How San Francisco’s The Midway Has Revolutionized Socially Distanced Events

Oct 22, 2020

6 min read

San Francisco’s The MidwaySan Francisco’s The Midway

Photo courtesy of The Midway

As one of the only venues in the states to successfully and safely reopen, The Midway discusses how to reinvigorate the local music industry.

The DIY spirit of dance music has long been a part of the lifestyle. The very roots of rave culture lie in the re-appropriation of technology and the occupation of unused spaces. As COVID vaporized any hope of festival season or safe club events, it was up to the dance music community to be the trailblazers. 

Germany led the way with the world’s first drive-in rave. As venues and promoters all over the world followed suit with their own creative approaches to socially-distanced events, The Midway in San Francisco pondered how it could reimagine its business model.

The 40,000-square-foot venue is part warehouse, part art gallery. Situated in the city’s Dogpatch neighborhood, The Midway has become an institution playing host to a wide variety of dance music’s most lauded artists. In the months before quarantine, the team welcomed Charlotte DeWitte, Claude VonStroke, Claptone and Bonobo, but the LED walls and lasers of its cavernous main room have been dark since March. 

In May, outdoor spaces were deemed safe to reopen, bringing hope of welcoming fans to the once-bustling patio area. This was made possible by The Midway’s full kitchen and café, Madame Zola’s Fortune. 

We spoke to The Midway’s Booking Coordinator, Sarah West, to hear what it’s like being one of the only large-scale venues in the US willing and capable of reopening safely amidst a global pandemic.

When you decided to reopen, what did you do to make that possible? Nobody knew what reopening anything was going to look like, because this was brand new for all of us. How did you even figure it out?  

Our first patio show was the end of May. At that point, a lot of people were still very nervous about things. So, we were very careful about how we put things out to the public. In terms of how we got started logistically, we really just based everything off of outdoor dining guidelines. Everything that restaurants were allowed to do, we took that and ran with it. We started really small with 20 tables, which equated to about 80 people in a space that normally holds 600. We were far below the capacity limitations, and we had distance tables. The health department came out and checked on us quite a few times, went through the list of things that we were doing and told us what we needed to update. It was quite a process.

You’ve since moved on to the street behind the venue. It’s a much larger space. How did that happen?

We took that 20-table small patio idea and said, “Well, shoot, we've got this empty street behind us. We might as well try to do something a little bit bigger.” The patio shows were great, but they weren't going to keep the lights on and keep our staff paid. We want to make sure that we're creating the best experience possible for fans. We don't like to skimp anywhere in that sense. So, we said, we need the full LED wall -- and we doubled the size of the LED wall since we first started -- and then of course the delay stacks and the Function One speakers. You can feel that bass on your arm hairs. We wanted to create a quality experience, not just a thrown together thing, but it needed to be something that was going to be longstanding and carry us through the season. 

And San Francisco has the benefit of pretty good weather all year. Do you plan on pushing this out as far as you can?

We’re going to try to book every other weekend through winter as much as we can. Obviously, everything is weather permitting. The plan is to just kind of book every weekend so that we have a little bit of wiggle room if we need to postpone something by a day or a week. But ultimately yes, we are planning on continuing operations as weather permits

I've noticed there hasn't been a lot of marketing to directly state that this is a party. Is that as a result of the relationship you have with the city?

Yes, absolutely. The city has been pretty adamant they do not want to be promoting a festive atmosphere. So, we've had to spend a lot of time going back and forth coming up with a structure that works within their guidelines. We finally got to that point in August, which was great. That opened the door for us to do bigger-scale events. It's been an uphill battle, but we're really blessed to have the space that we do and to have that street behind our venue.

How has this been received by the nightlife community in San Francisco?

I do feel for the clubs that don't have these outdoor spaces. We’re thankful that we have been able to utilize that. That said, we've also been trying to bring in a lot of other promoters and crews that work with other venues. We want to bring in everybody that's been pushed aside in the music industry because of the pandemic and give them a home, put a little bit of more money into people's pockets, and help the local scene grow. 

You said you were one of the only venues in the country that’s open. How does it feel to be leading the way in reopening the industry?

We're extremely fortunate. We are willing to take the risk and put ourselves out there. Kind of the foundation of this venue was “Let's just get it done.” We want to create a fun place for people to come out. During this pandemic, [we] wanted to kind of harness that and use it to pave a way to keep the local industry alive. It put a target on our back initially, because there are a lot of opinions on what's right and wrong right now. We've had to do a lot of work in terms of getting the public to come around to what we're doing. Even a lot of artists have been pretty hesitant about coming out and playing; worried about backlash from their fans. Which is totally understandable. So, it's been a slow process. Typically once people actually come out and see what we're doing, they're like, “Oh, okay, I get it. This is way better than what I was picturing in my mind.” 

What’s the conversation like to get artists on board with something like this?

We start just reaching out to gain general interest from the agent, artist, and management just to see if they're comfortable with coming out. I would say it's probably about a 50/50 split down the middle between people who are comfortable versus not comfortable -- and that's fine. You know, we're not trying to get every single artist on board with what we're doing. One of the biggest things that's helped in that sense is having other artists. For example, Sasha Robotti was one of the first bigger headliners that we got to come out, and he was a little hesitant at first as well. Once he got here and saw it, he was like, “okay, this is great, this is something I want to go out into the world and tell people about.” So, in addition to our own efforts, other artists, and what they've been saying about us and their positive words have really tipped the scale.