Sacramento’s music and live entertainment scene prepares for post-pandemic comeback

Summer brings hope, but business financial worries still loom


DJ/promoter/music artist Alex Hernandez, 30, has his equipment setup in the kitchen of his studio apartment downtown Sacramento. He records and plays keyboard digitally with software that allows him to plug-in sounds of other instruments. Here, Hernandez is playing with a synthesizer plug-in Saturday, April 10, 2021. (Robert J Hansen)

Robert J. Hansen

Sacramento musicians and performance artists and the small businesses where they perform found a way to make it through COVID-19 as best they could.

But the same energy and momentum that downtown Sacramento had in 2019 isn’t going to happen this summer, according to local artists in the entertainment industry.

Sacramento’s nightlife and music entertainment scene was thriving in the months leading up to the COVID-19 shut down last year, according to local DJ Alex Hernandez.

“My schedule was always full,” Hernandez said. “Every weekend I had to be somewhere, sometimes two, three places.”

According to Hernandez, Sacramento’s downtown nightlife scene was building momentum the year leading up to the shutdown.

“It was a thriving music scene in Sacramento right before COVID,” he said. “There was an explosion of events, but they were so unique and so Sacramento. It was their own.”

Jennifer Reason, midday classical host for CapRadio, said shutdowns had been terrible for her and she had to cancel tours scheduled in Hawaii, Bosnia and Egypt.

“Everything was decimated,” Reason said. “I lost all of my gigs for a full year, all the money that goes with them. That all just evaporated.”

Reason said that throughout the country, many in the performance arts community wondered if their careers were over and if performance art was going to be lost because of COVID-19.

“I didn’t play the piano,” Reason said. “I didn’t sing. I didn’t do anything for the first eight months because I just couldn’t bring myself to it.”

Reason said she had to rediscover herself before she was able to get back into music, and that hopefully the shutdowns have given everyone a sense of how much we need music for our mental wellness and how much we need each other.

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The Stu 916 recording studio in Carmichael works with independent recording artists of all genres and opened for business in January 2020, according to co-owner Hilary, who asked to not share her last name.

“We were really excited in the beginning only to be shut down less than two months the time we opened,” Hilary said. “We went right off a cliff in March.”

Zahriah, a local music artist who was at The Stu 916, said she had trouble finding the passion to create music during COVID-19.

“I lost a lot of my creative juices,” Zahriah said. “Like I didn’t want to create anything at all.”

Hilary said the studio had a number of cancellations and went through multiple shutdowns last year, with one shutdown being caused by an artist exposing the studio to coronavirus having to quarantine after a COVID-19 exposure.

“We took on the responsibility to close down, to quarantine the space, give it some breathing room and to make sure staff would be safe,” Hilary said.

Hilary said that closing the studio permanently was discussed between her and the other co-owner, but they decided to try to make it work.

“It’s been challenging,” Hilary said. “I think that if we continue to make smart decisions and weather the storm, then we’ll set ourselves up for a lot of success.”

Hilary said that she is excited but has a cautious optimism about the reopening date.

“We are still in a very fragile place as a company,” Hilary said. “If anything happened to me or the other owner, then I’m not sure what our future would be.”

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Local artists Zahriah and Torrence at The Stu 916 recording studio in Carmichael California on Tuesday, April 13, 2021. Torrence had an album come out two weeks before the shutdown and Zahriah had trouble being creative during the pandemic.

The Midtown Moxies, a burlesque troupe that has been selling out shows downtown at the Midtown Barfly since 2014, are still uncertain if they will perform this season according to troupe leader Batty Bruleé.

Bruleé, a Sac State alumna, said the Midtown Moxies had to cancel last April’s show because of shutdowns, making their last performance Feb. 1, 2020.

This time away from the stage has been difficult for the Midtown Moxies who are a tight group of close friends who usually do ten shows a year according to Bruleé.

“For a lot of my performers that’s really their only creative outlet,” Bruleé said. “ And to go from seeing everyone two to three times a week at rehearsals to not seeing anyone in over a year was rough.”

Though she is excited to have a season, she said there are complications from the first shutdown that she would like to avoid.

“My hope, especially with the vaccine, is that come September or October we can start our next season as planned,” Bruleé said.

Bruleé said there are still too many unknowns about whether people will be able to afford going out and if guidelines allow for full capacity to determine if the Midtown Moxies will be performing this season.

“This is a passion project, nobody makes a living doing this. It costs a lot to have new costumes for each show. If we can’t sell out, then we can’t afford to do it. The money goes back into the show and something for my performers.”

— Batty Bruleé

Business was going well in the months leading up to the shutdown last year, according to Gabrielle Garcia, owner of Cafe Colonial, which has been closed since March 2020.

Cafe Colonial is a local live music venue that hosts an eclectic mix of music genres and artists including metal, rock, punk, rock, hip-hop and rap.

After months of renovations, Cafe Colonial reopened in June 2019.

“Right before COVID hit we had the big show at the [Cafe] Theatre and it was going good,” Garcia said. “We were just coming up on our one-year anniversary, and our calendar was stacked all the way through the summer.”

Garcia said she had plans to rent the theater next door and host bigger shows.

“We were really hopeful going into the spring and summer, then the pandemic hit,” Garcia said.

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Cafe Colonial’s doors have been closed since the initial two-week lockdown last year in March, according to Garcia. She tried to reopen the weekend after Fourth of July, but said that’s when everything shut down again.

“We’ve just been hibernating basically since March of last year,” Garcia said. “Our landlords have been great to us thus far, and so we just suspended everything.”

Cafe Colonial was eligible for the second round of artist grants which reimbursed the costs associated with trying to stay open last year according to Garcia.

“Most of the help has come from crowdfunding, and bands doing live streams have been our main source of revenue since we’ve been shut down,” Garcia said.

Garcia said she is excited for restrictions to be lifted, but because bands are booked three to six months in advance, it could be until after summer before business resembles what it was pre-COVID.

“I would hope to say by September we would be kind of up and rolling,” Garcia said. “If you told me I could open in a month, it’s still going to be three months.”

Garcia says people can help support the reopening of Cafe Colonial through @Go-Fundme.