The good news that people in the live music industry foresee is that there will not only be a resurgence of concertgoing at the end of the pandemic but maybe even a “Roaring Twenties” level of enthusiasm for hitting the town. The bad news is that few independent venues are equipped to weather a shutdown that could last till the end of 2021 without Congress passing assistance bills… and it’ll be only corporate venue owners reaping the rewards at quarantining’s end.
Those were some of the conclusions offered at a panel featuring artists, managers and club owners that are members of the National Independent Venue Association or National Independent Talent Organization. The Zoom-based panel, “NIVA and NITO: Fighting for the Survival of Independent Music,” took place as part of the Americana Music Foundation’s first online Thriving Roots conference, which wrapped up Friday.
Also discussed: the viability of drive-in concerts and limited-capacity shows — stopgap measures that most of the participants didn’t see as really offering any additional hope for survival, as the industry waits for members of Congress to make good on their promises to help out.
“We will never take what we do and the awesome privilege for granted” again, said Dayna Frank, the president-CEO of the famed First Avenue club in Minneapolis. “After the Spanish flu of 1918-20, we had the roaring ‘20s, and that’s really what I foresee when we come out of this and it’s safe to do so. It’s just gonna be a celebration — hopefully a decade long, maybe just a few years. We just want to make sure the right people are still in business and able to make that celebration happen.”
Right now, not a lot of roaring: Panel moderator Sara Mertz, of NIVA and Tixr, said at the outset that a survey of NIVA’s members showed that “90% will have to close permanently, they say, if they don’t get aid” that is currently held up in Congress along with all other Covid-19 business relief efforts.
The few opportunities for doing safe gigs now offer moral support and quick, modest paychecks but aren’t really anything that can keep the industry alive, panelists said.
“We have announced some social distancing shows, and we’re looking forward to those like crazy,” said Traci Thomas, manager of Jason Isbell, who recently put on sale a handful of shows at makeshift open-air venues in the South, all of which immediately sold out. “Right now I wouldn’t feel safe sending any of my artists inside to do a show. … The new reality is that we have to figure out how we can play outside more. We have to get creative. But unfortunately, we’re going into weather that doesn’t really accommodate that.”
Paul Janeway, the frontman of the group St. Paul and the Broken Bones, admitted that there are some moral questions artists face as they ponder what kind of gigs to take at a time when few are available for the taking.
“I would play in somebody’s basement right now, as long as it was okay,” said Janeway. “We’re doing these drive-in shows at the end of October. What’s been interesting for us is the ethical dilemmas, because we live in the South, and as we know, things are a little different down here, as far as how they’ve treated this. So it’s been really interesting. But we have to adapt. I told (the band’s reps), I don’t want to be the first band to do it, but I don’t want to be the last band to do it.
“The problem is, winter’s coming and that’s going to eliminate a lot of outdoor things,” continued Janeway. “So for us, we have kind of a small window. .. We did a (pay-per-view) livestream at the Brooklyn Bowl (in Nashville) a couple weeks ago, and honestly, it felt really good. It felt like a show. But I think for now the social distance thing is where we’re at. And unfortunately if you don’t have an outdoor venue, I don’t know what you do. I’ve heard some people say they suck to play.”
Although handfuls of indoor venues in a few states have reopened with limited-capacity shows, panelists explained why that is hardly a one-size-fits-all model.
“When you’re playing a limited-capacity in one state, is the state next door actually open, or is the capacity even more limited?” asked Frank Riley, owner of High Road Touring. “Can you afford to tour? What most people don’t know is that with touring, it’s a very small margin that actually generates money to the artist. If you start to reduce capacities, that living becomes just not workable. So yes, there are adjustments that can be made. You can eliminate a crew member… You can do things to adjust and to conform, but it’s not endlessly that you can do that. At some point it has to come back in full bloom, or it’s not going to work, and the development of an artist’s career is going to be stunted, for sure.”
Addressing Chris Cobb, the owner of Exit/In, Nashville’s most venerable rock club, Riley said: “I’m sure, Chris, that if you only have half capacity at Exit/In, that’s a bad date for you under normal conditions. You can’t make money at those.”
“Fifty percent sold is a failure for everybody,” agreed Cobb. “We lose less money being 100% closed than we do being open at 50%, or probably even 75% for a room like Exit/In. Some rooms are better suited for some tables sand some seating. But Exit/In’s an old-school black box. We can socially distance 20 people in there, or maybe 30? No – we just have to stay closed and figure out how to ride through until late next year, I’m afraid.”
So what are the hopes for the cavalry coming, with the hoped- and prayed-for government relief for venues that have no hope of bringing in income before mid-2021, at the most optimistic?
“My hope for this panel,” when it was first announced, Mertz said, “was it was going to be a celebration of the aid packages coming through.” Now that nothing seems even imminent — not just for indie venues, but an entire nation full of unemployed individuals also waiting on stalled congressional action — the mood of much of the panel was an admitted high anxiety, if not quite abject depression.
“We’ve had a lot of successes, but we don’t have any aid,” said Frank. “We have 43 senators now supporting the Save Our Stages Act. Even having a hashtag go from Twitter into legislation was a mind-blowing moment, to be honest. … No one knew we were an industry. They knew about Ticketmaster… but our industry has had to go and sell itself.” The questions they’ve realized they’ve had to explain in Washington might seem simplistic: “What’s a talent buyer, what’s a booker, what’s a promoter? Very, very basic. But what everyone understood was music.
From the most conservative Republicans to the most progressive Democrats, they all have that connection,” she said. ”We’ve had a lot of great conversations, but no aid yet. We’re still out there working 18 hours a day trying to get it.”
“It is bipartisan,” said Mertz, offering a ray of hope for the aisle-crossing that has gone on in sponsoring and supporting music-biz relief bills, even without any votes in sight. “In a world that is so divided, we have something that both sides recognize as important.”
“We’re all waiting to see if there’s some way to bridge the impasse between the two parties,” said Riley. “Our issues are important, but there’s a broader issue: What are (individual) people going to do through the end of the year? How are they gonna survive? You’ve gotta believe that congress at some point will come to its senses, accept their responsibility and move forward. But maybe not. And if not… I don’t know how we’ll survive. I don’t think all of us will survive through the end of the year. And if it goes into next year, there’ll be even fewer of us. It’s a really dangerous and difficult time for all of us.”
As for keeping track of the different bills: “We were told right at the outset that there would not be one bill for our industry,” Riley pointed out. Mertz explained to Thriving Roots’ viewing audience that there are three pieces of legislation in play: The Restart Act is an “industry-agnostic forgivable loan program that would allow businesses up to 5000 employees access to loans based on 2019 revenue, and then forgiveness based on your decrease of revenue.” Then the Stage Our Stages Act is “a grant program that would allow for venues, agencies and talent reps affected by Covid” to apply for aid. Finally, “extending pandemic employment assistance” remains at issue for the tens of thousands of furloughed employees of all these shuttered venues.
You can judge the tenor of things from the name of a new campaign that is launching to support these efforts: “Do Not Abandon Us.”
“If we go to the end of the year without support, there’s no telling if it will come back,” said Dayna. “It could be decades till it comes back, if it does.”
“If these venues go down, they will not be replaced,” added Chris. “There’ll be no way to construct that venue again in the same location or anywhere near it,” he said, pointing out that many clubs and halls exist in cities’ historic cores and are likely to be replaced by other kinds of businesses that can afford higher rents, even if those venues are essential to the culture of their cities. It’ll not just about bringing the venues back but “bringing the communities around them back.”
The St. Paul and the Broken Bones frontman spoke to that. “The weirder the place, the more history of the place, put me in there,” he said. Although his band is a nationally known act that can play bigger halls, Janeway said that whenever they come to New Orleans, they make a point of booking themselves into the smaller and funkier Tipitina’s “for tips,” just for love of the place. And “places like First Ave., where Prince played, those places are so vital to music history… With the older music venues, you lose the character of the city when those places go away. When those corporations come in to buy those places,” as he fears will happen now, “they become very sterile — they come with a lot of mozzarella sticks. Playing sterile places is not my thing. There’s people that took a risk on us when we first started, and corporations aren’t gonna do that.”
Most on the panel allowed themselves some frankly down moments as they face what sometimes seems like an insurmountable crisis.
“All this work accomplishes nothing—nothing tangible, yet, anyway,” admitted Riley. “There’s days you just want to bury yourself in a bed and tell somebody to wake you up when it’s over. I worry, really worry. I had to furlough nine people from High Road that are integral to the operation of the company. What’s going to happen to them?” Yet, he added, “I am hopeful of a day for a more level playing field for the independents in this industry.”
Some of the panelists admitted difficulty with balancing their lobbying efforts as board members of NIVA or NITO with their day jobs — or once-and-future day jobs — as venue or business owners.
“I’ve struggled with balance my whole life,” said Exit/In’s Cobb. “I have a family too. Don’t even get me started about school! I own a business, one of 15 independent venues we’ve got in Nashville, and 40 in the state. Resources are at an all-time low all the way around. Money is gone. Teams, employees are gone. And energy —battery levels are in the 2% range, six months in. It’s tough. I’ve gone weeks without thinking about Exit/In, literally, and then I’ll find time and stay up all night to get it done. It’s hard to balance all the things that need to be balanced right now.”
“None of us will survive without all of us surviving,” said Frank.
And already, said Frank, “There are so many getting eviction notices. … I feel like I am the worst person to invite to anything these days, because it ‘How’s it going?,’ and I just come out with all the f—ing s— news.”
So they look for the rays of hope, which sometimes come from the artists. Frank said the Dead, Phish and Foo Fighters are among those who’ve pledged money from livestreams and online merch sales to an emergency relief fund that NIVA will announce in a bigger way in a couple of weeks. Cobb said that supporters can do two things, for now — make donations to that NIVA fund, and then go to Saveourstages.com to continue to send emails to legislators.
“We’re doing everything we can as independent operators just to make sure that we don’t go through this mass extinction event that we’re literally at the edge of the cliff on right now,” Cobb said. “My two things are, send the email, and if you can, make a small donation.”
And at the end of all this, when the bloodied and bruised survivors make it to the light at the end of the tunnel? “I really think it’s going to be jubilation at the other side of this,” said Frank, bringing up the “Roaring Twenties” analogy.
But even that sunny an outcome couldn’t help but be followed by an additional note of wariness, after all this. “Hopefully the thing that happened at the end of the Roaring Twenties doesn’t happen to us again,” said Cobb.
For more information on how to help, go here: https://www.saveourstages.com.