COVID-19 has put independent music venues in a state of crisis. As nightlife spaces across the U.S. shuttered in mid-March due to the pandemic, many set up their own emergency relief funds on GoFundMe and other donation sites for furloughed staff. The Brooklyn metal venue Saint Vitus went in a different direction. On April 7th, the venue launched its own Kickstarter page, utilizing a crowdfunding platform that is largely designed for startup projects and initiatives (e.g. albums, smartphone apps, board games, etc.) and not for helping struggling businesses keep the lights on.
“Saint Vitus Stays Home: Help beloved Brooklyn venue & metal bar Saint Vitus survive the COVID-19 closure,” the campaign title read at the top of the Kickstarter page. The campaign listed a slew of rewards for potential donors, ranging from $5 stickers and $30 limited-edition tees to $75 signed photos and $100 drum lessons with Thursday’s Tucker Rule; top donors could snag a year’s worth of free shows. The campaign’s goal was set at $15,000 – a purposely modest amount that was met in under three hours. But by the week of June 5th — the campaign ends on Saturday — Saint Vitus had raised nearly 10 times that initial goal to over $125,000.
Success stories have been rare for artists, concert promoters and small venues owners crippled by the pandemic. And with national unemployment at more than 13 percent, getting folks who are already short on income to contribute to a grassroots fundraiser can be a hard sell. But David Castillo, co-owner and music booker of Saint Vitus, attributes the Kickstarter’s success to the club’s status not only as a music venue, but as having a recognizable merchandise component. “It’s not unlike CBGB,” he says. “If you saw someone wearing a CBGB T-shirt, you’d probably assume they’re into punk or New Wave or hardcore.” And much like CBGB before it, that brand has extended far beyond the venue itself – you’re just as likely to see someone wearing one of Saint Vitus’ “Satan is great, whiskey is super” T-shirts for the aesthetic as for a devotion to death metal.
Tucked behind an unassuming black door near the northern tip of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, Saint Vitus had been operating near-continuously before the pandemic since it first opened in 2011. The venue’s cramped bar and limited capacity have only added to its sizable reputation as a vital performance space – metal legends like Megadeth and Pentagram have played there, but so have acts as diverse as Blink-182 and Zola Jesus, who sang part of her set outside in a snowstorm. It’s the type of place that lends itself to rock legends and legends-in-the-making alike: In 2014, after Nirvana was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, surviving members Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl hopped over to Saint Vitus to perform a more intimate tribute show, with guest vocalists Joan Jett, Kim Gordon and St. Vincent.
Frequent patrons and performers say the campaign’s success has less to do with the big names involved – though having A-listers sign on to the campaign’s rewards certainly helps – and more to do with trust and camaraderie: it’s a stage that’s run by and for musicians, with Castillo performing in two bands himself. “My community are the artists who have struggled to begin with, let alone having the venue [that they play at] shut down,” Ben Weinman, former lead guitarist of Dillinger Escape Plan, tells Rolling Stone. “But with Saint Vitus, they kind of roll right into that same category. It’s run by artists, it’s a place for artists, and it’s super DIY.”
“The space extends beyond simply hosting live music,” musician Stephen Brodsky writes in an email to Rolling Stone. “TV shows like [heavy metal-themed talk show] Two Minutes to Late Night got its start there. They’ve got heavy metal yoga classes, gothy arts and crafts events, groovy movie nights, book signings for rockers-turned-writers… the list goes on.”
That level of creativity caught the attention of Meredith Graves, director of music at Kickstarter and frontwoman for noise-punk band Perfect Pussy. Working with Castillo, co-owner Arty Shepherd and social media manager Caroline Harrison, Graves used the Saint Vitus campaign as a jumping-off point for Lights On, a new initiative from the startup that aims to support music venues, art galleries, festivals, performance spaces and other cultural entities during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. Under Lights On, venue owners can utilize the Kickstarter project template to fund their businesses as long as the outcome and rewards for donors are themselves creative projects, including tutorials, workshops, vouchers for special events, livestreaming and podcasts.
“Figuring out a first initial way to get a venue onto Kickstarter as a creative project that we want to bring to life, as per our company motto, was always in the service to hopefully bring lots and lots of venues onto Kickstarter,” Graves says. “Lights On is blessedly what ended up coming as a result of that initial aspiration.”
Graves also praised the Saint Vitus team for taking advantage of a Kickstarter tool that in the past had been underutilized: the ability to create more rewards each week, sometimes twice a week, as the campaign goes on, which generated a constant anticipation for each new poster reveal or merch drop. “You let the world know that twice a week, you put new rewards on your page, and so for the whole six weeks the campaign runs, people will set alarms on their phone, knowing that on Tuesday at five o’clock you’re about to find all this weird signed Anthrax stuff, or bass lessons from someone, or whatever the case is. It’s kept people gripped.”
Even with the outpouring of support, individual funds for Saint Vitus and other indie venues can only do so much; live music has halted indefinitely, with the industry not set to reopen until 2021. Over a dozen small venues contacted by Rolling Stone say they believe they can only stay in business through the end of July without some sort of financial assistance – but with the specifics of the pandemic evolving day-by-day, even that isn’t a certainty. Coalitions like the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA), which Saint Vitus is a member of, have sprung up to demand crucial federal aid such as tax relief and expanded insurance, and Castillo says there is an ongoing conversation of how best to allocate the funds already raised. (Following Kickstarter policy, the money raised from the Saint Vitus campaign won’t be available to the venue until its end date on June 5th.)
“It’s an ongoing project, so I guess the short answer is, we’re figuring it out,” he said. “And the primary objective is to come back to work and do that, while balancing the immediate needs and stuff at the moment. But knowing that we have money coming in right now is a great thing.”