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A Different Tune in Syracuse Music

An insightful chat with Julie B. Leone about the struggle that musicians and music venues face with the developing mandates

Julie B. Leone is the co-owner of the 443 Social Club on Burnet Ave in Syracuse. She’s smart, creative, and extremely interested in offering something special to the city she loves. Her club is unique—the only one of its kind available in Syracuse. She is pragmatic and pays attention to the details. She understands that part of the “win” is everybody being part of that win; and not just her interest. She and her husband/business partner Jimmy James go over and above to ensure that their venue is in tip-top shape from the patrons’ perspective, the legal perspectives; and from the transparent perspectives of fair business practices.

I’ve been watching the city, state, and nation freak out on this issue. We’ve all been aware of Governor Cuomo’s influence on the state of music affairs across the state. Musicians and music venues are getting their asses kicked right out of their own livelihoods. If they haven’t walked away from it, they’ve tried to be creative in handling the pandemics version of the “now” music biz. Some shuttered their places. Some went online. Some wait patiently. Some rally. And some are still arguing. Some invent to cope. All are worried.

Julie B. Leone got creative, got busy, and got involved. She changed her venue, spent a lot of money to make it compliant and more importantly she made it safe for everyone. She didn’t make placebic moves to satisfactorily complete an official form. She took a genuine interest to make things right and to make things better. To make things “work.”

Spearheading the campaign #Let the Music Play in Syracuse, she’s gained encouraging momentum to help Governor Cuomo see that the reality in Syracuse is far, far different then the reality Mr. Cuomo sees in New York City. While Mr. Cuomo should be applauded for keeping the rates low in our state, he should also view the state for what it is and what it is not. It is not NYC. While his mandates make a lot of helpful sense in NYC, they are irrelevantly hurtful to the rest of the hard-working state. A frustrating problem, indeed.

Juilie B. is our city’s “David” as she almost single-handedly takes on this Goliath-sized problem in the entertainment industry. She and Jimmy have closed their venue a couple of times, only to come back with smart creative solutions that comply as they attempt to thrive their way to higher ground. She has momentum. Enough to have thousands of Syracuse musicians and fellow venues in solidarity for the movement #Let the Music Play, with hundreds showing up to a downtown rally in the middle of September.

Here’s what she has to say about Central New York making the right strides to help ourselves handle the challenges of the Covid era while helping to get ourselves back to work.

It begins with us all getting Governor Andrew Cuomo’s attention enough to discern the reality of Syracuse’s better situation. It is possible for this city to safely get back to work and, we know Cuomo is interested in the tax revenue our industry generates. I’d like to see us all find the strength, wisdom and enthusiasm to take our city back and let it stand and remain on its own better situation. Together, we can make it happen. And Julie is showing us how.

Dear Andrew, please listen to us.

Chuck Schiele: I know you’ve been very compliant regarding the guidelines as they apply to venues remaining open. If I was Governor Cuomo, conducting this dialogue, what would you say? How would you characterize the status of Syracuse and it’s nightlife population?

Julie B. Leone: In normal times, Syracuse has a vibrant little music community. Right now, we’re all absolutely terrified about the future. We were just taking our first steps to get things moving again when the latest round of updates were announced in late August…and it felt like a sucker punch to the gut.

We’re all doing our level best to keep our heads above water at a drastically reduced capacity, and not being allowed to advertise or charge for live music cuts us off at the knees.

CS: Please share with us the things you’ve done to make the 443 Social Club safe.

JBL: We began adapting our business in the early spring and we’ve changed just about everything.

Inside we swapped out our funky, 1970’s living rooms for tables and chairs that can be easily cleaned between uses. We cut capacity down to about 40%. We added signage and locks to our restrooms to maintain one in/one out and contactless soap dispensers. We removed most of our bar stools, keeping just 3 that are spaced apart for our single guests. We switched to 100% table service and we don’t allow guests to go to the bar to order drinks. We bought a portable, contactless terminal so we don’t have to handle people’s credit cards.

We’ve moved all of our shows outside and right now we’re busy adding heaters, a fire pit and fuzzy blankets so we can keep everything outside as long as possible.

Prior to the updated guidelines, we had switched all of our shows to pre-sale only on- line in order to control how many people are showing up and avoid handling money at the door. We moved our check in station outside to avoid a bottleneck, and when guests arrive, we have them fill out a health declaration and check their temperature. We also collect contact tracing info for every guest and we keep a dated folder for every night we’re open.

And of course, the obvious stuff – we’ve got hand sanitizer available in several loca- tions, signage to remind guests to mask up whenever they are not seated, rigorous cleaning and our staff is masked 100% of the time.

CS: It seems to me that Mr. Cuomo views NY State through New York City eyes—(and often arguably through the context and perspectives of political agendas)— which doesn’t represent the reality of our situation, here in Central New York. At the very least there is a distortion between our reality as a city and the remedy imposed. In other words, the problem in Syracuse is a very different problem than in NYC. If this is a fair as- sessment, how would you clarify our reality to Mr. Cuomo?

JBL: I completely agree with that. While I believe the intention is to control spread, we are not NYC. We never had a huge outbreak in CNY and our numbers have remained very low throughout our careful, phased reopening. CNY – and Western NY and the North Country – couldn’t be more different from NYC.

Aside from viewing us through a NYC lens, the other issue is that our governor hears “live music” and thinks we are all big venues and we’re incapable of adapting to what’s happening right now. I’ve read the state’s response to the class action lawsuit that was filed in NYC and their defense was that live music events draw large crowds, everyone arrives at once, mingling is inevitable and social distancing cannot be enforced.

That just isn’t reality. We all have different business models and every venue owner I know has adapted. It’s not fair to lump us all into one group and assume we can’t figure this out. The folks who put on live music events are the most resourceful, hard-working people I know and solving problems is what we do.

It’s also important to note that we are not asking to reopen at normal levels. We’re not asking to go to full capacity, we’re not fighting the mask restrictions. We’re not suggest- ing large general admission shows should start happening. We are simply asking to start a phased reopening plan and that the ticketing and charging restrictions are lifted immediately.

CS: You have your hand on the pulse of this issue. And I know you to be equal parts savvy business person and as a kind and mindful human being. Pragmatic with benevo- lent intent. What would you suggest at this point to other proprietors to carry on in the most positive way?

JBL: We have to prove to the governor, the SLA and the health department that we are capable of reimagining our businesses and opening safely. The more photos and videos that surface of maskless crowds with no distancing, and the more complaints they receive, the harsher our guidelines are going to be and the longer we’ll be dealing with these restrictions.

We have a social media campaign running that talks about our safety precautions and we even produced a video demonstrating what we’ve done. The more venues that do that, the better. Be clear in your expectations of your guests, enforce your rules 100% and be vocal in asking for a change from our leaders.

CS: Along the same line of thinking… what would say to patrons of the music, venue and nightlife world?

JBL: If you want live music back, wear the damn mask. Follow the rules. Be courteous and kind to the establishments trying to enforce them. Whichever way you lean politically, we all have the same goal – to bring live music back to CNY. We should be united in this effort.

I would also encourage everyone to support your favorite establishment as much as you can. If they are doing anything all right now, make a reservation, grab a friend, show  up and spend a few bucks. Do it as often as you can. It may not look the way it used to, but we are doing whatever we can to stay afloat. If your favorite joint hasn’t reopened, buy a gift card, buy their merch or see if they have a VIP program. Hang on to your tickets, don’t ask for a refund right this minute if you can help it. We are fighting for our very survival right now.

CS: These days, I keep thinking how, “necessity is the mother of invention”. It is the essence of evolving. Adaptation in general. And how the time for all this is now. What are your thoughts on this and what have you done to adapt?

JBL: Well, some of the changes we’ve been forced to make due to COVID will serve us well in the long run, assuming we survive.

The change in our seating makes a ton more sense for the types of shows we do and how to use the room. Switching to 100% table service is a good thing too, on many levels. Once the current restrictions on charging for live music are lifted, I think cover charges, pre-sale tickets and minimum required purchases will become more commonplace, which will make live music a more stable, viable endeavor. And hopefully, people who have missed live music in their life will support it even more when we come out on the other side.

CS: How did the Let the Music Play rally go?

JBL: Really well. We had 100-120-ish people show up and all three news stations were there, plus Syracuse.com and CNYAlive.com. Our speakers all did a great job.

Chuck Schiele
Chuck Schiele is a lifelong, award-winning musician, art director, producer, editorialist, artist, activist, member Quatrocollective.com and fan of the CNY music scene. To be considered for this column, please write chuck.schiele@gmail.com.