NYC club owner Nicki Camp talks Blackthorn 51’s closing & the future of live music
by Sara Herschander
With the inflection of a New Yorker and the nostalgia of a rocker for a bygone scene, Nicki Camp, a longtime producer and venue owner, intersperses his conversations with a litany of former rock venues that crosses decades and boroughs.
"The people used to go to CBGB just to go to CBGB-it almost didn't matter who was playing. That is the biggest difference between the old times and now," said Camp, 63, about the now defunct birthplace of punk in the East Village.
On November 14th, Camp announced the permanent closure of his own latest venture, Blackthorn 51 in Elmhurst, Queens, after eight months without revenue due to COVID-19 and amidst a rent dispute with his landlord. Camp saw the closure as the venue's best option until after the pandemic, at which point he intends to reopen Blackthorn 51 at a new location.
Camp has decades of experience booking bands for venerated rock, punk, and metal venues in New York, like Don Hill's and Rock n' Roll Church Sundays at Limelight. Yet, he has never seen a crisis for local music like the one provoked by a pandemic that has decimated the industry's only source of revenue.
Blackthorn 51 is just one of the 90% of independent venues that the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) expects to close in the coming months without additional federal relief.
We talked to Nicki:
When did Blackthorn 51 first shut its doors as a result of the pandemic?
Nicki: We were open until March 15th, which was a Sunday. We had a hip-hop event and the news came that they were closing all of the bars and restaurants. Of course, we thought that it would be for a short time. We never imagined that it would be eight months.
How did you make the decision to close permanently this month?
[Our landlord] wanted to take us to court…There's this Law 1932-A, where if COVID is the reason that you can't pay rent, you can just walk away and nobody owes anybody anything. So, that's what the lawyers decided to do. They said it was the best move, because everyone thinks that nothing's going to open until, at the very earliest, next summer. And that's being very optimistic. So, to be closed 15 months and still have to pay all of that rent? I don't see how anyone is going to come up with that kind of money. We decided to just do it now and get out. We took the sound system and put it in storage; we put the lights and the backline in storage. We sold everything [else] at auction.
How have people reacted to the announcement of Blackthorn 51's closure?
I did a shout-out to our staff [on Facebook] and then a lot of other people jumped on it and did their own version. In the live music scene, there's a lot of pettiness that goes on and I was expecting that there would be some haters; but with all the different postings-we got over 1,200 hits on Facebook-there was not one negative statement. Everyone had positive things to say, so that was refreshing.
What does a city lose when it loses its live music venues?
It loses its culture. Entertainment is a tremendous business in New York City and across the country. Broadway closed, just like the movie theaters, concert venues, and sporting events. It isn't just live music venues; it's the entertainment industry. It's not just the owners of the venues or the waiters or the fans. Think of all the people behind the scenes.
How has your work changed over the years?
The business has changed. If you go back to the 80s or 90s, there were live music venues everywhere and it was a good job to have. Everyone was making money and people went out; but later, as time went on, the work became more difficult. It isn't so easy [nowadays] and many local live music venues began to disappear in the last 10 to 12 years.
What would a typical night out look like in the 80s or 90s in comparison with the last few years?
There isn't a comparison. In the clubs that I was involved with in the 80s and 90s, a Friday night we did 800 to 1,200 people. It was full and people went out, and it was what a scene is. The scene is the people. It's not the music. It's not the band. It's the people. If people go out, they want to be seen. They get dressed; they want to socialize. The guys meet girls. The girls meet guys. The friends meet friends. That is a scene. It's music. It's fashion. It's politics. It's everything.
Why do people enjoy going to entertainment venues?
It's an escape. It takes you away from reality. You go see a movie and it's funny, it's emotional. You go to a concert, it's music, it's an escape. It's two hours to relax yourself, away from your daily life.
Do you know where and when you'd like Blackthorn 51 to reopen in a new location?
I don't know. I've got to see how everything is going to fall. In the past, I've had places that closed for one reason or another. And there was always something to go to. When we closed Don Hill's back in 2010, I moved all of my promotions and operations over to three other clubs. So, I wasn't out of work at all…Now, there's nowhere to go. Now, everyone is in the same boat that I'm in.
What would you like your first post-pandemic event to look like?
I wouldn't even need to plan it, because I have a ton of promoters who are constantly calling me to say that, 'once you're ready, let us know. We're going to come back strong'...My hope is that when we can do legal events, people will think, 'Oh my God, this is great that we can finally go out' and they'll come out in droves.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.