It’s Time for Independent Venues, Bookers, Agents and Managers to Turn Up the Volume in Washington (Guest Column)

The Troubadour
Michael Buckner/Variety/Shutters

A week ago, I hopped on a Zoom call not knowing what to expect. The Town Hall-style conference was for a newly formed non-profit organization called The National Independent Talent Organization, or NITO (www.nitolive.org). I knew there would be a solid showing of people on this call, figuring maybe around 40 to 50 attendees from the independent music business. That was not the case. Instead, there were seven consecutive Zoom pages of attentive small business owners — representing around 150 companies — all longtime pillars in the booking agency and management space. Among the familiar faces: High Road Touring’s Frank Riley, Madison House’s Nadia Prescher, Ground Control’s Eric Dimenstein, Pinnacle’s Scott Sokol, Panache’s Michelle Cable, and more.

The initial focus for this call to action was the rapid creation of a non-profit within the music community that would tackle the paralyzing impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the independent sector nationwide. It became clear that the indie community was having an increasingly difficult time grabbing the attention of Congress and Washington to let them know the severity of the situation and the level of help required, particularly of the financial kind.

While we’ve all experienced lean times where the restaurant is short-staffed and your meal might take a bit longer to arrive, in this case, there is no restaurant and no meal at all. Support from the government is a must. The question was, how do the collective voices and presence of these companies ultimately get heard and seen in Washington D.C.? No one has ever experienced anything like this in our lifetime, and the guide book we’re all looking for does not exist.

Within this newly formed organization, where there are 14 co-founders, NITO members have been continuously educating themselves as they navigate these uncharted waters. In working to identify the collective needs of the independent space, NITO estimates that just from their original 14 founders alone, more than 40,000 concerts were booked across the U.S. with over 12.5 million tickets sold, generating in excess of a half-billion dollars in gross ticket sales annually.

In order for Congress to appreciate the significant contribution to commerce and culture that these companies deliver, the group recognized the need to bring in a lobbyist who can get a seat at the table in Washington.

How important is the indie sector? It has the collective strength of thousands of independent agents and managers, production professionals, touring crew, venue staff and ticketing personnel, among countless other roles. In 2019, over a billion dollars in revenue can be credited to the independent sector overall. These hard-working professionals are invisible to most — we are not public figures — but we are integral to helping create the fan experience.

The experience of working with a lobbyist, however, was unfamiliar ground for all involved, but as the music industry — and humanity in general — has always shown, we get creative in the face of adversity. In this case, we came together to create the ultimate supergroup, enlisting the likes of Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard and original Byrds member Chris Hillman to sign on. See all of NITO’s associate members here.

The situation for all involved can perhaps best be summed up by one of the most revered independent acts, Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst, who says: “The independent spirit that drives the members of NITO is the engine of the live music ecosystem and they are vital to the livelihoods of musicians, crews, venue workers and a multitude of other professionals who rely on concerts and tours for income. All of these hard working people and their businesses have been deeply impacted by the COVID 19 pandemic and sadly without federal support, many won’t survive. Without them all of the joy and community that live music offers could be lost. I look forward to the day they can get back to work, so we can get back to work, and live music can once again bring us all together. It feels more needed and important than ever.”

Laurel Stearns is a music industry vet who has worked within the label and management space for over 25 years, including at Capitol Records, Red Light Management and currently with Primary Wave. Among the artists she’s worked with are: Father John Misty, The Decemberists, Johnathan Rice, GWAR, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, U.S. Girls, Red Fang, the Album Leaf, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, and more. Laurel also helped develop and book the Adult Swim Festival.