A Park Slope Nightclub Commits to SurvivalCOVID-19 #SmallBizSpotlight | After a year without in-person shows, Barbès returns to what it does best: bringing people together around live music. Published: September 14, 2021
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In no way am I grateful for the pandemic, but I am grateful for the way it has expanded my capacity for gratitude. I have never missed so many people and places and things like I have over the past year and a half, and that yearning, however painful, forced me to get comfortable with — and even appreciate — the inextricable link between love and loss. We’ve all had to forge new avenues towards connection and fulfillment and pleasure; I hope that in laying that groundwork, you’ve unearthed at least a few glimmering gems.
Our sources of pure, unfettered joy are wildly idiosyncratic, but our experience of it is pretty universal. I recognized the particular COVID-induced gratitude I’m feeling in this week’s subject: Olivier Conan, the founder of Barbès, a low-key bar in Park Slope known for hosting multiple musicians of underrepresented genres every night. When Olivier recalled the first time he got to invite people back to Barbès post lockdown, fat goosebumps crawled up my arms as I remembered how I cried the first time I saw a movie in theaters last month, and all the other firsts (er, second firsts) I experienced this summer. His reverence for the experience of listening to music — live, together — is sacred. And whether or not live music was high on your “Things I Really Miss” list, I’m quite certain his delight over its return will resonate. Keep reading for our conversation.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
When did you open Barbès and what was the founding idea behind it?
I opened Barbès in 2002, and we’ve had music pretty much every night for 19 years, minus the pandemic. We have two to three acts a night, and we allow for the music to stretch out. A lot of clubs that do more than one act a night tend to have 45 minute sets, but we [give] 90 minute or two hour slots to musicians — that way they have time to experiment. The whole idea is that we're a lab, a safe place where musicians can experiment, come up with new projects, and see what works. It's not a very lucrative business, but it's a solid one.
Do you spotlight any specific genres?
It's pretty wide. Originally, the idea was to do the kind of music that you don't find anywhere else. So we have a lot of "world" music — I don’t like that expression, but [it refers to] music that's not necessarily anglo. We have a lot of Latin music, a lot of African music, a lot of Balkan stuff. We’ve become known for some of the residencies we've had … We have Stephane Wrembel, who's been here for 18 years. He's a gypsy swing guitarist, probably the most prominent one in the US now. He's played Carnegie Hall, and he still plays here every Sunday. We have a brass band called Slavic Soul Party; they were at the forefront of the Balkan music revival. They’ve played here every Tuesday for a long, long time. Then we have a lot of jazz, but more experimental stuff than just straight ahead jazz. We don't really do rock bands, indie rock, hip hop, singer-songwriters, all the very mainstream genres. There are a few exceptions, but in general we feel that a lot of places do that, so that's not what we need to do.
Let's dive into the pandemic. What did the lockdown mean for you?
We have a very small room that is poorly ventilated, so we had to stop. We closed down one day before it was mandated. I had a pretty good sense of what was coming … For the previous two years, I had been working on a new program for the Lyon Opera House in Europe, so I had been going back and forth, and France and Italy were about three weeks ahead of the US. I kept saying that things probably wouldn't get better till 2022, and I was kind of right.
I don't think anyone I've spoken to has made that accurate of a projection.
The Spanish Flu lasted 18 months to a year. There was no vaccine, but I mean, 20 percent of the planet or something ridiculous is vaccinated, so [this] is not that different from the Spanish Flu. It's worse in many ways, because of global travel and communication, so it seems like a year and a half to two years would be the minimum span of a pandemic.
When did you reopen?
We "reopened" in June  doing drinks to-go with a few tables set up outside. I essentially turned into a bottle shop. We spent a few months really concentrating on it, curating natural wines and small-batch producers of bourbon, mezcal, tequila, et cetera from all over the world. It worked a little bit … Not that well. We were always a place where music was the focus, so it was hard to turn into a cocktails to-go business.
How did you manage to pay the bills in the worst months?
We're very, very lucky to have an extremely sympathetic landlord. We paid a quarter of the rent for a good part of the pandemic, then one-third, and then full on since last May. Without that, we wouldn't have been able to survive. We got a very small PPP loan at first, and then a somewhat bigger one. And then we finally qualified for the Restaurant Revitalization Fund. We also did crowdfunding in the very first couple of weeks, which raised about $30,000. We have a very strong community around us, and that's really what sustains us. If we have a big problem, people come to our help. I'm so very thankful, both to the landlord and to the community that helped us.
When did you start doing live shows again?
April 10th . We started with a series called The Dirty Dozen Series, because we could only get 12 people physically distanced in the back room with masks. It was very emotional. A few people cried. I was one of them ... I've lived with live music my entire life; it's never happened before where I didn’t see live music for a year, so the fact that it came back was absolutely beautiful. There's nothing like live music. The only thing it could be compared to is going to church, but I'm not a religious person. This mixture of being with strangers and people we know, and experiencing something together at the same time … it's essential. And during the pandemic, I think we’ve realized that it is even more essential than we thought it was.
Currently, you live stream all your shows; were you doing that before COVID?
It's interesting, because I partnered with a startup called Big Room [a service for virtual event production] right before the pandemic … We were one of their beta rooms for streaming. And the very first live stream that we did was the day we closed. It was completely coincidental, and very emotional.
How often were you live streaming in peak lockdown?
I did one a week or something, just as a way to stay alive. There was not much money involved in it, but the fact that we kept sending the signal that we were trying everything we could to survive mattered. It mattered because people kept supporting us. Also, it was a way not to give up. The psychological element of the whole thing was important. I got depressed at a few points — I think most people did. I didn't think we'd survive. All these little things put together helped us on the mental front and financially. And now, it looks like we're back on track, although there's no way of knowing exactly what's going to happen.
How is the demand for live music right now? Are people consistently showing up?
They are. More than I was expecting. We're not fully back the way we were, but there are people every night. People don't hang out to drink; they come with a sense of purpose. They see the show, then they tend not to linger. But they come, even though Delta is causing a lot of people to get sick and a lot of fear. I know quite a number of vaccinated people who've got it, which has been very distressing, but none of them [got it] crazily. Hopefully it won't get worse. I was expecting people to lose confidence more than they have … but people are still going out for something that seems worth it to them. And I guess seeing music seems worth it.
What proportion of your audience is streaming versus visiting in person?
It's more in person ... But live streaming is slowly coming back. They didn't for a while, because everybody was so sick of Zoom meetings and living in front of the screen. I feel that [streaming] is going to be part of live music now forever. I've tried to make it look as good as possible — I redid my lights and the background of the stage — [so that] when you watch, it’s not just like surveillance cameras, which is what it feels like sometimes, or what it did at the beginning of the live streaming.
What kind of support have you received from the government — city, state, and federal — over the past year and a half?
The state has been no help. The only help we had was that loophole in the executive order that allowed booze to-go. And the minute the executive order was rescinded at the end of June, we lost that overnight. We had 12 hours to change our ways. The state assembly was supposed to vote on it and give bar and restaurant owners the right to sell to-go again, because that had become an important part of their income, and they never took it on. It looks like it'll never be allowed again, which was a big blow. At the city level, they’ve been allowing businesses to have tables outside, which has been a great program. They’ve offered a bunch of grants for musicians. So the city has actually done way better than the state in this case. And the federal government passed a number of acts, and funded restaurants, bars, venues, et cetera, and that's proving essential. I would not be open if I hadn't gotten the Restaurant Revitalization Fund money.
What’s next for Barbès?
I just spent a year and a half battling for survival, so now I'm committed to surviving. I'm not always sure why, but there's this sense of stubbornness when you have a business. I'm very attached to the place and to the community we have here. I'm going to try to keep making it work.
How to help:
Until next time,