Earl Ciccel, whose company runs Maryland’s Bethesda Blues & Jazz Supper Club, was prepped for a weekend of sold-out dinner concerts by veteran soul and go-go groups when he was forced to shut down indefinitely on March 12. Most of the food he bought for those shows—short ribs, lamb, wings, salmon, crab cakes—was thrown out. It was only the beginning of the misfortunes Ciccel’s business would suffer under the coronavirus pandemic: The historic, Black-operated venue has now been shuttered for more than three months, with no end in sight. “Every week we’re just waiting to see what’s the next reopening phase,” Ciccel says, adding that Maryland’s current capacity limit of 50 people is far short of his theater’s 500 seats. “I wouldn’t try to open right now because I couldn’t pay my bills.”
According to a recent survey, almost 90 percent of independent venues like the Bethesda Blues & Jazz Supper Club will have to close permanently within months if they can’t secure federal funding—and an increasing number of spaces across the country have already called it quits. But help may finally be on the way. About 2,000 live music venues and promoters from all 50 states are banding together to form the National Independent Venues Association, a new advocacy group that’s battling to sustain a crucial layer of the music ecosystem.
For more than two months, the association has been lobbying Capitol Hill for another round of COVID-19 financial relief. “Congress has to pass a fourth stimulus bill, and we have to be included,” says Dayna Frank, owner of Minneapolis’ famed First Avenue and president of NIVA’s board. “We have to have meaningful support. There’s no plan B. It has to happen.” Measures advocated by the group include tax credits, continued unemployment insurance benefits, and the bipartisan Restart Act, currently awaiting a Senate vote, which aims to extend payroll assistance and give more flexibility to small and medium-sized businesses hit hardest by the health crisis.
Brandishing the slogan “Save Our Stages,” the NIVIA campaign has popular support. Concerned music lovers have sent more than 500,000 emails through the Save Our Stages website, hitting the inboxes of all 538 members of Congress. More than 600 artists—including Lady Gaga, André 3000, Kacey Musgraves, Bon Iver, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Alabama Shakes, and Patti Smith—have publicly championed NIVA’s plea for federal rescue under the #SaveOurStages hashtag. “Venues are a huge part of the community,” says singer Sharon Van Etten, who found purpose as a teenager while working at a small cafe and venue in Tennessee. “It’s where we gather, share art, and support each other.” During the pandemic, artists including Van Etten and Whitney have donated proceeds from livestreamed concerts to NIVA.
Talking about the lobbying effort’s momentum, First Avenue’s Frank says, “I feel like it’s going as well as it can be without having anything substantial to show for it.” At least one veteran of the music industry’s battles in Washington backs that cautious optimism. “For a new entrant in D.C., NIVA has been remarkably effective, getting the indie venue issue on legislators’ minds quickly,” says Daryl Friedman, who represents musicians in Washington for the Recording Academy. He adds that House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy has prioritized tax incentives for live events as part of a future stimulus package—“a very positive signal.”
While the pandemic has hammered small businesses of all stripes, live music is in a particularly tough spot. The economics of venues are based around how many tickets they can sell—even if local governments ease restrictions and allow spaces to open at, say, 25 percent capacity, most independent proprietors would still lose money. For artists and booking agents, beyond the universal concerns about health, tours often depend on routes that traverse markets of various sizes. If acts can’t count on playing a major market like New York City, they’re probably not going to schedule a trek through midscale markets, let alone smaller ones. And there’s still the question of whether concertgoers would feel comfortable attending, anyway; medical experts agree that nightclubs are among the highest-risk situations for contracting COVID-19.
At this point, the whole live events industry is bracing to remain dark until 2021. If independent venues don’t receive the assistance they need to survive, the impact could be profound. In April, Pollstar estimated that the overall live music industry would lose $8.9 billion in ticket sales if venues stayed closed for the rest of 2020. NIVA points to research that says every $1 spent on a ticket to arts and cultural venues in Chicago’s downtown area leads to $12 of economic activity within the local community, adding up to billions every year.
Not to mention the fact that touring is how recording artists earn the lion’s share of their income. Without relatively small venues like the Bowery Ballroom in New York or the Troubadour in Los Angeles, it isn’t obvious where future arena headliners will gain experience and cultivate fanbases. A recent Billboard story suggested that industry giants Live Nation and AEG will emerge from the crisis more dominant than ever, but even both of those behemoths have implemented sweeping furloughs or layoffs in the past couple of months.
Independent venue owners have also been shuttered at a time when the communities they serve have risen up to protest larger issues of systemic racism and police violence, making it all but impossible for them to help. “In any other world we’d be hosting benefits,” Frank says. But venues are still finding ways to contribute. First Avenue is located just a short bus ride away from where George Floyd was killed, and the venue has cut ties with the Minneapolis Police Department, announcing that it will no longer have off-duty police officers providing security at events. Additionally, Washington’s 9:30 Club opened its lobby to protesters earlier this month.
As the music industry at large confronts its own long-standing racial inequities, the relative lack of Black venue owners and promoters is another troubling reality. “There aren’t very many of us, are there?” quips Tobi Parks, a music copyright lawyer who opened up a new Des Moines, Iowa venue, xBk, late last year after decamping from New York. “The timing wasn’t great,” she admits with a chuckle. In Brooklyn, another Black business owner, Naj Austin, was planning to bring live experimental music to Ethel’s Club, a social and wellness space for people of color, when the coronavirus struck. “Black founders and owners of color have already lost so many institutions that center and celebrate who we are,” Austin says. “We need to have a mindset of saving all of the ones that are still standing.” Shahida Mausi’s company, the Right Productions, runs the 6,000-capacity Aretha Franklin Amphitheater in Detroit, and as far as she knows, it’s the only Black-owned live event business of its scale in America. Mausi calculates that her monthly losses from ticket refunds alone run into six figures. “The bills don’t stop, although the revenue has,” she says. “It’s devastating.”
Originally Appeared on Pitchfork