Caffe Lena is widely recognized as the oldest continuously-operating folk-music venue in the United States. Over 60 years of operation in the heart of Saratoga Springs, its stage has hosted luminaries including Bob Dylan in 1961 and Sawyer Fredericks in 2014. We checked in with Executive Director Sarah Craig to find out how this gutsy little venue is faring during the Covid challenges, and were not surprised to find them bravely weathering these unprecendented ups and downs.
The Pivot From Mainly-Live to Totally-Online Performances
Right now, Caffe Lena is not a “live performance venue;” technically, we’re a “broadcast studio.” Therefore, we’re an essential business. We were able to qualify for that designation because we’ve been live streaming every performance for over six years now. So we went into the shutdown in a much different position than many performing arts venues. Even though we’re very small and very DIY, we had the infrastructure to be a virtual venue the day the shutdown started. That’s meant that we’ve been able to hang onto our staff, and have given work to dozens of regional artists by producing live shows on our stage almost every night since mid-March. Also, the launch of the Caffe Lena School of Music coincided with the start of the pandemic. We pivoted to virtual group lessons for kids and adults, and the school is growing and growing.
Has Caffe Lena had any attendees at these performances?
As a broadcast studio, we’re allowed to have a live studio audience. This is very different than having a show — there’s a very small, prescreened audience that arrives with their masks on, and they’re taken to their seats. They’re there to applaud and lend atmosphere to a performance. It’s been WONDERFUL for the performers to get that immediate feedback for their performance. But last week we decided to dial it back to essential-personnel-only in light of the Covid numbers creeping up. We’re all frustrated about having to pause–not just the music world, but all industries–but nobody wants to risk going through this again so we’re playing it super safe.
This is a tough question, but what is the financial picture like?
We have virtually no earned income right now. We have not sold a ticket since March 13. But the generosity of the public has been astounding. People have made it clear that they really want us to continue creating work for musicians, and keep the Caffe Lena legacy intact. Our only earned revenue is tuition from the Caffe Lena School of Music – it’s a mission project, to teach the next generation the culture of folk music.
Our live streams feature a prominent virtual tip jar. It really works, because everybody wants to keep the music alive! They’ve been generous with the tip jar, which we split evenly with the performer. Most times they cover our direct production costs, sometimes not. The tip jar isn’t enough to pay all the bills, but because of a couple of very successful fundraising endeavors we’re definitely hanging on and we have no plans to stop streaming live shows. In fact, we’re looking at ways to add even more programming.
How are you, the staff, the board and the performers faring through these challenges?
This is our 60th anniversary year – what a great year for an anniversary!
For the venue’s first 57 or 58 years, it was an organization that just got by. Living close to the bone was a source of pride. It wasn’t until our board of directors said that this organization is incredibly vulnerable that we hatched a plan to stabilize finances and create an organization that could weather hard times. Thank heavens we turned things around before Covid hit!
But the bottom line is that we are all in this for the love of music and a deep commitment to serving the community in keeping with folk music values and traditions. We are fine living close to the bone again until this crisis passes, and there’s no sense that “we might not make it.” In fact, although we miss our audience and so many of our out-of-state bands with all our hearts, we’re mostly feeling blessed that we can still be a full-time music producer at a time when so much of the live music industry is shutdown.
As long as we can just keep putting on shows, we are satisfied.