The Black Box: How Denver's premiere electronic club has stayed afloat under quarantine pressures
A conversation with venue owner Nicole Cacciavillano
Of the many disruptions COVID-19 has brought about in the United States, the nationwide moratorium on live music has been one of the most demoralizing blows to millions of Americans, with restrictions regarding festivals and large gatherings still lingering on even as restaurants, gyms, and movie theaters began to re-open. In the last three months, however, Denver’s music scene has been remarkably inventive in re-establishing a steady flow of live entertainment even within a constantly fluctuating gambit of rules and regulations.
The leading pioneer of this newfound marriage between cutting-edge music and public health awareness has undoubtedly been Capitol Hill’s underground electronic mecca The Black Box. Arguably Denver’s most successful DIY venue, The Black Box has navigated the pandemic’s perilous terrain with incredible finesse, being one of the city’s first and only clubs to provide a consistent schedule of events with a comprehensive social distancing plan. First established in 2016, the venue was originally conceived as a home base for dubstep/experimental bass booking agency Sub.mission, whose team has been actively organizing shows in Denver for the past 14 years. With a central motto of “moving people through sound, not hype,” the agency’s team imbued their community-based mindset into the energy of The Black Box, thus helping it to flourish in the four years since its inception.
Recently we had the wonderful opportunity to get an inside perspective on The Black Box’s impressive return to form by speaking one-on-one with owner and founder Nicole Cacciavillano. Over the course of our discussion, we took an in-depth look at how she and her team responded to 2020’s many challenges, how the venue managed to stay afloat in a sea of uncertainty, and what her plan is looking towards the future.
How has The Black Box managed to persevere through the economic devastation incurred this year by small businesses ? Did you ever have major doubts or fears concerning the future of the venue?
Cacciavillano: There’s definitely been a lot of fear surrounding the last few months. In the beginning it was mostly for the safety of people; I’ve personally never lived through anything like this, so on a personal level I think we were all just concerned about the well-being of others. From a business perspective, it was scary as hell. We’re a new company, you know – it’s not like we have this plethora of money saved to make it through something like this, because we never thought we would have to. In the beginning it was extremely frustrating; applying for PTP loans and the EIDL loan, everything was just changing from day to day, and trying to get a response took forever for everything. I also applied for tons of grants with Denver and the state of Colorado – unfortunately, they didn’t give us anything [laughs]. But you know, it was really nerve-wracking because I wasn’t really sure what was gonna happen or how long this was gonna last. I remember having one conversation with my team and just being like “we have to decide right now how much debt we’re willing to go into to keep The Black Box open.” Being that nightclubs and bars were the last to re-open – at that time we weren’t even allowed to operate as a restaurant – we were closed for about five months. That was pretty scary, to be honest.
When exactly did you and your team first begin to plan out The Black Box’s official re-opening, and what were your first steps towards making these newly imposed safety guidelines work for you?
Once the caveat was put in place that bars could essentially operate as restaurants, then it came time to be creative and figure out the safest and best way to do that while still making it feel like a show at The Black Box. Around June we started having conversations as far as “okay, we have this amazing patio,” – Denver was being a little bit more lenient with outdoor spaces than indoor, so we made the decision that we would re-open on Independence Day and just host patio parties for the month of July. Our strategy was essentially to stay outdoors where we could comfortably fit 40 people. Everybody had to be seated – we remodeled our patio a little bit to try to get ready for that. Now, this entire time things have been changing drastically week to week, month to month, new guidelines, new rules: for example, usually for me, I’m working six months out on booking shows. Now it’s completely the opposite – we couldn’t book too far ahead of time because we never knew what was gonna happen, so we had to change our strategy as far as announcing on Mondays what shows were happening that weekend. That way, people weren’t paying for tickets for shows that potentially couldn’t happen due to COVID.
Could you describe the specifics of this ongoing transition from outdoors-only establishment to seated indoor venue? What are some ideas you implemented to facilitate this process?
So we started in July on the patio and then continued that into August, but as the weather started getting a little cooler we had to start considering if we wanted to move inside or not, which we obviously did. The benefit for us is that we have this amazing sound system, so people are going to want to come in and hear it. Inside both rooms now we have tables with chairs: people have to come in and purchase tickets in table format, like a restaurant, and then they come in and they sit down. We have servers in the venue to handle taking orders and serving drinks, we have food trucks outside in the parking lot or caterers set up in the patio, so food is now a huge part of what we’re doing. I don’t think any of us ever thought we would be running a restaurant [laughs]. I’ve never even worked in the food service industry – it was a whole new shift of mindset. I honestly feel like most of us are now working completely new jobs and positions and having to kind of redetermine and understand what our goals even are at this point.
So moving from the patio inside, while the sound system and venue and everything are still the same, we now have candlelit tables set up with chairs. It’s definitely different but, like I said, I think people are appreciative that they can still hear live music. That’s the benefit we’re looking at here. But it’s definitely been a transition: if you’re standing up you have to have a mask on, all of the staff has to wear masks at all times, our cleaning has tripled. We were lucky enough to have friends with food trucks, so being able to work with them and help their businesses as well during this time has really been a blessing.
Have you experienced any major obstacles or opposition thus far on your path to re-opening?
Yeah, definitely. I think, first and foremost, COVID isn’t fully understood yet, so I don’t know if the guidelines that have been put in place necessarily even take into account the type of environment we’re working in. For the most part, people have followed the rules. We’ve had no problems, they’re very respectful and appreciative that they have a place where they can go. We do have some out of town visitors who come through every now and again, and maybe because their state might be more open than Colorado, they have a difficult time following the rules as far as sitting down. But if we tell them a couple times, it doesn’t seem to be a problem. I would say overall, we’ve been pretty clear with our expectations from the beginning, which always creates a sense of boundaries and a sense of safety for people. As long as they understand what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, they help us. The Black Box in general is a place where the people who come are a part of what we do. They know what our mission is and they help us self-regulate, so we’re kind of seeing the same thing when it comes to the COVID rules. We haven’t had any major problems, luckily.
We had the health department stop by and I did a walkthrough with them explaining what our plan is. I wrote a pretty intensive safety plan, multiple pages long, explaining exactly what’s expected of each of our staff members and just how we’re operating within all these new guidelines and restrictions. Luckily, we’ve not had any issues from the city or the health department and we’ve been able to continue to operate in a safe manner.
In terms of booking shows and re-opening venues, do you feel that the DIY/independent scene could have a momentary advantage over larger conglomerates like AEG and Live Nation, or do you feel like the playing field will remain unchanged?
I think it depends on which angle you’re looking at. If you’re talking financially, these larger corporations have the money to get through something like this, whereas for small independent venues, if we’re not open, we’re not making money and it’s very difficult to pay bills. With Sub.mission I’m also a talent agent, so we book shows across the country; it’s been pretty upsetting because there are many independent clubs that have had to close their doors permanently due to this. Now, if you’re looking at the aspect of capacity sizes or restrictions in the number of people allowed in a gathering, then yes I do feel we are at an advantage. We’re small enough that we can get in there and just have the fifty people, and it doesn’t look like a puddle in the middle of this huge room. I do think, in that aspect, we have a little bit of an advantage for sure. But we have to be creative, right? Now’s the time to really look at this big picture and come up with a plan that works.
Do you personally see an end in sight for the social distancing guidelines as they stand today? And if not, do you believe there’s a way our society can adapt to facilitate more venues reopening before the end of the pandemic?
To answer your first question, I would’ve liked to say that I thought we would be back to normal and having shows again by the beginning of the year, but it doesn’t look like that’s gonna be the case. Cities all over the country are now shutting back down due to the increase in cases. Obviously, I do think we need to correlate that with the fact that we just sent all these children and college kids back to school, and I think that’s where a lot of these case increases are coming from. But when we’re talking about college age people and older, they’re the people that are mostly attending our events and they’re probably the majority of people who are going out to restaurants right now too because they’re not as afraid to leave their houses. So it’s not looking good when it comes to the beginning of this year, and from what I hear about summer festivals being pushed back another year, I would say international artists probably won’t be coming back into the country until late 2021 or early 2022. And I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s some type of vaccination that’s going to be required for people to travel. I think we still have a long time ahead of us, to be honest, until things are back to normal.
As far as adapting, absolutely. I think we’re a prime example of how you can adapt and make it work, and I think that now is the best time. Especially in Denver, there’s several venues that are open and doing their thing, and I think if everybody stays in their lane with their own demographic of music and doesn’t cross into each’s other worlds, everybody can make it through this, at least the people who are open right now. Hopefully that camaraderie and overall respect for each other’s businesses comes into play, if not it’ll make things much more difficult.
Looking ahead, what major shifts do you anticipate for the future of live music in Denver and America as a whole? What will be the next step forward for The Black Box?
As far as The Black Box goes we have shows every Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, which are the dates we were operating prior to COVID. Obviously, we’ve gone from a 500 person capacity to 50 person shows, but doing the two events per night has been pretty successful. The shift that’s currently happening and will continue to happen is shows getting shorter, potentially just headliners, and multiple shows a night in order to get ticket sales up. For the rest of the country, (at least this is what I keep telling my agents and my clients) I think now is the time for US musicians that have been touring or who want to tour, because there’s no competition from any international artists right now in the entire country. And with venues being open again I think now is the time to seize the day. We have an amazing national scene – even thinking about all the people in Denver alone who are pushing boundaries and doing really cool stuff…we’re lucky, you know?
Any last thoughts, remarks, anything you wanted people to know?
Let it be said that now is the time for independent music venues, small businesses, and people in general to be a little kinder to each other. It’s been a pretty tough six months and I think we have another six months under our belt, so if we can all just take a step back and support each other I think we’ll make it out of this better people, a better society, a better world.