The Beat Goes Online as Public Works Charts New Path

The Mission District nightclub finds support in its community of loyal electronic dance music lovers.

After the City of San Francisco issued a temporary ban on events of more than 1,000 people on March 13, the team behind Mission District nightclub Public Works quickly pivoted from throwing all-night electronic music bacchanals to conceptualizing fundraising efforts to support the venue and its staff.

“When the first couple shows ended up having to be rescheduled or canceled out of the gate, we did a series of refunds for people, and we had multiple people reach out and say that they wanted to give their refunds back,” venue director Marco De La Vega says. “They wanted to support the venue and were asking specifically about how they could help.”

This outpouring of support stems from the 900-person venue’s decade-long love affair with the city’s loyal dance floor denizens. At its inception, Public Works asked members of San Francisco’s underground community what they wanted to see in the forthcoming nightclub; its founders took note of the response, installing a sprung, hardwood dance floor and state-of-the-art sound system. In the 10 years since, Public Works has become a beloved watering hole for local dance music lovers of all stripes.

In this sense, the industrial-style, multilevel space’s mantra — “For the people, by the people” — is quite literal, and it shows. The club’s tight-knit community of regulars were eager to aid their favorite nightspot as it lurched into uncharted waters of zero revenue, and clamored to keep the lights on while supporting its employees.

“While everything else was on pause, our first order of business was making sure that the staff is taken care of in some way,” venue director Marco De La Vega says. 

Public Works started a Staff Support Fund on March 17 to subsidize lost wages for its bartenders, security, coat check workers, cleaning crew, and other personnel. As of May 13, the GoFundMe drive has raised more than $18,000 of its $20,000 goal, which Public Works creative director Ryan Ormsby credits to the staff’s genuine relationships with its attendees.

“We have a lot of regulars that come through every weekend, and I’ll ask them how their week was, or how their kids are, you get really personal with your audience,” he says. “It’s not just a customer relationship, it’s an actual friendship.”

One week later, Public Works launched its Save The Rave fundraiser to cover ongoing expenses, including rent, payroll, insurance and utilities, selling once-in-a-lifetime packages that ranged from a two-year membership for $600, to a lifetime membership for $1,250, with varying tiers of perks — including express entry, drink tickets and specialty merch. The venue hit its $60,000 fundraising goal in early May, thanks to donations from individual patrons as well as larger sums from promoters they’ve worked closely with over the years.

“There’s always that kind of trepidation of ‘Do we want to actively ask people for money?’ but it comes down to needing to make sure that you’re taking care of the people that are always taking care of you,” De La Vega says.

With fundraising initiatives underway, the team turned its efforts toward curating unique, creative content that would keep their fanbase engaged. On March 31, Public Works announced its “April Madness” bracket: a head-to-head DJ tournament hosted on the club’s Instagram that encouraged followers to vote for their favorite of 64 selectors. The bracket was the brainchild of Ormsby, a basketball fan who was missing the competitive spirit of the annual March Madness college hoops tournament. English sound-sculptor Four Tet, who performed a mesmeric set at the venue back in 2015, prevailed.

“There are only so many memes you can post on Instagram, and there’s only so many articles that you can read, so I had to do something a little bit off-the-cuff to get people involved,” Ormsby says. “It was our way of pushing people’s opinions across, and also introducing other DJs to our community.”

Beyond engaging social media content, Public Works began planning a 420 celebration in partnership with San Francisco-based online radio station Fault Radio. “Clouds In The Distance” invited attendees to partake in the pot holiday by watching the clouds while exhaling clouds from their rooftops, windows, or balconies. The event was soundtracked by a broadcast of nine local artists. Musically-inclined participants were also encouraged to “join the Cloud” by setting up their own live streams, sharing their personal links on the central feed, and effectively creating a localized, digital festival composed of Public Works devotees. 

“This time has forced us to think outside the box and think of new, creative ways we can engage with our audience, and foster that community,” venue manager and assistant talent buyer Mohit Kohli says. “It’s also shown us that all the work we’ve put in over the years, and all the time we’ve spent really getting to know our audience, and becoming friends with our audience, how powerful that kind of stuff is.”

In addition to offering up a medley of DJ streams, Public Works teamed with local record label Public Release for a joint digital album release via Bandcamp titled Public Service. Public Release has been throwing parties at Public Works since day one, and offered up seven previously unreleased tracks, remixes, and rarities from the imprint discography, as well as a promo mix from label head Eug. Nearly 80 copies have been downloaded, totaling close to $1,000 in support, with 100 percent of proceeds directly benefiting the Public Works Staff Support Fund.

Peter Blick, who’s worked as a talent buyer and promoter for the club since its inception, says the Public Works has always been about “giving the people what they want, but now that’s moving over to giving the people what they need, and creating smart, community-oriented programming.”

Moving into month three of quarantine, Public Works last week announced a new recurring online event called “The Sunset Stream.” The upcoming weekly series will broadcast from the Public Works rooftop with the city and sunset as its backdrop before moving inside the club for an added layer of audiovisual thrills. The series kicks off on Friday, May 15,  as the sunset portion of local underground promoter SET’s ‘Stay At Home Virtual Festival,’ and will be broadcasted via Public Works’ Twitch channel

“I definitely think streaming is here to stay, and we’re having an ongoing conversation to help everybody figure out what streaming should look like,” De La Vega says. “But how do you do that while still continuing to foster an active community, and making sure that people feel as though they’re socializing and interacting, and a part of something, as opposed to just passively viewing something? Because I think that that’s the whole thing with dance music, club culture, nightlife, and Public Works in particular. That relationship, and that interaction, and that friendship — you need that element of it.”

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