A conversation with with Sam Epstein, owner and operator of the Jungle Community Music Club
When did the Jungle first open?
May 2019. It used to be a police car garage. Ending in the ’80s, this building was the police headquarters, and so this is kind of an offshoot of that building in the center of Union Square. The garage itself was kind of abandoned, or it just wasn’t really used except as extra storage, really since the ’80s. So we opened May 2019 after putting in a stage, putting in a bar, and then we opened as a community music club—the Concrete Jungle—for live local music. And we were open from May 2019 for about a year until the pandemic happened. We also have a restaurant here, so it’s a bar and restaurant.
Did the Jungle used to have spin classes as well?
That was something unique that we started, but it just wasn’t very popular, so we only did that for a little bit when we opened in 2019.
I see. And when you opened in 2019, what was your vision for the niche that the Jungle would have in the community?
Just to have a small space that’s supporting local live music. We have all genres come in here, and so seven days a week, it’s just a really intimate space where we have local live music. We have a lot of diversity in terms of who comes in and plays. It’s almost always local musicians, but on any given night it’ll be a show that’s just a totally different genre from the night before.
What programming does the Jungle usually have?
The only thing that’s always occurring is every Wednesday we have a free open-mic night. I feel like that’s kind of the most tangible way to see where we’re a community music club. But then on weekends—Thursday, Friday, Saturday—it’ll usually be a $10 ticket and sold out, really busy. Whether it’s a hip-hop show or a rock show, just a really busy, packed space. It feels like a big concert because there’s a big stage and you’re kind of packed in with 85 people—that’s our capacity. And the other nights it’s a lot more intimate shows and it’s really a small music club. It’s not really like a pub, but it’s that kind of energy and capacity. It’s fewer people, but we still have a proper stage and there’ll be several musicians who are booked.
What kind of audience do your shows normally attract?
On Wednesdays it’s always almost all musicians. There are some people who just come to get some dinner and enjoy the music, but largely all musicians on Wednesdays. And then the other nights, it varies: a lot of local people from Union Square, but also people really come from all over the Greater Boston area. When we say local musicians, it’s just musicians from all over Greater Boston. And so musicians are traveling and I think a lot of people are traveling to see them. All different types of genres of music and different people from all over Greater Boston.
It’s definitely one of the more affordable ways to support local live music. We usually don’t charge a cover Sunday through Wednesday night, and then Thursday, Friday, Saturday it’s almost always $10 at the door.
So you were only open for about a year before COVID. When did COVID regulations start affecting your business and what did that look like?
At first, we published that for any musician who wanted to cancel their show, we allowed them to cancel with no questions asked. So we had some shows canceled, but basically we operated with shows on and off right up until the last day, when the governor ordered a shut down, around the middle of March in 2020. We didn’t know it was airborne at that point—all we heard from the CDC and everyone was just to sanitize all the services, and we were doing that. We were just basically following the advice until they told us to shut down completely.
Did you do any virtual programming?
We did. Somerville is actually the only city in Massachusetts that completely banned all outdoor and indoor shows, but what we were able to do was operate an outdoor restaurant patio, and we would livestream local musicians. Instead of a live concert, we’d have musicians inside on the stage, and we would live stream that through Facebook over the internet and people would be able to watch on their phones wherever they were, or at our outdoor restaurant patio. That was the closest we were able to get in 2020.
When were shut down completely?
We chose to voluntarily shut down completely in October. It was a complete shutdown by the government order from March until June of 2020. Then we opened the outdoor restaurant patio only for June through October. In October it was getting too cold to really be outside on the patio—we didn’t have heaters or anything like that, it was kind of makeshift because we never expected to have an outdoor patio. And so, in October we made an announcement that we were voluntarily shutting down because we just felt that it was too cold to be serving outside and we felt that it was just not safe to have customers inside until there was a vaccine. Then we were completely shut down by our choice from October 2020 until we had the vaccines, and we reopened in June this month of 2021.
You started in person operations just again this June. How has that transition been?
It’s been great. We had an awesome response from local musicians and fans and friends and local people from the neighborhood, who have come out to support all of the musicians. But we still started slow because we expected, when we were planning ahead, that it would only be an outdoor patio. It was maybe a week or week and a half before we actually opened in June that we heard that we were allowed to have indoor shows and all the rules would be dropped.
We have operated just four days a week and it’s been great, but four days a week with a small schedule where we didn’t have big shows. It was just a couple performers that originally had been booked for like small patio shows is what we expected to happen. But then, starting in July, we have the bookers back, we’re booking full shows every night, multiple local musicians.
How did COVID affect your employees?
It was really the hardest on musicians and employees, anyone who works in or in the adjacent industries of live music. There’s no real revenue model for having musicians livestream. We just kind of did that as a free service and we paid musicians 50% of food sales out on the patio, but it’s a place that people come primarily to see live music, and so if you can’t see a musician right in front of you, the appeal is really diminished.
It was really hard on all the musicians who work here, all the employees who work here, and we had no way for anyone to make a living. We were shut down completely for most of the pandemic and when we did the restaurant patio, it was really just me and one employee operating four days a week as opposed to seven days a week with a full staff and multiple people on staff any given day, so it really hurt the venue and restaurant employees and musicians really hard.
Were you able to receive any relief funds or loans that helped with the costs?
We did. That was critical, really important that we got some from the city and the state. The biggest and most important one we’re still waiting on. It was kind of like smaller stopgap measures to help us get through, just basically pay rent while we were closed, but we’re still hoping to receive and we somewhat expect to receive the shuttered venue operators grant at the federal level to come through.
Was there ever any moment during the pandemic when you questioned the future of the Jungle?
I definitely did. Honestly the thing that helped most was that my experience has been as an operator and owner here, being the manager on duty, and doing the work of the venue. I don’t have an accounting or financial background, and so I didn’t have it mapped out about how long we were able to go. It would have been even scarier if I knew. If I had met with an accountant, they would have told me exactly how many days until shutdown, until we ran out of funds. But we were very fortunate that every time we got close there would be just enough to get us by, like a grant from the city or the state and, basically, we were able to refinance and get loans, just to get us through that time. It was definitely scary but maybe one of the things that made it more tolerable was just that I honestly didn’t have it all together at any given point about exactly how many days we would have left. Things changed a lot during that time. It was stressful but things were changing all the time and we got by with enough, really just by great fortune for us and generosity of partners and people we’ve worked with that we did just get by and so we’ll be here long term.
Now that you’re reopening, are there any lessons from going through these pandemic times that might apply to the Jungle’s mission or business model going forward?
I would say I’ve learned most to always trust, and to keep employees and musicians as the number one stakeholder. There’s always that saying like, we’re all in it together, but it’s not really everyone if you’re in a different industry or different business. But between people who work at the Jungle, at the restaurant, the musicians, like we really were all in that together. As the operator-owner, I was at that point working directly with all the musicians instead of having bookers who would book them, so I had a personal relationship and I was talking with all of them. It definitely brought me closer with all the musicians who are here.
I think if we learned any lessons it’s just that as a venue, we’re not a place where musicians happen to play—musicians who come here are an important partner with us. It’s a small team of employees that operates the jungle and we consider the musicians, even though there’s many of them and they’re contractors, as close partners with us.
What does the summer look like for the Jungle?
Right now the best way to see what’s happening is everything should be on Facebook. You’ll be able to see who’s performing on any given day based on our Facebook events.
What has been most gratifying about reopening?
We’ve been getting a response like we never had before. People have reached out and they’re just really happy that we’re still here and happy to come back. Whether in terms of people coming to visit in person or connecting with us on social media, the response has been really big and positive, more than we’ve had even before the pandemic.