As the coronavirus pandemic triggered bans on large gatherings across the U.S., independent music and comedy venues were among the first to shut down. And per each state’s guidelines, they’ll be the among the very last to reopen.
Without financial assistance from the government, some 90% of independent venues — which currently have virtually no income, while still having to pay rent, mortgage, utilities, taxes and insurance — are likely to close their doors permanently, as found in a survey conducted by the National Independent Venue Association.
Now a coalition of 2,000 independent venues in all 50 states and Washington, D.C., NIVA formed at the onset of the pandemic with the goal of gaining financial relief for venues and therefore preventing as many permanent closures as possible. Spearheaded by the top executives at some of the country’s major independent venues, NIVA became a 501 C (6) trade organization and hired top lobbying firm Akin Gump to make their voices heard on Capitol Hill. Through this process, one thing has become painfully clear: keeping independent venues alive requires the government’s help.
NIVA’s demands include Congress passing the RESTART Act, which would finance six months of payroll, benefits and operating costs, allow for flexible use of loan proceeds and loan forgiveness and implement a seven-year payback schedule. In addition, NIVA is asking for several tax credits regarding ticket refunds, rent or mortgage payments, employee retention costs and safe workplace incentives, as well as continued unemployment insurance benefits for their many furloughed employees.
But in order to get the attention of Congress, NIVA Head of Communications Audrey Fix Schaefer knew that it was necessary to garner support.
“[Akin Gump] not only were able to get bipartisan support for us, they know that this isn’t just about art and keeping a nightclub going — independent venues are economic drivers for their communities,” Schaefer tells Variety. “For every dollar spent on a ticket, there’s $12 of economic activity generated for restaurants and parking lots and other businesses.”
The support their efforts have seen so far have been substantial. “From our website — saveourstages.com — people sent 600,000 emails to their legislators, and every single member of Congress has had a constituent reach out,” she says. “The lobbyists said they had never seen anything like it.” That government funding “would allow us to hold on until the reopening, and we will be major economic drivers of renewal.”
Schaefer, who is also the communications director of several D.C.-area venues including The 9:30 Club, Lincoln Theatre, The Anthem and Merriweather Post Pavilion, helped to put together an exhaustive campaign to prove just how important independent venues are to musicians as well as their fans.
The first step was building saveourstages.com, the front page of which offers an extremely easy email template for the public to express their concern to legislators. So far, over 600,000 people have filled out the template, sending emails to all 538 members of Congress. But as the campaign grew legs on social media, Schaefer and her team realized that they could yield the power of the stars to further bolster the cause.
The result was a letter to Congress signed by 600 musicians and comedians: from Billy Joel to Billie Eilish, Cher to André 3000, The Beach Boys to Dave Grohl.
“We will know America is ‘back’ when our music venues are filled with fans safely enjoying concerts with abandon,” the letter reads in part. “The live music experience is inextricably tied to our nation’s cultural and economic fabric. In fact, 53% of Americans – that’s 172 million of us – attended a concert last year… Independent venues give artists their start, often as the first stage most of us have played on.”
The signatures of such major musicians illustrates how important independent venues are to the community, Schaefer says. “The reason why these artists are putting pen to paper on it is because they know without these small venues they would have never gotten the chance to be superstars,” she says. “There would be no Bruce Springsteen without the Stone Pony, most likely. No Lady Gaga without her piano bars in New York, and no Elton John without the Troubadour.”
So far, Schaefer says NIVA’s efforts have resulted in bipartisan support because above all, independent venues are small businesses that are essential to the economies of their respective communities.
“What people on both sides of the aisle understand is the importance of small businesses to be able to open back up again when the time comes that it’s safe,” Schaefer says. “Our guys own their own businesses, they put their money in it, they sign personal guarantees. So that means that if the business goes, their home goes.”
Citing the economic boon that venues provide to the businesses in their communities, Schaefer notes, “I don’t want to picture what it’s going to be like to see all of these places go under and be boarded up and what it’s going to do to their main streets,” she says. “But on the upside, if they do invest in us and give us the means to be able to hold on until we can get out the other end, then we will be the economic trigger for the rest of the community.”
Although a few venues have been allowed to reopen recently at partial capacity, Schaefer points out that operating with small audiences is not a sustainable model.
“There are some that are opening at about 25% capacity just to put their toe in, but they don’t think they can keep it going,” Schaefer says. “If you can open at 25%, the math still doesn’t work. Your rent isn’t 25%, you can’t pay an artist 25%, and the same thing with the utilities and the insurance and all of that. There are a lot of venues that are just thinking 2021 — and that is a gut-wrench.”
Even with federal assistance to hold them over until a COVID-19 vaccine is developed, the sad reality is that the experience of live music – especially when it comes to independent venues – won’t be back to normal for the foreseeable future.
“We don’t even know what it’s going to look like,” she says.” But we would like the government to help us figure out how to do it safely, and also help us pay for whatever we’re going to need in order to do it.”
Additional reporting by Jem Aswad.