It’s been said over and over again, but it’s worth repeating: music venues were the first businesses to close when the COVID-19 crisis hit America, and they’ll be among the last to reopen. Among venues in and around Milwaukee, Cactus Club was one of the first to close its doors. The Bay View club’s last day of traditional service was March 14, three days before Wisconsin ordered bars and restaurant to close.
“That next morning is when we decided we were going to close,” Cactus Club owner Kelsey Kaufmann says. “At the time, it seemed like we’d be closed for two weeks like everyone. We were being preemptive because it was before the city or state said anything or did anything about regulations.”
Of course, it’s been far longer than the two-week closure Kaufmann initially envisioned. It’s been over four months since a customer has passed through Cactus Club’s doors, and even longer since the venue that hosted more than 200 events last year held a concert. Fortunately, an employee—unbeknownst to Kaufmann—started a Cactus Club GoFundMe campaign to collect donations to help support the bar the longtime manager purchased in mid-February.
“My initial response was ‘Oh boy, I don’t know how I feel about this,'” Kaufmann says. “I’m not one to ask for favors, but truly, without the GoFundMe, I would’ve had to sell the bar in April. I mean, it literally—in every sense of the word—kept us afloat.”
While the donations have helped Kaufmann pay bills and keep staff employed during an unprecedented time, the venue was unable to host any in-person events during the height of touring season, which Kaufmann says is usually between mid-March and mid-May. Though venues are currently allowed to reopen in the state of Wisconsin, Cactus Club—like many other Milwaukee concert destinations—has made the decision to keep customer safety at the top of their list of priorities by declining to host in-person events.
“Realistically, on a national performer level, it won’t be something we entertain until spring…maybe. But my plans are for late summer or fall of 2021,” Kaufmann says. “I can’t really envision hosting indoor entertainment events until there’s either really rapid testing—like in a way where it can be done at the door—or a vaccine. I don’t really see how there can be a safe, ethical option.”
Instead of prematurely returning to booking shows, Kaufmann and her Cactus Club crew are taking steps to adapt and evolve in order to survive the economic difficulties the COVID-19 crisis has presented. In recent months, the renowned concert venue has leaned heavily on online sales of apparel and a number of other items. Last month, Cactus Club also started selling beer, coffee, kombucha, and craft cocktails in a carryout capacity Thursdays through Sundays (with local food vendors and some outdoor seating on-site as well).
“Overnight, we shifted our entire business model to basically online retail. I’ve been making jokes about how with the carryout hours, it feels more like a Bodega than anything else,” Kaufmann says. “I’ve been making artisan candles and mustard. We’ve been screen printing shirts in the back of Cactus where people normally watch shows. It’s been important to adapt and learn new skills, but it’s definitely nothing that I could have anticipated when this whole saga started.”
Earlier this week, Cactus Club also launched a Patreon page, which aims to help support the creative programming that Kaufmann still wants to be at the forefront of Cactus Club’s identity.
“We could maybe skirt by on this bodega-esque slinging drinks and merch scheme, but the entire big vision of what we’re trying to do is help advance the performing and visual arts.”
With tiers starting as low as $5 per month, patrons can get access to Cactus Club-curated content like film screenings, live performances, DJ sets, interview footage, skill shares and workshops, and other incentives. Beyond Patreon content, Cactus is also delving into pay-what-you-can virtual concerts and events in which 100 percent of donations are given to the artists involved.
It will be a long time before things go back to normal at Cactus Club. Honestly, things might never return to normalcy. However, Cactus Club’s new owner is thankful for the support she and her staff have received over these past few months, and committed to make it through this pandemic in one piece.
“It’s been a roller coaster. Things are starting to feel like they’re settling into some semblance of a routine, but everything is really uncertain and scary still,” Kaufmann says. “Among all the bleak, horrible realities that we’re existing in, there are these embers of goodness that are keeping things moving forward.”