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Kae Burke, co-founder of House of Yes / Photo credit: Brendan Burke

A Bushwick Nightclub Reaffirms Its Values

COVID-19 #SmallBizSpotlight | The pandemic has pushed House of Yes to become “more than a nightclub.” Published: November 10, 2020

Programming note: This article is part of a weekly column on small businesses in New York during COVID-19. To get #SmallBizSpotlight articles straight to your inbox, sign up here. You'll receive one email every Tuesday afternoon. Thanks for reading!

Hi everyone,

What a weekend! I was halfway through a physical therapy appointment when I heard the news — delivered by the high-pitched squeal of another patient watching CNN on the stationary bike. We’ve been waiting so long to take a breath and enjoy this moment. But we still have a lot of work ahead (for starters: support the Georgia Senate runoff by donating to Fair Fight and phone banking with Flip the West).

While we’re on the theme of celebration, this week’s interview is with Kae Burke, co-founder of House of Yes, a nightlife venue in Bushwick famous for queer-friendly parties featuring aerialists, pole dancers, fire breathers, and other circus-centric performers. Barred from hosting in-person dance parties, the founders are reimagining how to bring their community together — and, in the process, expanding what the club stands for. Keep reading for our conversation.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Let’s zoom back in time to March: What did you do after closing your doors?
We very quickly pivoted to doing Zoom. House of Yes is more than a job for so many of the people we work with; it’s a home. So we started having little digital meetups with our internal performance artists, crew, and staff, just trying to support each other. And then we pivoted into doing digital dance parties [for the public].

What did it take to kick start that public programming?
It just took having a team of people willing to do it. We have six people on our core team [in addition to five business partners] who are still operating and innovating our brand. A lot of it was experimenting and being creative with the technology. Even if we’re not having the general public over [at the physical venue] for dance parties, that doesn't mean that House of Yes is not doing anything behind the scenes.

How has your online programming evolved?
We're still doing the digital dance parties on Zoom, but people get fatigue. [During the summer,] people were going out more and having little get-togethers themselves, so it wasn't really necessary anymore [like it was in the spring]. We took some time to regroup and keep innovating. A couple months later, we launched our Patreon. That's been a really interesting way to create a whole experience with content like videos and Yes University, which is online learning and engagement with thought leaders.

How are you offering those virtual experiences to your Patreon supporters?
It’s interesting, a lot of different [virtual event] platforms have been popping up. You wonder which ones are going to stand up and survive. We've been approached by a variety of players and startups in that space, and when we were hit up by this group Artery, they caught our attention because they are quite unique.

What sets them apart for you?
The attention to detail, the artistry, and the ability to build a visually unique world. That was something that we didn't see other platforms offering. A lot of them have a lot of technical capabilities with video and sound, but with this one, I'm like, "Oh, this is art.” House of Yes was started as an art collective, and so for me, [the Artery partnership] brought us back to our roots of being a visually based artistic experience. It just so happens that we've been doing dance parties because dance parties make money, but we started in theater and visual art.

What does it feel like to inhabit the virtual world of House of Yes?
You have an avatar and can walk around a 2-D space. It feels like a video game that's super artsy. Kind of like being at a festival because you get to discover new visual stimulation and bump into people. You can see somebody else wandering in this virtual space, walk up to them and be like, "Hi." And then when you get up to them, you get to see what their video looks like.

What do virtual events offer that in-person ones don’t?
The most exciting part is that we’re connecting with people that normally wouldn't come out to a dance party in Brooklyn. Maybe they have kids, maybe they have obligations, maybe they just went through surgery. Maybe being in loud, crazy, crowded rooms is scary [for them], even before COVID. We have a lot of people joining our digital space from Canada, Thailand, Australia, Tokyo … It's a really cool way for us to connect with an international audience.

You set up an outdoor cafe in the summer, but it got shut down by the State Liquor Authority. I’m sure that was a financial blow, but how did it impact your community more broadly?
We're not a restaurant, so it wasn't a complete disappointment not to be forced to be a restaurant anymore. It made us realize what was important to us and how we could still keep our community alive and together without serving alcohol, because it's not like we lost our space. We didn't lose our brand. We didn't lose our creative core. We didn't lose our team. We just can't serve liquor. It definitely hurts us financially, but we'll get through it. It's a long road, and this is a pothole. It's not the death of us. We're pretty unshakable.

There's never been a deficit of talent in New York.

There’s been a mass exodus out of urban centers like New York City during the pandemic. Do you worry about losing your network of rotating performers?
I think a lot of people are just taking a sabbatical. People come and go; I support anybody who is making the best decisions for themselves and what they want out of life. There's never been a deficit of talent in New York. Sometimes you just have to find new people outside of your bubble. What’s cool about branching out and exploring digital capabilities [is that] now, some of our performers are tuning in from LA, Austin, Atlantic City ...

How has the small businesses community in Bushwick expanded or contracted over the pandemic?
Right now, there's a lot of research and information sharing with neighbors we've had for years that we've just never had the time to connect with. Before, we were kind of existing on our own, and now, a lot of the energy is, We're in this together. It's been really lovely. Emotional support is a very important thing right now, feeling like you're not alone.

Speaking of support and advocacy, how do you feel about the government’s response to this crisis on behalf of small businesses?
The lack of response is the most concerning. Unfortunately, how politics work in an election year is that nobody's making any movements. When there is a changing of the guard, so to speak, it's not like they're going to push forward any federal funding or aid.

Have you received any emergency relief funds?
Yeah, we got the PPP [loan], but that'll only get you so far, especially for our industry. I mean, let's face it: everyone's in a rough spot.

Did you apply for any other relief?
There's not a lot of free money going around. You're basically applying for debt, so let's be real about that. Have we decided to take on more debt? That's too personal, and I don't want to talk about it, but we are considering our options.

How are you managing rent?
One day at a time. I don't feel at liberty to go on record talking about these things. We are having evolving conversations with our landlord, and we are hoping that they will be compassionate. When everything's changing so often, we can't have something written that was true last week, but totally not true this week.

Zooming out, how do you think this crisis will impact your business in the coming months?
It's made us take into account our true values. We've had to take a step back, like so many people right now, and ask, "What do we really care about?" There’s more intention behind the activities we're presenting these days. We've been having a lot of beautiful conversations with our partners and our core team about our mission, our vision, our five-year growth plan. It's gifted us the time to consider the bigger picture.

What does that bigger picture look like?
We're still finding it, but in essence, we exist as a creative collective that brings people together to celebrate life. We're so much more than a nightclub. The original House of Yes was not a nightclub, either. It's taken us back to our original truth. A lot of the best culture is the culture that's been able to innovate. Evolution might be scary, but it is necessary and can have a really wonderful outcome.

How to help:

Until next time,

Curated By

Frances Thomas

Quiddity Content Editor

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