“It’s shocking that they don’t just stay until they figure it out,” says Audrey Fix Schaefer of the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA), speaking about Congress adjourning Thursday without taking up federal legislation to relieve businesses hardest hit by the pandemic. While many Americans are in distress without a relief package, Schaefer believes that the nation’s clubs and small theaters stand the least chance of being able to ride out a long quarantine and survive, given their “first to close, last to reopen” status. If it takes a month or longer for Congress to get its act together, NIVA believes a lot more of the country’s most beloved live entertainment hotspots will look at their increasing debt loads and finally have to declare that the gig is up… so to speak.
Variety spoke with Schaefer Friday as the sinking feeling of watching congresspeople go home without having acted sank further in still. She’s an eloquent spokesperson not just for the sense of panic that is settling in among club and theater operators as a result of the current inaction, but for all the issues facing an industry in dire straits, as explored in this alarming (but not completely hopeless) primer on the issues.
VARIETY: Were you shocked, or unsurprised, that Congress adjourned without taking up the relief measures you’ve hoped for?
SCHAEFER: Frankly, it’s a kick in the gut. It’s shocking that they don’t just stay until they figure it out. I am really hoping against hope that they don’t wait till September. So much of America is depending on this. How is the whole world not having a big collective screech to get the job done? I know I can’t go on vacation if I don’t finish my work.
Given that this recess is just starting, what do you imagine in terms of when realistically this could be taken up again? And how much worse do you expect the situation to be by then for the people and venues you represent?
Well, I am not the Congress whisperer. I cannot predict their activity. If I would have predicted it, I would have thought these bills would have been passed a month or two ago, just based on the obvious need, and here’s something you can solve — boom! But I did hear that Senator (Mitch) McConnell said, “Go back home, but be able to come back on 24 hours’ notice.” I hope he has to pull that trigger to say, “Come back in 24 hours,” and they have an agreement of some sort. But I can’t tell you that I’m optimistic or pessimistic. I have to sit by the sidelines like everybody else who is hurting and wait and watch and hope.
To answer your other question, every day that goes by is another day that our members are at risk for folding. Because they look at the lack of assistance and say, “How much more in debt should I go into, waiting for them to get this done?” And they’re already calling it quits. I don’t know how many this week have. But every single week, almost every day, I get emails about a different venue that has said, “I just can’t anymore.” And it doesn’t have to be like that.
I was just on the phone with one of the owners of Tipitina’s in New Orleans, and that is a classic place that is part of America’s music culture. The blues and jazz that comes out of that, that is America. How can New Orleans be New Orleans without all of the places that are the heart and soul of the music community there? And the same thing with Nashville and the same thing with L.A. — but the same thing with Des Moines, Iowa, too. Every community has got a place that is their pride in music culture, and they’re all at risk.
Can you explain why the PPP programs that have helped so many other businesses have been useless for live venues?
There are a lot of businesses that have been helped by the past programs of PPP, but our industry is not, because the whole premise behind that, which is very well meaning, is to hire employees back. We’re shut down. We can’t. We wish we could. So we’re not able to take part in those PPP programs. And it’s notorious how the SBA loan program hasn’t worked.
You’ve had to start completely from scratch as a lobbying effort, which isn’t easy even in times of less distress.
Mom-and-pop businesses like ours have always pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps. And we’ve never, ever had to have our hand out before. But this is a situation in which we were shut down through no fault of our own. We’ve been suffering through that for five months now with no revenue and enormous overhead. And from within the early weeks of the shutdown, we did something we’ve never done before: we came together. This association didn’t exist in March, and this is a really dire situation where we’re now up to 2,600 members,
Starting in April, we’ve had conversations with each senator and representative or their offices to explain how we are being impacted in a really far different way than most industries. A lot of industries can go online with whatever it is that they’re selling, or restaurants that can do takeout and delivery or partial seating. We can’t do any of that. And I think of it as like a situation of eminent domain, when the government decides that for the greater good, they have to put the highway through your backyard, so they take your property and pay fair market value. Well, we’re in a similar situation in that, for the greater good and for the health and safety of our citizens, the government has shut us down and effectively taken our business. But with that comes the responsibility of helping us through it so we can get out the other end.
Do you feel like the members of Congress were getting the point, at least, regardless of action getting stalled?
What is reassuring is that with these conversations that we’ve been having, a lot of members (of Congress) are understanding: Oh, wait, this is different. This is the hardest-hit in terms of being the first to close, and the last to open — if we do get to reopen. And also being able to demonstrate our impact on our communities… There was a study out of Chicago that showed for every dollar spent at a small concert venue, $12 of economic activity was generated for area businesses. That says a lot for what will happen if we don’t get to open again — its impact on the businesses that moved next to us or down the street from us because they want that added traffic that we bring. It will be a domino effect on them. It also says a lot that if we are helped for this first time with emergency relief and can hold on until we can get through it, then we can be part of the economic renewal of our communities.
And I’m glad to say that the response has been a bipartisan support, which is so rare nowadays. I mean, Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat, and John Cornyn, who’s a Republican, came together to author the Save Our Stages act. And those are two people you’re not used to seeing on the same side of the table, no matter what the issue is. They’ve come together on this, knowing that what these independent businesses mean for Main Street USA, and for tourism for their communities. So this is not a red issue or blue issue. What it has taken is explaining why it is important not just to the venue owners and the employees and the artists that we get through this, but why it’s important to every town that they have constituents in, because of our role in local economies. We’ve not had pushback per se. It’s just getting through and taking the time to explain this for the very first time to 535 congresspeople.
We had broken through to have three pieces of legislation under consideration, which I’m told is phenomenal for an organization that didn’t exist in March: the Save Our Stages Act, the Restart Act and the Encores Act. But even though we’ve gotten a lot of momentum and support, none of it matters until Congress comes together and comes to an agreement to have an overall COVID relief package. And when they went out on recess, it was, I mean, hearts going to the basement and the sub-basement.
And any of these different pieces of legislation that you hoped for would be folded into a general COVID-19 relief package, right?
Exactly. Without that umbrella to fold it into, there’s nothing. They don’t vote on single pieces of legislation like this. It gets folded in.
How many clubs are going to fall between now and then that didn’t have to? I don’t know. It keeps me up at night. And when I go to sleep, I dream about it every single night. The people who own these clubs are mom-and-pop businesses that are not publicly traded entities that have stockholder money that can hold them over. They don’t have these enormous lines of Wall Street credit that the billionaire companies have. These are just really hard-working entrepreneurs that America says that it loves. And these individuals, when they take out loans, it’s because they believe so much in what they’re doing. And they take out personal guarantees on those loans, which means that it’s not just their business and their livelihood that’s at risk, it’s their homes. … And they deserve to have the emergency assistance that the airlines get. The airlines have a long history of being able to get assistance from Congress in a minute. This is an industry that, because it’s always worked it out on its own, has never had to ask for help, and we bring back so much more to our communities.
You have some faith that congresspeople are getting how dire the situation is, and that we could lose the live music industry as we know it, beneath the Live Nation level. Do you think everyday Americans get it yet?
With the beginning of this campaign, we knew that we needed to have all of our customers be aware of the risk that all of these now 2,600 members (venues) are facing, and to have their voices heard. So we started a website called SaveOurStages.com so that all the venues and the promoters and the festivals could email their customers and say, “Hey, listen, normally we would be telling you about upcoming shows so you could buy tickets to them. But now we’re here to tell you: We need help. And what we need is your voice, so you can let your Congresspeople know that you care about your independent venue and you want them to take a look at this and help.”
We’ve never done this before. We’ve never had to. So we hired Akin Gump, a lobby firm, because not knowing how to do it, you need to do that. And when we were launching the Save our Stages website, we asked our lobbyist, “So, what would be considered a success? How many emails, do you think?” And they said “If you get 50,000 or 55,000, you will have made a mark. And that would be a huge success.” We’re at 1.6 million. So that I think tells you a lot about how much people care, and every single one of the 535 congresspeople has gotten communicated with by their constituents, because we can track it.
So far, though, there haven’t been a tremendous amount of nationally famous venues announcing that they are throwing in the towel. Spaceland recently was the first such to do so in L.A. We’re surely on the cusp of more, and we have to wonder if it might require that to get to a tipping point where everyone realizes the gravity.
I can name about five famous places that are famous to their areas or nationally, like Barracuda in New Orleans, Great Scott in Boston, Threadgill’s in Austin, and the Eighteenth Street Lounge in D.C., which was such a gem — God, I loved that place. A lot of others are just holding on, white knuckles, on what seems to be a greased cliff, because they’re waiting for Congress to act.
We shouldn’t have to watch them close. They told you what will happen. These are fighters. These are people who have defied the odds and are making it happen in a dog-eat-dog concert business that is so hard to survive in as an independent as it is. Which is another reason why the idea of having to be in a position to ask for help and explaining what the economics are… This is not a drill. This is real life. And all the tax money that goes into sports stadiums for really wealthy organizations… It would take like a drop in the bucket to keep this entire industry alive through this. And what will it cost when the buildings are boarded up? How much to bring that back?
How would you define “a drop in the bucket” in this situation, as far as what it would take in federal money to reasonably make a big difference?
In the overall scheme of things, I don’t know what fraction of funding it is. But the Save Our Stages Act is $10 billion. The restaurant association was asking for $145 billion. [That was in March; in April; that request from the restaurant industry was upped to $240 billion.] So what we’re looking for is a fraction of that. But I don’t want to compare us to other industries. What I’m saying is, what we can bring back to our communities — by being that economic trigger, with the jobs we create, and the foot traffic we create that feeds jobs for other businesses — that really does set us apart.
How do you compare this with other entertainment businesses?
We are in a tougher situation that most people never have to think about. The movie theater business could come back on with a flip of a switch, once they’re allowed to. But it will take at least four months for touring to be scheduled and for all the venues to be able to have a calendar, because it is such an intricate process. Think of the thousands of bands that want to get on the road and the thousands of venues to schedule them all, and to get their travel and hotels and all of that. That’ll be at least another four months. And the thing with movie is, it’s in the can, boom, it goes. Artists are not going to get on a bus until there is some type of uniformity across the country for when they can play, because you can’t go to one state and then drive through six other states where you can’t play there just to get to the eighth state, you know?
With restaurants, once they’re allowed to open, they don’t have to worry if the other restaurants in the neighborhood can open. They can open, order their food, get their employees back, and then boom, they go. For us, you don’t have control over inventory, so to speak — which is something that, outside of the business, nobody needed to know that. We want people to have that incredible feeling of leaving their problems at the door when they walk into our venue. The anticipation of seeing one of their favorite artists on stage, and that electricity that you feel, and that two hours of memories that you’ll remember 20 years from now — that’s what we want people to think about. We don’t want them to have to think about like how hard it is to get those artists there, and what it will take in order to be able to survive.
Does it matter which city you’re in, how seriously you take this, in terms of live music’s impact on the community? Practically speaking, it has to be more vital in some cities or towns than others.
Washington, D.C., in 2008, really came into its own in a way that was palpable. I moved to D.C. when I was 14, when my family moved down from the New York area. And there was just really hardly any place to go downtown. There were government workers and association workers, and as soon as it was nightfall, everybody got the heck out. Then in 2008, small bistros and little mom-and-pop retail shops would pop up, and it became a really cool town, with exceptional entrepreneurial businesses that represented food, entertainment, art, music, culture of all sorts. You would have never used the word “fashion” in Washington D.C. before that. but it became a hip, funky place, and it was all because of these small businesses that took a risk and went back into a town that frankly had been neglected since the ‘68 riots. To me, it was shocking how it was allowed to just not come back after that for so long, and that it took about 40 years. And now the thought of all these places shutting after all that hard work to get it to be a vibrant city?
But that’s all across the country. And in more rural places, there’s one arts center where they’ll have comedy and concerts and plays, and you can get people to move to those rural areas because they have that one arts center. If that falls, there goes part of the lifeblood of the place. And how do you bring it back? You shouldn’t have to think like that.
We sent a letter to Congress from 600 artists a couple months ago, signed by everyone from Billie Eilish to Billy Porter to Billy Joel, along with Dave Grohl, Lady Gaga and all of the emerging bands and comedians, on both sides of what people might think both sides of the aisle are, because there is a universality about music. It’s very different to sit home and watch a concert on TV than it is to be in the middle of a room while you’re singing along. And even more so than watching sports on TV — I love going to a baseball game or a basketball game, but I’ll watch it on TV, because I don’t know what’s going to happen next. With concerts, you kind of need to be in the room.
Do you see any intermediate future at all for these makeshift things that people are doing? We just had that big show over in the U.K. with 500 platforms on a field for 2,500 people. More in line with what you represent, though, we’ve seen some of the City Winery locations allowed to reopen at a fraction of capacity. Some are looking at hosting paid livestream series. Is there any case for hope in that, before normal is reestablished?
I mean, every venue operator is going to make their own choice about what they can do. And it’ll be part of it will be incumbent upon what their configuration is. City Winery is a restaurant, too, so they’ve got tables and chairs. Here’s the thing. The economics don’t work for the vast majority of it, whether it’s streaming, or whether it’s a socially distanced thing, because it costs so much in the overhead that you cannot make it. The only thing worse than being completely shut down is opening up at 25%, because you’re losing more money than if you were not open. Your rent doesn’t go to 25%. The salary you pay the artist doesn’t go to 25%. You make money based oftentimes on the bar, and you need faces in there. And what they did in the U.K., good on them, but who’s got that kind of property here, for the most part?
I’m thinking of one of our members in D.C. that I love to go to their venue. It started as an EDM place, but also has live music. To get in there, you go down this tiny little narrow staircase, and then you take a left, and then it opens up to this ultra-packed, 500-person place. Well, you can’t socially distance going up and down that staircase, first of all. That’s just one of a lot of places in D.C. that will be completely shut until there’s a vaccine. And there is no opportunity for another revenue stream that could possibly hold you over. I do commend people for their creativity and for wanting to try, but you just can’t make money at it. I’ve not talked to any promoter who’s done the drive-ins that would rather be doing that than what they would normally be doing.
Again in the U.K., we just had an example of the first governmentally approved indoor show there since the pandemic, a Frank Turner show with 200 people in a 2,000-capacity room. The promoter basically said afterward he lost a lot of money and wasn’t eager to do it again.
I read the coverage of that, as a Frank Turner follower and someone who’s looking at what’s going on around the world. It just felt sad. I don’t blame people for trying, but we don’t see a way out of it like that.
It’s heartbreaking because none of us have gone this long without a show in our adult lives. But it’s not just missing the music. It’s missing being able to make other people really happy when they come through the door. And it’s taking all the challenges that this whole business has and working so hard to make a success out of it, and being a contributing member of our communities. We miss that, too. We all wake up just wanting to put on a show. And five months in, we’ve been waking up just trying to fight to survive this, and for our competitors, for ourselves, for everybody in the business. That’s one thing that has been pretty wild is to watch how people that normally are competing tooth and nail to get the bands are linking arms and working so hard together to be able to generate the support for the Save Our Stages Act and Restart Act. They’re a team. And the comradery is phenomenal. All of us would do anything to go back to normal.