghetto plays at Bottom of the Hill.

Leslie Hampton

For those who beeline back to the intimate, sweaty, independent clubs that define San Francisco, there’s a lot to look forward to. For one, a “really big” 30-year-anniversary party is on the horizon this year for BOTH. And if you’re wondering if the germiest of concert experiences will resurface — i.e. mosh pits and stage diving — the BOTH owners think yes.

“Yes. Those are definitely going to come back, because that’s all young energetic people who feel invincible,” laughed Schwarz.

And smushing together like a can of sardines with your fellow enraptured fans to the tune of your favorite singer bellowing aerosolized particles across the room? That will come back, too.

“What makes our venue so great is that it’s so up close and personal and the singer is going to lean over the stage and like spit in your face,” said Schwarz. “And that, believe it or not, that’s what makes us cool.”

“We’re not going to open until we bring back spittle,” joked Owen.

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