What does it take to survive as a venue? “We are like sharks—you gotta keep moving or you’ll die.”
There are so many things that make experiencing live music a unifying yet unique experience. The buzz of anticipation when the lights go down, the first chords as an artist takes the stage, the butterflies you feel when you look around and realize you are about to have an intimate experience with a community of complete strangers.
And like many things, when the pandemic hit-it drastically altered those treasured moments for everyone. Venues went virtual, the stages went silent, and the devotees were disconnected from their community.
That’s how JJ Gonson, the proprietor and experience orchestrator at ONCE Ballroom is feeling these days as she gets ready to launch her new post-pandemic outdoor club in conjunction with Boytnon Yards in Somerville. The developer, which is also the underwriter for the Fluff Festival and Union Square Farmers Market, is collaborating with Gonson and her team to create a venue to hold 20 outdoor shows, starting this weekend and running through September, in front of the redeveloped life sciences building on South Street.
“I am feeling really scared … butterflies and joy and excitement and it is intense,” Gonson said in a recent phone interview. “We have six months of work to do in six days. It feels like a reality tv show … but I have this amazing team and we have a sound company doing this whole thing and they are coming and going every night.”
This summer’s billing is a reimagination of a year without music and boasts mostly local artists such as Julie Rhodes, Walter Sickert and the Army of Broken Toys, and No Small Children. In the hallmark ONCE style, it is also a clever and creative schedule that includes several theme nights, family matinees, and a one-day music festival. Gonson said all shows will have rain dates and all unvaccinated concert-goers will be required to wear masks and social distance.
Dig caught up with Gonson before opening weekend to talk about reimagining live music post COVID-19, the journey to keep the dream of “ONCE” alive after shuttering the physical location last November, and the struggle to get federal funding as an independent venue more than a year after the virus first took hold of the nation.
A dream deferred
Like most people, Gonson was unsure how long her business was going to be impacted once the pandemic hit. When the band that was due to play on March 12 cancelled, she knew it was time to temporarily close the doors on March 13. She quickly put up a GoFundMe page and ran around to everyone’s houses giving what cash she could to the staff.
As the uncertainty of reopening grew, so did the bills. The liquor bills, the insurance bills, too many others. In May, ONCE Virtual Venue was born as a way to keep the arts alive in the midst of the pandemic and to keep funds coming in, but the effort didn’t generate enough funds to keep the venue afloat.
The kicker was that 2020 was supposed to be a great year financially for ONCE, as they’d booked a solid lineup. According to Gonson, the venue was scheduled to host the Rock N Roll Rumble in April, one of the best months of the year for venues. They were also set for Halloween, another big time of year for booking (some of those events have been rescheduled into the ONCE lineup at Boynton Yards).
“We were looking at really big dates to get us through the whole year,” Gonson said. “It was like watching something get washed out to sea.”
Not giving up
After officially shutting ONCE’s brick and mortar location in November 2020, Gonson said she went through some pretty dark months.
“After we closed the space I went away and went to the woods. There was very little wifi. There were people running ONCE Virtual Venue … programming dropped a lot.”
ONCE Virtual Venue continues to book weekly events and asks for donations through Patreon. Queen Elephantine and Blackwolfgoat just played exceptional sets at the end of June. However, the revenue from the shows are not enough to reopen the rainbow-adorned ballroom on Highland Ave.
It has been a long, hard battle to obtain federal aid as well. At press time, Gonson revealed that ONCE is one of the first venues in the nation to be approved for emergency federal funds through the Small Business Administration’s Shuttered Venue Operators Grant (SVOG) program. The widely criticized program, which was passed into law by former President Donald Trump last December, allows for $16 million in relief for independent venues such as concert halls, movie theaters, and entertainment halls. More than 13,000 applications for relief have been filed through the program and as of June 4, only 50 grants had been approved.
According to the SBA website, applicants are eligible for a grant up to 45% of their gross earned revenue. Gonson pointed out that it was an extremely cumbersome process to get approved for funding compared to the restaurant program, which took only three days.
“We had to produce 40 pages of documents to get the grant,” Gonson said, “14,000 venues applied by the end of April and we heard nothing until two weeks ago when they told the first person they received the grant.
“Venues are holding on and trying. Not giving up.”
Speaking about the post-pandemic music scene in Boston, Gonson sounds resilient, even excited.
“We are like sharks—you gotta keep moving or you’ll die.”
Right now, she is just taking it one day at a time. They have booked 13 out of their 20 shows and are still working with the City of Somerville on ironing out logistics. In a world where house shows, backyard shows, and outdoor venues have become the interim norm, municipalities and venues have had to find workarounds to bring music back. Gonson stresses that while many government offices are still virtual, it is important to be persistent and to pick up the phone and try to work together with community partners to try to bring projects back online. She also thinks it is important for the government to provide as much support and clarification as possible to businesses as they can as they navigate these new waters.
Looking ahead, Gonson is unsure about the future of live music in Greater Boston, but nonetheless remains optimistic.
“Virtual venues are great, but they are not the same,” she added.
For Gonson, it’s all about the inspiration behind the name of her club.
“When you go to a live show and you are there having that experience, in my mind, it only happens once.
“It will never happen that same exact way again.”
O’Hearn is a freelance music writer, yoga teacher and mom. Her work has also appeared in Grateful Web, Sound of Boston, Hello Giggles and Glide Magazine. Music has always been a family affair for the O’Hearn’s. She was supposed to be named Prudence and her parents took her to first Bangles concert at age seven. Through pop- quizzes in the front seat of her dad’s jeep, she came to know the names of everyone in Van Halen and U2 by the time she was 5. For this, she is eternally grateful.