A year has passed since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown and, despite the tantalizing promise of mass vaccinations, there still doesn’t seem to be an end in sight. It’s been much-publicized, the lockdown has been absolutely necessary, but let’s be honest – this has been brutal.
At the time of writing, the number of Americans that have died of COVID has crossed 513,000. We still don’t know how to keep our most vulnerable safe, and we have no idea when schools will fully open. So in some respects, discussing music, concerts, and venues seems frivolous.
That’s a little short-sighted though. Thousands of people are employed by independent venues in the United States, businesses that have had their stream of income ripped away from them. Unlike restaurants and stores, there is no “delivery” option for venues, no giant umbrella corporations – they’ve just been left out there on their own.
With that clear, individuals did their best to grasp their own fate and do something, and the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) was born. The first we heard of NIVA was in April 2020, when they sent a letter to Washington.
“The National Independent Venue Association (NIVA), whose members, employees, artists and local communities are facing an existential crisis as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic are in urgent need of targeted legislative and regulatory assistance,” read a press release. And by god, they got it.
The Save Our Stages Act, now officially renamed the Shuttered Venue Operator Grant, was passed with bipartisan support in December. Audrey Fix Schaefer is a NIVA board member and communications director. She explains that getting the legislation passed felt bittersweet.
“All of this work that everybody had put in succeeded,” Schaefer says. “But in another fashion, it felt kind of sad because there are so many venues that went under as we were struggling to get this emergency relief. That part of it was sad. But also, I should let you know that nobody has seen a penny of it yet. The Small Business Administration is going to be administering the grant fund, and they’re still working on the rules and regulations, and the application form. I suppose, because they haven’t done anything quite like this, it takes time for it to get formulated and come to fruition. We’re working in good faith that it’s going to, but in the meantime, there’s still a lot of pain with venues and promoters that are just not able to hold on.”
When we push Schaefer for an estimate of how many venues have gone under since last March, she concedes that we can’t be sure just how bad it is.
“Probably 300-ish since the beginning,” she says. “The reason why I have to give an estimation is, it’s not like there’s a registry for this. This is what we’re gathering from reading articles, seeing Facebook posts or tweets about places that have gone under. It’s not like somebody needs to tap out and put their name on a list as they go. That’s the best that we have.”
Clearly, the situation is agonizing for all involved. Yes, the passing of the bill in December was a great victory. But hope can be utterly frustrating and, while venue owners and staff are waiting for funds to become available, bills are still due.
“We’ve gotten timelines from different offices within the SBA, because the Small Business Administration has got, I guess you’d call it the National and the Federal office, but they also have offices in each state,” Schaefer says. “So we’ve heard February, we’ve heard March, we’ve heard April. April would be absolutely devastating. The shutdown doesn’t mean that the bills stop. Rent is due, utilities are due, mortgage, taxes, insurance, licenses, all of that stuff. You know when it’ll feel good? It’ll feel good when I know that money is starting to flow into the accounts that will help keep these venues alive.”
In the meantime, NIVA has done all it can to raise funds, with companies such as Jägermeister donating large amounts.
“The donations through Jägermeister [$1 million] mean so much, and we’re continuing to raise money with the NIVA emergency relief fund in order to help the venues that are at the most risk while we await federal funding to come, to help them,” Schaefer says. “We have so far distributed $3 million in grants to more than 150 recipients that are independent venues or promoters. While that sounds fantastic, and it is, the need is so great that we’re still trying to raise money because, when we opened up the application process, we got requests for a total of $14 million and we only had $3 million. So we’re continuing on that path. We’re also waiting with great anticipation as the Small Business Administration starts to ready itself to be able to accept applications.”
As Schaefer says though, for many venues it’s just not happening fast enough, and the threat of going out of business is ever-present. Blue Gonzales is the general manager of Arlene’s Grocery and she says that independent venues are all banking on this grant to help pay the mountains of debt that has accrued during our closures.
“We hope that there will be enough funds to help us stand on two feet over the next year, and have live shows again,” Gonzales says. “A lot of cost (and work) go into producing live music so profit margins in our industry are minimal even in a booming economy. Even after we open, it will take time to be back to what we were in 2019. A long time! The Save Our Stages was a much-needed breath of air for us while most of the year we have felt like we were drowning. We are thankful for NIVA and the Senators who pushed so hard to get SOS included. But now we are waiting… and waiting.”
Gonzales says that survival has been a rollercoaster over the past 12 months.
“At first it was denial, that this could go on for too long,” she says. “Then scary to see how hard NY was hit by the virus. When spring came we opened a to-go window and pushed hot dogs just to put a little money in our staff’s hands. Due to all of the regulations and inspections that came with it, the establishments don’t even break even. It was just to keep the name alive. With fall came the acceptance that the money was drying up. Everything we had was gone and we could see the end to the funds. Then (again) the outpouring of love and support from our community. Like a million helping hands picking you up off the floor after getting the wind knocked out of you. Celebrating a huge victory with SOS and now the waiting game.”
Working closely with NIVA is the National Independent Talent Organization (NITO), composed of over 100 independent booking agencies and over 140 independent management companies. CFO Tom Chauncey says that NITO came together as members were trying to figure things out.
“At the time nobody knew the length of what the pandemic would look like,” Chauncey says. “We thought it would be over fairly quickly. So we came together to assess where our business was at, what the immediate next steps would be because of the pandemic. But I think we then realized that when we understood the length of it better as it was getting longer and longer, then we started to shift into a more politically active organization. That’s where the majority of our efforts have been, trying to come together as a political voice, and here we are.”
The members of NITO, as with NIVA, see the passing of the Shuttered Venue Operator Grant as a huge victory, but they’re not waiting around for the money to be dispersed.
“One of the things that we’ve started is an initiative to attempt to help get out the vaccines quicker,” says secretary Wayne Forte. “The vaccines at the moment really aren’t available everywhere. We thought we had a 20 million vaccine surplus, but it turns out we haven’t. So they say they’ll be getting out 10 million a week for the next several weeks or longer. One of the things we did within the live entertainment industry is a few of us got together, and a letter went to the president offering the venues and sites. It’s snowballed. They got back and said they need a couple of weeks to get themselves together, the vaccination taskforce. We’ve gotten a positive response.”
In addition, there’s the real concern that when things do start to open up, they’ll initially be very different. Capacities are likely to be reduced to aid necessary social distancing, masks should be compulsory, hand sanitizer stations everywhere – all vital stuff but difficult to manage.
“We all represent successful and vibrant businesses,” says NITO president Frank Riley. “This money coming from the government is a bridge to get us to a place where we can resume our jobs, employ our people and get back to work. That’s what the vaccine represents to us. It’s generally assumed that, if there’s limited capacities in venues, that full touring will not be possible. We all live on margins.”
Schaefer says that the members of NIVA are looking to the CDC for guidelines on how to eventually open safely.
“It has to obviously be science-based because that’s the only thing a germ pays attention to, the science,” she says. “Our members are going to want to do it right, because they want people to want to come for fun and be safe. Everybody is I’m sure in different states of looking at what they might be able to do differently, but it’s still so premature. It sounds odd to say that almost ten months in, but it is. So much of it will be dependent on vaccinations, as well. But we’ve got a reopening committee that is looking at everything you could possibly look at, knowing that you can’t make any recommendations yet.”
What we do know is that music venues are critical to local business. One study found that, for every dollar spent on a concert ticket, $12 are spent in local businesses such as bars and restaurants. So sure, live entertainment isn’t a priority right now but, long term, the venues’ survival benefits everyone. ❖