I worked in the software industry. In the mid-90s, during the "first bubble", I made a whole lot of money. Not entirely coincidentally, that tech bubble had a dramatically negative impact on the culture of San Francisco. I loved it here (and still do). I didn't like the changes I was seeing (and still don't). So I decided to push back, and put my money where my mouth was.
DNA Lounge has always been a political project: an attempt to move the needle of culture in this city. To provide a forum for a wide variety of art that makes this city a better place. DNA Lounge is putatively a business, but it is also activism.
As it turns out, that's not cheap.
I don't have an opulent lifestyle or particularly expensive tastes. With my winnings in the Startup Lottery, I bought myself a condo, I bought my mom a condo, and I bought a nightclub.
In the 17 years since I signed the lease on DNA Lounge, I've spent about five million dollars on it.
That is a truly gargantuan amount of money, inconceivable to most people, including many of my friends. Including me. Maybe if you'd had that magic briefcase dropped into your lap, you'd have done something more noble with it. Or more venal. Well, this is what I did: I spent most of my adult life running a nightclub, in a near-constant state of panic.
There have been stretches of our history where DNA Lounge was "in the black" (in the sense of: on a day-to-day basis, covering its operating costs, if you completely ignore all past investments), and I could breathe a bit easier. However, DNA has never turned a profit. Though this has been my full time job for almost two decades, I've never collected a salary. The opposite, in fact: through most of our history, the way we make payroll is, I write personal checks to cover it.
Well, here's the thing: I've run out of money.
I'm not about to be out on the street or anything. I would never compare what I'm struggling with to what less financially stable people are going through. So many of my creative peers are barely keeping their heads above water. That includes most of the people I employ for far less than they deserve. My nightclub, like my city, is full of people who put up with a lot more pain and suffering than they should ever have to just to hold onto a sense of community. But it is all connected. We're all together, standing around, watching countless strongholds of alternative culture in the Bay Area, and independently owned and curated creative meeting grounds in cities all across America, fade away. Some of them are literally crashing and burning. It's heartbreaking and horrifying.
I have known for quite some time that I couldn't afford to subsidize this particular stronghold much longer. It's painful to admit, but I'm at the point where I would have to pick between propping up DNA Lounge for another few years at best -- and supporting my mom.
For several years, from basically 2009 through 2014, we were doing reasonably well, financially: we were able to make some improvements. We were able to convert from a 21+ venue to an all ages venue, and we weathered the storm of our retaliatory license suspension that called us a "Disorderly House Injurious to the Public Welfare and Morals". We were able to use DNA Lounge income to cover the creation of DNA Pizza and the expansion of the club into Above DNA. In the end, DNA paid for those projects without me having to increase my investment. Things were looking up. In fact, we were turning business away: we had more people wanting to throw parties than we had nights available, and we were having trouble keeping up with our pizza orders on weekend nights.
So we decided to expand again, and opened a second location of DNA Pizza and an attached all ages dance club, Codeword, trying to replicate what seemed like a winning formula.
We started construction on Codeword in 2014. It took about a year and a half to build everything out. We opened at the end of 2015.
Meanwhile, between 2014 and 2015, DNA Lounge's attendance dropped off by about 9%. By the end of 2016, it had dropped by another 15%. Couple this with the fact that Codeword has no business to speak of, and we're screwed.
To break even, we need to increase our overall attendance by about 800 people a week. (That could be across both venues, or multiple nights: four 200 person events or any other permutation is just as good. It all goes into the same pot.)
Another way of saying that is that we are running at a loss of somewhere in the neighborhood of $380,000 per year. And I don't have it.
And no matter how much I try to wrap my brain around this, I don't know what the hell to do about it. That's the reason for this post. I need help, or we will be out of business soon. I can afford to continue to prop things up for a short amount of time, but not very long without both completely screwing my future, and also not actually solving the problem.
"Sell Codeword" is the obvious thing, and yeah, if I could snap my fingers and make that happen, I'd do it in a heartbeat. Unfortunately, to sell something, you have to have a buyer. I've got a long lease on that space, and even if I just locked the doors and sold the liquor license, I'd still owe the landlord every month until I could find a new tenant. We've talked to a few local nightlife people we thought might be interested in taking over the place, but with no bites so far. We're still looking.
Besides, Codeword is only about 1/2 to 2/3rds of our problem. DNA Lounge is losing a ton of money all on its own. So getting rid of Codeword would help, but not enough.
I really don't want to have to close DNA Lounge. We have done some great things here. Not me, we. The umbrella of DNA is host to countless vibrant communities and thousands of regulars. We've had fifteen years of the most diverse, weird, interesting calendar of any venue I've ever seen. A typical month here doesn't include just bands and DJs, but comedy, lecture series, circuses, robotic exhibitions, dance performances, hair shows... We provide a home for a whole lot of truly amazing art. I'm so proud of everyone. I'm immensely grateful to our staff for making it happen. They all clearly have a lot of love for this place too, because there's no other reason someone would put up with the low pay and appalling working conditions!
I started writing a bit calling out some of our incredibly devoted staff by name, but it's impossible to do so without the crippling horror that I'd insult someone by leaving them out, and if I didn't, this would we so long it would start looking like a memorial wall. So I'll just say that this place could not exist without the blood, sweat and tears of hundreds of people who have devoted their lives to it (and that's not just because the dark machines in the basement are literally powered by tears).
Some nights, even on nights where I'm not personally a fan of the music, I will look out over the balcony and see a room full of people moving as one, and I think, "This is what we do. This is why we did it." I try to take a mental snapshot of those moments.
I've heard from so many people over the years, customers and employees alike, that DNA Lounge has been a huge part of their lives: that they have a sense of community here, and that they feel safe here in a way that they don't anywhere else.
It's always funny, talking to different people firmly embedded in their own particular subcultures, who all see this place completely differently. To some people, DNA is "the goth club", because that's all they listen to and this is the only place they see those bands play. To others, DNA does nothing but the most brutal metal shows. To some, it is candy raves. We used to be that place that only did Deep House dance parties. I have heard actual people say with their actual mouth-holes, "I'm at Bootie, where DNA Lounge used to be".
They're all right, it's all of those things.
And in this city, historically notorious for its hostility to small businesses in general and to nightlife in particular, I think places like this need to exist. Places like this matter. The value of a thing is not its monetary cost.
But how do we make enough money to keep us alive?
One time-honored method is to find an "investor". But can you call it an "investment" with a straight face when there is literally no chance of getting your money back? Yeah, no. By "investor", I really mean "philanthropist".
Some form of crowdfunding is a possibility, I suppose. Most people want something in return for their Kickstarters and whatnot: it tends to be viewed as commerce more than charity. So at the low end, this would probably look a lot like: buying a spot on the guest list for a year, or a stack of "get in free" cards, or something. It would be easy to mis-design those rewards in such a way as to not actually make any money from them. But maybe at the high end, there would be enough people willing to kick down substantial contributions: people who feel it's worth more to them than $12 per show to keep DNA Lounge in existence.
Another possibility is looking for grants. Grants for the arts are out there. A few years back, Yoshi's somehow convinced the City to just give them $7.2 million. And then they went out of business anyway. So.... we know that's possible, I guess? But writing grant proposals is a specialized skill. I don't possess it and I don't know anyone who does. Do you? By all means, send 'em by.
There are also a number of businesses that DNA Lounge could or should be in, but is not; or rather, variants of our core business. E.g., we almost never book corporate parties, conferences, film shoots, that sort of thing. Why? Well, we're bad at it. Ok, that's not a real answer. I guess the answer is that it's a slightly different skill set than booking bands and DJs and we don't have anyone who works here who has the right contacts.
"So hire that person!" you say. Sure! But hiring is hard. Really, really hard. And that person is probably quite expensive, if they actually know what they're doing.
The problem with many of the business development ideas we've had over the years is that they take the form of: invest a bunch of money and then wait a year or longer before it is possible to even have a guess as to whether it is working, or even whether we hired the right person in the first place. That is, unfortunately, often how things work. That is often the reality. The world does not always provide you with quick fixes. But we need a quick fix, because I am out of money. I can't make long term investments because I don't know how I'm keeping the lights on in the short term.
(Ugh, while I was writing this, I had my Mac read it out loud to me, and it sounded like HAL 9000 begging for its life.)
So maybe you were hoping this would end with some big call to action, or some kind of hopeful note. I wish it did. I need ideas. I need suggestions. And I need your patience, too. Please, bear with me.
I know that with this level of transparency and vulnerability I'm setting myself up for a bunch of wisecracks from people who are all too eager to tell me what I did wrong and how they totally would have done it differently, having created nothing of lasting value themselves. How this situation or that was "obvious". Haters gonna hate, I know how it goes.
But if you have suggestions, please have them be about things I can do in 2016 and 2017, not things I should have done in 2004.
If you don't have suggestions, there are always the obvious things you can do:
- Attend our events.
- Buy tickets.
- Buy drinks.
- Buy pizza.
- Bring your friends.
- Get them to bring their friends.
If you don't support DNA Lounge, in a tangible way, it won't be here any more.
Hitting "Like" isn't enough.
If you're too broke, too crippled by existential despair, or too geographically incompatible to show up in person, how about at least posting a fond memory of your time at DNA in the comments below? It won't keep the lights on, but it will be nice to hear.
Update, Christmas Day:
Hey, if you've made it this far, you should know that I've made a few followup posts on this blog and will continue to do so. Short version: among all of the other leads for increasing our business that we are following up on, we're in the process of designing some kind of subscription membership program, probably using Patreon. But in the meantime, I've added the ability to accept donations to the DNA Lounge store, so if you are feeling generous, you can help us out right now!
Thank you again for the outpouring of sympathy and support, and stay tuned!
Update 2: We also have a DNA Lounge Patreon now, so you can contribute on a monthly basis.