After it opened, the DNA Lounge became the internet-themed go-to spot for some of The City’s most eclectic and eccentric music-lovers. (Courtesy photo)

Keeping the DNA Lounge on life support

The legendary San Francisco nightclub was already struggling financially. Then COVID-19 happened.

The annual Game Developers Conference is usually a boom time for the DNA Lounge. Often running in mid-March, the conference attracts tech aficionados from all over the world to the Moscone Center. It’s only natural that they’d gravitate toward a SoMa nightclub owned and operated by a programmer and open-source advocate. The Lounge’s GDC parties are the stuff of legend.

When The City banned all large gatherings, the conference was one of the first to go. That’s when Jamie Zawinski saw trouble coming.

“Those parties typically pay our entire rent for the month of March, so that was a really big blow,” said Zawinski via email. “But that was the point when we strongly suspected that some kind of lockdown was coming, we just didn’t know when.”

For the popular San Francisco venue, the timing could not have been worse.

Founded in 1985 as the leather bar Chaps, the building at 375 11th Street changed hands several times before being purchased by Zawinski in 1999. The lauded programmer behind the Netscape Navigator and the Mozilla Project oversaw an extensive retrofit and won the right for the club to admit all ages.

DNA became the internet-themed go-to spot for some of The City’s most eclectic and eccentric music-lovers. From drag and burlesque to hip-hop and techno, an average night is never short on events to fill the two stages and four dance floors. If one can’t make it in person, the website’s free live streams will bring the party right to them.

“DNA Lounge is really a vortex for a lot of disparate Bay Area communities,” said artist and journalist Larissa Archer. “It’s one of the few places left in San Francisco where tech bros are outnumbered and are clearly not the target audience, yet DNA and its denizens welcome them and lets them be – like we wish they’d do for us.”

Vice Reine, curators of the Lounge’s monthly EDM showcase, StarCRASH, share a similar sentiment. “We love DNA Lounge deeply and have a long history with them,” said vocalist Remi X. “As a band, we had our very first show there in 2013. We started StarCRASH primarily as a way to help the venue bring in new fans, as well as boosting the local synth music scene.”

The third StarCRASH was planned for March 19. Now, DNA’s online calendar is covered with biohazard symbols.

(Courtesy photo)

Despite regularly attracting international talent and large, diverse audiences, the Lounge has barely stayed afloat in the ever-pricey San Francisco. Although Zawinski said he has a great relationship with The City, which has bestowed Legacy Business status on the club, the high costs of rent and operation are impossible to ignore. DNA once had a sibling venue, Codeword, which lasted from 2015-17, and there’s a lingering possibility that the first club may suffer the same fate.

The Lounge’s website’s front page now links to their Patreon and donation pages. Though the former has over 550 patrons pledging over $11,000-a-month, that’s nowhere near its initial goal of $40,000-a-month. Closing the doors to a pandemic isn’t helping either.

The notoriously blunt Zawinski doesn’t mince words about the Silicon Valley elite who have driven up rents while paying minimal taxes. “It’s tragic that we live in a world where the functioning of our society, and the literal life or death of our friends and neighbors, depends on the whims of oligarchs, but here we are,” he says. “I’m told that there are over 200,000 millionaires in the Bay Area, and 45 billionaires. Maybe some of those billionaires should turn over their couch cushions and fund some essential services. House the homeless. Keep BART and Muni running. Fund the production of protective equipment. [..] That’s what real charity would look like, not the self-serving PR gestures that we normally see.”

With the Lounge itself closed (save for its Party-in-Place livestreams), Zawinski has put greater emphasis on DNA Pizza, the club’s restaurant extension. Through delivery services such as SliceLife and DoorDash, DNA’s been delivering thin slices, pre-mixed cocktails, and the club’s own brand of vodka, gin, and rum. Still, Zawinski admits that orders are “a fraction of what they were before the lockdown.”

Like the rest of the world, Zawinski isn’t sure how things will play out once the pandemic ends. Nevertheless, local musicians remain optimistic that they’ll grace a DNA stage again. Sophia Prise, who played the inaugural StarCRASH in January, is one such musician who isn’t ready to see the Lounge disappear.

“The scene there is downright iconic: from the line wrapping around the club earlier on some nights to music fans of all stripes uniting at the adjoining pizza shop to get some late-night grub,” she says. “We have had some of our brightest, most unpretentious music memories made there, and the culture isn’t just novel; in my opinion, it’s necessary.”

Charles Lewis is a San Francisco-born journalist, theater artist and arts critic. His collected writing can be found at TheThinkingMansIdiot.wordpress.com.

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