Remembering San Diego venues lost during COVID-19 pandemic

Live music venues like San Diego Content Partners, Bar Pink and Kava Lounge shut their doors permanently due to the financial stress of temporary closure


A Dia de los Muertos-style altar honoring some of the venues that closed during the COVID-19 pandemic includes Bar Pink, pictured left hosting a Doc Hammer show, San Diego Content Partners, pictured center hosting the band CURSE, and Kava Lounge, pictured right during an Umbrella Nights show. Bar Pink photo by Ben Clemens, SDCP photo by Rees Withrow, Kava Lounge photo by Javier Luna. Photo illustration by Philip Salata/City Times Media

Jakob McWhinney, Multimedia Journalist

CityScene, Fall 2021 CoverThis story was featured in the fall 2021 edition of CityScene magazine.

The COVID-19 pandemic affected us all, but small businesses were hit especially hard — perhaps none more than live music venues.

As San Diego gradually reopens following a year-and-a-half of restrictions related to the pandemic, here are some of the venues that didn’t make it through. 

San Diego Content PartnersSan Diego Content Partners

For a couple of years, if you walked down the alley next to City Heights’ El Borrego restaurant on a Friday or Saturday, odds are you’d stumble upon a secret garden of DIY music. Through a garage attached to a pawn shop and past a row of glitching televisions was a small, dingy room perpetually bathed in projected visuals.

More like a sauna, it was actually a music venue called San Diego Content Partners.

It was founded in 2017 by Bryan Drummond and Rees Withrow, but by 2020, it was a reliable haunt for local bands and a regular stop-off for touring bands of every conceivable flavor. With a maximum capacity of around 50 people (uncomfortably), it was an invaluable space for musicians just starting out.

Withrow (who was just one of a rotating cast of locals who powered SDCP) said at its peak, the venue hosted 2-3 shows a week. It even had bookers at local venues sending touring bands their way, all despite not even being a legal venue.

With SDCP, Withrow said, he’d hoped to make San Diego a more appealing place for touring bands to play, especially for unorthodox or DIY-centric musicians. 

Then the pandemic hit. For SDCP, the shows had helped pay the rent. When the organizers asked their landlord for a reduction, they say he wouldn’t budge. So in June 2020 the venue shut its doors, or in this case, rolled down its security gate.

“One of the things I really liked about Content Partners is that it was kind of a space for people to test out stuff,” Withrow said. 

Whether that was a new song or a new project, SDCP provided a laboratory for experimentation, he said. And if the experiment “worked,” they could take it to Casbah, or House of Blues, or any of a number of local venues.

“If it doesn’t, well, you know, you only made 20 people feel awkward for a minute or so,” he said.

In a city with an already depressing lack of spaces for the arts, the loss of SDCP is just one more blow. Spaces like these are vital to building the sort of community necessary to power thriving local music and art scenes, and San Diego is poorer without it. 

“You need these little stepping stone venues,” Withrow said. “Just think about how many great bands could have been lost if they didn’t have a place to play when they were first starting out.”

Kava Lounge

Kava Lounge hosted a wide variety of musical performances, but they specialized in DJ nights, like in this photo of an Umbrella Nights party taken by Javier Luna. The Afternoon Umbrella Friends courtesy photo

Housed in a nondescript storefront in the shadow of Interstate 5 was Kava Lounge, a second home for many in San Diego’s underground electronic music scene. It fostered the sort of community many venues only dream of, with a legion of devoted, albeit niche, fans.

In June 2020, Kava announced it would be closing. The community, eager to sustain the venue, pushed owner Scott Bell to create a GoFundMe that raised nearly $20,000. 

But in a Dec. 7, 2020 Facebook post Kava Lounge said those funds had been depleted, and announced, once again, it would close. In the post, owners thanked everyone who had been involved in making Kava what it was, and said when the pandemic was over, they’d seek to open “something new with the same energy and spirit.”

Bar Pink

Josh Ravin, lead singer of San Diego hardcore band Doc Hammer surveys the crowd at Bar Pink. Ben Clemens courtesy photo

Bar Pink announced on Instagram that after thirteen years the 30th Street bar was closing permanently in October 2020. Co-owned by Rocket From The Crypt’s John Reis, it was a reliable spot to find both local punk and rock ‘n’ roll acts, like Reis’ Hot Snakes, and touring musicians, like the late Jay Reatard.

Former co-owner Robin Chiki told The San Diego Union-Tribune shortly after the announcement that despite taking out three government loans, and the bar’s landlord halving their $13,000 rent for the first two months of the pandemic, the cost of prolonged shutdown was simply too high.

So, say goodbye to the pool tables, the $2 Tecate happy hours, the bar’s signature Pink Elephant drink, the slight stickiness of everything, and prepare to say hello to whatever’s next.