Manhattan club Le Poisson Rouge has built a successful streaming series from its venue with LPR.tv. Here, Meshell Ndegeocello performs at Le Poisson Rouge long before coronavirus, on Jan. 5, 2019. (Getty Images)

‘There’s always a silver lining,’ club’s co-founder says of streaming

The schedule tabs on venue websites don’t get much love these days. As the live industry enters a ninth month of near-total, pandemic-induced shutdown, save for drive-in shows and podded gigs, many event calendars have continued to gather dust.

But, this fall, Manhattan club Le Poisson Rouge sprang back to life. The 700-person Greenwich Village space, just a stone’s throw from fabled New York clubs like Cafe Wha? and the Village Vanguard, returned to action in October with LPR.tv, a streaming series serving up high-quality gigs from the LPR stage to audiences around the world.

“It’s been great, just having artists back in the room, albeit sans audience,” said David Handler, who co-founded Le Poisson Rouge in 2008. “Just seeing the green room full and that we have artists back in the room, and hearing a soundcheck and seeing our sound and lighting techs doing what they love to do. It’s actually quite moving.”

With an assist on the streaming infrastructure side from NoonChorus, a platform that has become known as one of the most artist- and venue-friendly in the space during the pandemic, Le Poisson Rouge has revived its eclectic programming with LPR.tv. In December, the series will present gigs by psych-rockers Sunflower Bean, emo outfit Oso Oso, and comic Chris Gethard, among others, and has already staged shows by the likes of GZA, Ryley Walker, and Cults. The schedule tab is active once again.

“It’s helping to nourish the industry ecosystem that we so utterly believe in, from sound and lighting techs to the musicians, getting them out of their homes or home studios and onto a stage, and even their representatives in the talent buying industry,” Handler said. “It even gives us an opportunity to speak to a global community in a way that we otherwise might not and give folks who maybe have never had a chance to get the LPR experience to do that.”

With LPR.tv, the venue has also become a leading example of the venue sphere’s pivot to using empty spaces for streaming.

As Handler puts it, “there’s always a silver lining – you just gotta find it.” The venue owner connected with VenuesNow to discuss launching LPR.tv, the future of the series, and the challenges his independent venue and others like it face in the months ahead.

How did you decide to launch LPR.tv?
LPR.tv was born out of this need to get back safely to what what we’re built for, which is putting on really unique, really bold and meticulously curated live performances. In March we shut down. We were, until October 1st, with the launch of LPR.tv, dormant. So much of what is difficult about this – in our personal lives, our professional lives, as a global community, and certainly in this country – is the uncertainty, or just not knowing how long this will be for and what our lives will look like [after]. In March, it was, OK, we’ll do what the rest of our industry knew to do: hunker down and become as lean as need be with the hopes of reopening in the summer. That strategy of battening down the hatches, and hibernating as cost efficiently as possible made sense when it was mid-March and we figured [the shutdown would only last] a few months. But when it was not coming back in the summer and then realizing there [wasn’t] even a light at the end of the tunnel for the fall… that was daunting. We really needed to get back to doing what we do best.

In addition to a la carte, single-show tickets, LPR.tv also offers subscriptions. Why was that important?
So much of what LPR is, to our public, is an inherent eclecticism and offering a wide breadth of sonic and visual experiences in a wide range of stylistic orientations – gamelan to string quartets to electro to metal, and everything in between. Certainly, we noticed over our decade-plus of doing this that while we have audiences that will maybe only check out an electro night or a string quartet or a singer-songwriter, there’s a lot of folks that are omnivorous in their consumption of music and consumption of culture in general. So, being counted on to deliver on so many stylistic fronts for so long in person, the feeling was that that kind of inclusion would warrant a subscription model – that we’ve earned enough of [our audience’s] trust for them to want to see whatever it is that we can bring to them. It’s always been a pleasure and a privilege, and one that we take very seriously, to introduce to our audience new styles of music, new voices, that they otherwise may not have taken in or had an open ear to. For that reason, it was a logical thing to have folks subscribe.

We’re very community oriented and I think a lot of folks just want to support the venue in an ongoing way. We certainly were very fortunate and grateful to have really strong support of our Kickstarter campaign [this summer]. Here, we have something to give back. It isn’t a gift or a donation from our public, but really something where they can count on getting from us a half-dozen-plus shows per month of really pristine quality. Seeing production is so important. It was very charming and interesting to have a window into an artist’s home or home studio and see them so generously putting out what they make, creatively, from a home space. But at this point, people frankly want a fully produced show. Having multiple HD cameras, beautifully edited live and with sound mixed from the board and really seeing a fully produced show is refreshing right now.

We are doing some shows with single-show tickets available alongside the subscription. Of course, the subscription is a way to, in a sense, really pledge a certain commitment to the venue and what we stand for so that we can be here when the time comes that our doors can open in person.

The bigger artists I follow, I see them on social media being sharing their shows and streams. It’s cool, but there’s this aspect of curation that’s missing now, in terms of venues serving me bands that I might not have heard. It’s much harder to discover things right now, I feel. The subscription model with LPR is interesting to me for that – to find new artists even in this unusual time.
Curation, now more than ever, is important, and [so is] having the trust of our listenership to introduce them to new stuff. Curation is so often manifest in the live space, where a venue has a booking personality, ours being that kind of eclecticism.

What has the reaction been like among artists and agents when you’ve approached them about participating?
Super receptive. As an independent venue coming to the table making bona fide offers, I think it was refreshing – especially coming from an independent venue – to be making that kind of commitment and to be so ready to roll up our sleeves and get back in it. The response has been overwhelming, such strong interest.

What are some challenges you’ve run into, and how have you met them?
In the very beginning, while there was enthusiasm from from the industry about what we were doing, there was probably a little bit of hesitation. “How will this work?” I’d like to think that there wasn’t much doubt that the execution of the shows, the way that they would look and sound, would be really impeccable, because that is something that we’ve taken great pride in in our physical space when people attend shows. But there may have been questions about that or how the subscription would work, how those deals get structured, how to monetize things, maybe quality control. There was a little bit of folks not wanting to be the guinea pig. Once a few caught on, then the floodgates opened.

What role will livestreaming play in the industry once audiences come back? Could you envision a future where you would have audiences in the house physically, but also be doing paid streams for people who, for whatever reason, might not be able to be there?
I don’t think there’s any replacement for the “real thing,” being in a room. You’re either in the room or you’re not, and that is a reality. [Livestreaming] will always, to a certain degree, be worth considering, and potentially continuing to do long after we’re able to open our doors, because there’s a lot of folks who might have a different idea of what safety is or who may live in a different hemisphere. It is a unique opportunity, throughout this experience, for us to be connected in not only our collective experience of quarantine or this pandemic in general, but to actually be able to connect remotely in ways that we maybe hadn’t valued before. But I think that the in-person experience is a pretty sacred one. I’m definitely open to continuing this model after we’re able to have people in the house physically, but we’ll also be really excited when folks can be in the room, of course.

Whenever I get any independent venue person on the line, I kind of have to ask NIVA’s efforts and the political state of these relief packages. I’m sure that LPR.tv is helping, but that you’re in dire financial straits.
It’s very unfortunate, what’s happening. We’re big supporters of NIVA. We’re very involved in the organization, and specifically the Save Our Stages initiative. If we’re not careful, the only brands that will survive this, or the industries that survive this, will be leaving out those that make life so interesting and so compelling. It’s the independents and the mom-and-pops that have the ability to shake things up and not go the corporate route and make the predictable presentations.

It’s not just about when we’re allowed to reopen, but how to reopen safely. A lot of businesses will die trying when they first start to reopen because that’s a very delicate time – in effect, it’s like opening all over again.

There’s this really awful carnage that happens from the top down. If a venue is fortunate enough to have the understanding, at least in spirit, from a landlord when they say to them, “I pay my rent with tickets and bar, and without the ability to generate money from those two places, I can’t pay my rent,” [landlords] may be fully understanding of that, but if they’re not receiving rent, and they depend on rent to pay their mortgage in the same way that the venue depends on tickets and bar to pay the rent, [landlords] can only afford to be so generous – if you’re even lucky enough for them to *want* to be generous. They have lenders that they have to make mortgage payments to. If the bank cuts the landlord’s throat, then the landlord cuts the tenant’s throat – a.k.a. the venue – and then everybody who works there… it’s pretty horrific. Unless there is leniency from the banks and the lending institutions to those property owners who have mortgages to pay, then there really is no ability for them to be compassionate to and understanding of the plight of the business that they rent to. [The public assembly industry] really needs special consideration and attention, otherwise there will be a huge void in American culture. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that.