The geography and experience of Baltimore’s DIY art and music scene have always reminded me of the area of Shida Road and Gongguan in Taipei, Taiwan, where I lived before moving to the US. From the Station North area, up through Old Goucher, Charles Village, and Waverly, establishments such as True Vine, Metro Gallery, the Copycat building, The Crown, the Red Room at Normals Bookstore, the Ottobar, and others are fixtures of the fluctuating scene. Over in Taipei, there’s the Revolver Bar along Roosevelt Road towards Guting, the WWR Record Store, Riverside Music Cafe, and Witch House, hidden in the alleys, the Wall Live House, and other staples of the Taiwanese indie music scenes.
These venues typically offer vigorous and sometimes overwhelming lineups, especially during their peak seasons. And although the pandemic has devastated music venues both in Baltimore and in Taipei, the latter was at least able to reopen halfway through last year, while Baltimore venues have remained mostly shuttered. In the past year, the American live music industry’s desolation has been witnessed all around the world. In December 2020, the magazine Pollstar reported that the industry projected a historic $30 billion loss in 2020, which is estimated to grow in 2021.
The music industry in Taiwan, by contrast, hasn’t been completely hampered, partly due to the country’s control of COVID-19. With a population of more than 23 million, the country has recorded only 967 confirmed COVID cases as of March 7, 2021. Long before the worldwide outbreak of COVID-19, Taiwan implemented strict public health measures, informed by its prior experience in responding to SARS. In addition to the necessary travel ban to foreigners and restrictions on large events in the first half of 2020, a lot of events in the second half of the year were able to continue after the lockdowns were lifted, and Taiwan’s live music scene was blooming until the end of the year.
KK Yeh, a record store owner in Taipei, shared with me a recap of LUCfest, held in Tainan at the end of November 2020. The audience packed every show. To those of us in the United States who have been living entirely in a cocoon due to the pandemic, with no shows to attend, the live music scene in Taiwan is like a parallel universe.
Tecla Tesnau, who took over ownership of the Ottobar in 2019, was preparing to book all of the shows for 2020 with event planner and talent buyer Todd Lesser, just before COVID-19 changed everything. Now, after a year of hibernation, the Baltimore art scene is beginning to reopen (with capacity limits, masks, and other safety precautions). Art and culture venues in Baltimore are figuring out how to make this return work for them and their community.
Ottobar is just a drop in the ocean when considering all of the independent businesses and artists in the industry across the US suffering the effects of the pandemic, with insufficient support from the government. In March 2020, the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) was established to help venues pursue federal support such as business recovery grants. In the second half of the year, Baltimore’s Metro Gallery used NIVA’s Save Our Stages fundraising project for help. In November, Ottobar launched its “No Stage Diving” mixtape, cooperating with many Baltimore musicians to raise funds through digital compilations on Bandcamp. As 2021 begins, the recovery of the indie music scene in Baltimore is still an unpredictable road.
As the scholar and promoter Robert Cluley posits, “a promoter is an engineer of aesthetic experiences, who uses forms of networking or branding to create ties among the creative communities and offer experiences that cultivate charisma and social capital for the city and its people.” I have always believed that independent music promoters and venue operators are specialists who need both a fighting spirit and a strong will to dare to take risks. In addition to creating beautiful moments through live events, they add cultural value to their city and create occasions for different generations to meet through live music.
The aura of live shows, however, belongs to the performer and the audience. What connects these two and makes flow the supply and demand of live music are these incubating vessels which we call live music venues, and the promoters that facilitate the steady stream of opportunity for people to come and share in a cultural experience. Without them, it is nearly impossible to make these music communities cohere.
To gain a clear perspective regarding the state of live music in the face of a global pandemic, I interviewed three promoters who are driving forces in their respective music scenes. KK Yeh operates a record store and label, White Wabbit Records (WWR), and co-founded Taiwan’s P Festival and LUCfest (along with Weining Hong). On the other side of the world, here in Baltimore, there’s The Ottobar owner Tecla Tesnau and promoter Todd Lesser. Both venues, The Ottobar and White Wabbit Records, have operated for more than 20 years. Yeh, Tesnau, and Lesser spoke with me about the importance of a robust local music industry, adapting during the pandemic, and deeply missing the visceral experience of live music.