Safe for now, Brooklyn music venue Barbès sees a cloudy future
Olivier Conan and Vincent Douglas grew up playing in bands together in Paris. Both eventually relocated to Brooklyn, where they found themselves frustrated by the lack of opportunities to perform and hear music outside the mainstream. In the early 2000s, they decided to do something about it.
“There was no music in South Brooklyn; it was starting a little bit in Williamsburg back then,” Conan said. “So the idea was really just to give musicians a home, and also make sure that it was not a factory of bands the way you had in most clubs in Manhattan.”
They found an empty storefront on a largely residential street in south Park Slope, three blocks from Prospect Park. Having lived in the neighborhood for years, Conan knew it housed a sizable community of musicians who would welcome the chance to play nearby. “That’s changed quite dramatically in the past few years with the increase in real estate, but that was the original idea,” he said.
In 2003, they opened Barbès, a bar and venue named after a North African neighborhood in Paris. Today, it’s a fixture of Brooklyn’s music scene. Crowds regularly pack the small back-room performance space, which hosts multiple shows almost every night of the year. Weekly sets by internationally influenced groups like Slavic Soul Party and The Mandingo Ambassadors are interspersed with acts specializing in everything from opera to something described as “music from another planet.”
But despite its popularity, the venue has found itself caught up in the same forces that threaten the arts ecosystem throughout the city. “The cost of doing business over the past years has increased tremendously, mostly from rent and all kinds of expenses,” Conan said. Utilities, for instance: the bar’s water bills mysteriously rose by thousands of dollars at one point, a problem that took two years to resolve.
Operating on small profit margins to begin with, the business fell behind on its payments and began borrowing money from the bank and a sympathetic landlord. But the city eventually placed a $20,000 lien on its building, and Conan reluctantly decided to launch a crowdfunding campaign in an attempt to pay it off, along with $50,000 owed to the bank.
Little more than a week later, its Indiegogo campaign had already reached over half this amount. The campaign, which ended on June 18, raised a total of $64,713—92% of its goal. “We’re out of immediate trouble,” Conan told me. “It looks like... it will be possible to operate for the next 5 years, which will mark the end of our current lease."
Barbès is more fortunate than many of its peers. A recent report produced by Boston Consulting claimed that more than 20% of New York’s smaller venues have closed in the past 15 years.
The report, "Music in New York City: Economic Impact, Trends, and Opportunities," is generally bullish about the city’s music business, but identifies fault lines exactly where you might expect. The segment of the industry the authors identify as “mass music consumption”—a category that involves major live performances, broadcasting, online streaming, and record sales—is booming, with high average salaries and an expanding number of jobs. The growth of the city’s digital music service sector, which currently boasts more startups than any other city in the world, has played a significant role in this success.
At the other end of the industry, a group identified as “local artist communities”—which includes the actual musicians, along with venues like Barbès, schools, and rehearsal spaces—is struggling.
There is some good news: average annual earnings in this category rose slightly faster than inflation between 2010 and 2015. But the overall picture is bleak. Rising costs and other challenges are putting pressure on musicians and the services they rely on, making a notoriously difficult profession even more so.
From Conan's perspective, these problems are all too apparent. "I'm pretty pessimistic," he told me. "I think we're going through such a horribly brutal phase of... I don't know, economic oppression, almost; I don't know what you call it. Since cities have become desirable again, there's no safe place for you to create low-cost environments that foster art."
Music in New York City was commissioned by The Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment (MOME), which just last year became the first city agency to be tasked with looking after the local music industry. MOME has historically focused on film and TV, and, according to a recent press release, hopes to “do for music what it has done for the city’s thriving film and production industry, growing and supporting it for the benefit of all New Yorkers.”
The report set out a number of recommendations for strengthening the economics of the music sector: sponsoring business training for musicians, increasing support for local festivals, reducing bureaucracy around live events, bringing more high-profile industry events to the city, and helping digital start-ups access support and funding. These ideas are reflected in last month’s New York Music Month, a MOME initiative billed as “the first-ever citywide celebration of New York City’s music industry, artists, and fans.”
Conan, who was interviewed for the Music in New York City report, is glad that the City is studying these issues, but doesn't see many easy answers for helping venues like his thrive in today’s New York.
In particular, he’s not sure how cultural organizations that choose to operate outside of the traditional nonprofit arts model can survive in an increasingly harsh real estate market. To him, the decision comes down to curatorial independence: different funding models help bring different perspectives to light, the theory runs. "A not-for-profit is in many ways indebted to the people who fund it, which is not necessarily a good thing," he said.
Operating as a for-profit business dependent on alcohol sales gives his staff complete control over programming, but also puts Barbès in a sort of cultural gray zone, with no protection from harsh market forces. "I think governments should be involved in culture," he said—but since his establishment is, from an official perspective, simply a bar, "it's kind of hard to convince people that we are actually a cultural place."
Published in Soft City in July 2018.
Soft City was a personal project exploring the relationship between cities and culture.