Saturday, July 20, 2024

Optic Bloom performs in a video streamed through the Once Virtual Venue. (Image via YouTube)

It feels as though life is on hold today, paused as we hold our collective breath and wait for the Covid-19 pandemic to end. As we all have experienced the exhausting fear of lockdown, social distancing has created a sense of malaise and left many people feeling alone and isolated. It’s hard to find a way to enjoy the comfort of company. Event spaces and other music venues are closed, but we humans need to participate in our social and creative activities to feel safe. While we know it’s not the same as being together in person, we at Once Somerville are grateful that technology platforms are helping independent venues such as ours to remain connected with our venue family, staff and audiences, and to continue to foster a welcoming community full of creativity and togetherness.

Work moved from the office to the living room – or, for singer/songwriters, from the stage to the living room. Now the live performance industry faces a colossal challenge because of our near complete inability to gather, a huge issue being addressed by organizations such as the National Independent Venue Association.. Even with the craziness of being closed physically, we have chosen to seek out a silver lining and launch an online video channel called the Once Virtual Venue. It can showcase and support the music we love and miss hosting in our venue, while keeping our name and brand vital until we can open again. Online infrastructure, built by technology platforms over the years, has given our event space the chance to stay hopeful, even as our stage is dark.

I had actually been listening to people thinking about how to host events virtually for years. I recognized the accessibility it promotes within communities who can’t make it out to every show – or any show at all, for that matter – as well as being a revenue stream to increase sales for bands and venues. So, while it took a global pandemic to finally push our operation to make an online venue happen, the community we have been able to foster has been nothing less than inspiring. Particularly for the LGBTQ+ community and other traditionally marginalized groups that have always found a welcome home at our venue, being able to find a platform for connection and art during such turbulent times has been an important option and a heart-warming experience.

JJ Gonson. (Photo: Adrienne Mathiowitz)

Today, our venue exists entirely on YouTube, with regular events streamed to our channel and promoted through social media. Whether artists prerecord their performances on Zoom or go live through our channel, we’re grateful for the opportunity to showcase performances that bring joy to audiences in the Somerville area and beyond.

Obviously, maintaining operations through the pandemic hasn’t been easy. At the end of the day we’re still a small business with staff to pay and customers to bring through our (virtual) doors. With no bar sales or revenue, we’re asking for donations online, and the generosity and power of our online networks has allowed small-time artists to continue doing what they love, employees to keep working and a small-business owner to keep operations alive. 

We are learning that a crisis can be when we are at our most creative. Cooped up in our homes and looking at the obstacles ahead, we envision the world as we’d like to see it. Luckily, that change that we seek is on the horizon – change that will build a creative small-business community capable of innovating our way through these incredibly hard challenges with the help of technology.

As guidance from our state’s officials changes, we’re looking forward to reopening our doors to in-person performances and, ultimately, audiences. That said, we won’t abandon the digital platforms that have allowed us to stay connected with our community during these times. They are not a placeholder, but will be an additional way to reach out to more people and expose them to artists they might otherwise not have discovered.

Once is not alone in having embraced a new way to do business. A recent study from the Connected Commerce Council found that one in three small-business owners would have been forced to close all or part of their business during the pandemic without access to digital tools.

Many political leaders harbor anti-tech sentiment motivated by misrepresentations of the role that technology can play in our lives. Not all digital interaction is negative. In our case it has enabled us to stay vital instead of withering and dying. We feel that it is up to our elected officials to ensure digital technologies remain in the hands of entrepreneurs across America, so we can continue building creative spaces and connecting communities – not just in a crisis, but always.

JJ Gonson is the owner of Once Somerville, founder and chef at Cuisine en Locale and a rock photographer published in books and magazines such as Rolling Stone, Mojo, Q and Spin.