Simply walking away would have been the easiest choice. It didn’t take long after the arrival of the COVID-19 virus for its threat to small businesses in the entertainment sector to become all too apparent, especially those — like Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs, NY — that largely depended upon live audiences. No matter the venue, those live audiences quickly dwindled down to nothing, and the reason was obvious: Those people were anxious to remain “live.”
In the case of Caffe Lena, the shows for the 2020 season had already been mostly booked — and, were in some cases, sold out. Dealing with this was a migraine headache waiting to happen, and executive director Sarah Craig must have been sorely tempted to simply send out a mass e-mail saying: “Sorry.”
The thing is, Caffe Lena isn’t just another music venue — it’s a classic, referred to by the Library of Congress as “an American treasure.” Located in a small, unobtrusive building in downtown Saratoga Springs, it was founded in 1960 and has since hosted hundreds of bands and singer/songwriters, ranging from Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger and Jerry Jeff Walker to Judy Collins and Mary Gauthier. It has shone an early light on up-and-coming talent and provided a comfortable, intimate setting for veterans in the twilight of momentous careers.
You can’t just walk away from a legend. Moreover, Caffe Lena had just undergone a total and costly renovation intended to maintain its intimacy while adding to the comfort. There is still not a bad seat in the house.
Given all that, Craig and the Caffe Lena board decided to roll with the pandemic’s punches. In the process, they went to great lengths to accommodate the scheduled musicians and the faithful customers waiting to hear them, and I thought an interview with Ms. Craig would be perfect to shed insight on how venue has stayed afloat.
Did this problem sneak up on you gradually, or did it immediately become apparent that something was going to have to be done to keep Caffee Lena active and vital in spite of it all?
“In certain ways, we were well-positioned to meet the challenge of the music industry shutdown. We’ve been streaming our concerts for six years. We have beautiful cameras and broadcast sound, and a tech crew with plenty of experience. Once NYS redesignated the venue as a broadcast studio we qualified as an Essential Business, which has allowed us to stream live from our stage.Thanks to the generosity of the thousands of people who have been watching the shows, we’ve generated more than $100,000 in paychecks for regional musicians since mid-March. There are a lot of people out there who really want to keep the music alive!”
Did Caffe Lena go through of a series of responses in varying degrees, or was one response initiated early on and adhered to?
“It was very disheartening to lose one by one the entire spring, then summer, then fall schedule of concerts that had been carefully and lovingly booked over the course of more than a year. At first we just postponed shows, and then re-postponed, and then finally gave up on them. Meanwhile, I was creating a whole new schedule of artists who were in NYS or states with no travel restrictions. I learned to keep a close eye on the Governor’s guidance. For a few months it was pandemonium, with the schedule being booked on a few days’ notice. It took a while to get control over things again. Now we have a rich balance of music, poetry, storytelling, music classes, and a bunch of events we’ve produced on our stage for other nonprofits. Next priority is to get our children’s programs back up and running.”
How did the caffe‘s regular customers respond to these measures?Many people regard our nightly events as a beacon of light during a dark time. They can join the chat stream and feel less alone as they take in the music with other people around the region, and sometimes around the world. Our viewership has increased 800% since April. We’re all facing the same fears, and it really helps to have a positive, social experience like “going to” a show each night. About 25% of the viewers donate something via the virtual tip jar, which is a lifeline for musicians and the venue. But, of course there is a sizable group that doesn’t want to watch online and has decided to just wait for the return of the real thing. I understand. We’re all LIVE music lovers, after all.
How did you work out arrangements for events that were already scheduled?It’s kind of hard to wrap your head around it, but there really is no live music industry at this time. No venues are open, and more and more are closing for good. Major agencies that have been around for decades have furloughed or layed off all but a handful of people. I’m mostly dealing directly with the artists, because their support teams are gone. Here’s the unique problem for this industry: it was shut down early. By the time the CARES Act came along with the Payroll Protection Program, which saved many, many small businesses, nearly every live performance venue had already laid off their staff, so they missed out on that funding. Because of the streaming, we had not laid anyone off and we were able to get one of the federal loans to cover payroll until June. It really helped to have our full staff on deck during that crazy period when we were reinventing everything. But it’s going to take time to reconstitute the music industry when things open back up. Right now there’s a mad rush to create a whole new industry around live streaming. And, thanks to tremendous grassroots lobbying, there will be bail out money for music venues in the HEROES Act.
Had anything you had done before prepared you for something like this?Caffe Lena marked it’s 60th anniversary in May. Lena Spencer’s determination to keep the venue going was epic, and so that’s the legacy we inherited. It’s a way of life–a mission, not a livelihood. For decades the venue was barely solvent. It put out a lot of music, and earned a lot of acclaim, but the money was always tight. Starting in 2015 we had to renovate the building or lose it. The fundraising and construction turned us into a much stronger, steadier organization. Longevity, infrastructure, dedication, know-how–we seem to have what we need to keep serving our community at this time.
Are there people you would like to mention who were instrumental in navigating through this “plague year”?I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of an ecosystem. While we may not know how each component contributes to the whole, we’ve learned the hard way that nothing is dispensable. Caffe Lena‘s niche consists of audience, artists, donors, agents, publicists, journalists, DJs, staff, volunteers. And that niche is part of a larger system that includes other venues, hotels, restaurants, even the streetscape of Saratoga. There’s a tendency to prioritize things that have a big economic impact. When it comes to nature, we care more about salmon than we do about spiders. In the arts, there’s more concern about big venues because of their ancillary impact on the downtown economy. But music starts on small stages, and without us, the big guys will starve. We’re the plankton. Not easy to see, but you can’t have whales without it. Even more radically, I think music matters because it’s part of what makes us fully human. Even if it never generates another penny for anyone, people will keep singing. So that’s my way of saying that everyone’s contribution to keeping Caffe Lena alive at this moment is equally precious, and every act of generosity and kindness is helping all music survive.
Darrell Laurant is a veteran journalist who previously worked at the News & Advance (Lynchburg). He published over 7,000 pieces in three decades. Darrell has covered papal visits, the Olympics, American sports, and political issues in Virginia. He has also written a variety of books, including "Inspiration Street: Two City Blocks that Helped Change America."