Lefty’s Live Music’s five-year anniversary fell on the same day as the pandemic lockdown, March 17. Owner Anne Mathey says it’s a touch of irony in the bleak reality of live music.
Writer: Allaire Nuss
Anne Mathey started Lefty’s Live Music after several Des Moines venues closed during the winter of 2014. Mathey and her business partner, Erik Brown, filled the void with a new multi-genre, 300-capacity venue on University Avenue near Drake University.
Today, Mathey says she fears there will be a similar “armageddon” of creative spaces.
“You’re already seeing it,” Mathey says. “Vaudeville Mews has closed their doors and everybody else is struggling. Entertainment and music is kind of the worst industry to be in right now.”
Lefty’s has been able to stay open through various means, including the generosity of others: After lockdown began in the spring, the venue reached its GoFundMe goal of $5,000 in just four days—more money than they ever received in federal aid, Mathey says. “We’re definitely lucky to have a community around us that cares about music,” she says. “But it’s hard to try and ask people to give you something when you know everyone else is hurting.”
As the pandemic persisted, the venue needed more to stay afloat. Beyond dipping into personal savings and selling to-go drinks, Lefty’s rented out part of its space to Hazel’s Smoke and Vape shop. Livestreams have been an additional source of revenue, with initial broadcasts drawing between 2,000 and 3,000 viewers, Mathey says. Along with the support of donations, Mathey observed another silver lining to online music: “[Livestreams] not only help us, it also helps the artists, the bands, get their music and their art out there.”
But as time wore on, virtual shares and views started to go down, corralling the venue back toward in-person programming. The path to reopening late this summer was slow and littered with regulatory obstacles, like when the city mandated that bars had to temporarily close in late August. Now capacity is limited to 60 people, and everyone must wear masks and be seated at distanced tables.
Mathey says Lefty’s is lucky to even have weekend performances, a stark comparison to the six or seven shows per week in pre-pandemic times. But even with numbers and revenue down, she tries to keep a positive perspective.
“Even before COVID happened, running a venue isn’t really a money business, it’s a heart business,” Mathey says. “You don’t get into music to make a bunch of money. You get into it because you love it.”
Mathey attributes much of Lefty’s survival thus far to the support of the surrounding Des Moines community, from those who donated early on to those who are buying tickets today. “It always seems like somebody’s willing to step up when we need it, so we’re really lucky and blessed to have that community with us,” she says.