Few industries have been hit as hard by the COVID-19 pandemic as the independent music sector. While artists, venues, tour promoters, and booking agents have attempted to pivot with alternatives like drive-in concerts or live streams, those are not viable, long-term substitutes for the real deal. And with indie acts unable to tour and local venues shuttered indefinitely, the threats to the industry, both financially and culturally, are immense.
“Independent venues are where bands find their voices. I call it the ‘vocabulary’ of an artist,” says Frank Riley of High Road Touring, which up until very recently was booking treks for acts like Patti Smith, Wilco, Brittany Howard, Robert Plant, Portugal. The Man, Nathaniel Rateliff, and Lucinda Williams. “Artists listen like everybody else does, and they incorporate sounds and meaning and develop it into their own language. They need this pathway in order to find their voices and to be heard. You think about bands like the Rolling Stones — they started in clubs. We all know where the Beatles started — at the Cavern in Liverpool. Prince in Minneapolis found his footing and developed his whole career at First Avenue — that's an independent club. Think about CBGB: Blondie, Talking Heads, the Ramones, Tom Verlaine, Television, the list is endless. All of these people develop. This is where these artists come from.”
That is why Riley, an industry lifer who spent his youth at Zeitgeist-shaping independent clubs like CBGB and launched his career during the early-‘80s golden age of indie rock with bands like the Replacements, Television, Husker Du, the Meat Puppets, and Violent Femmes, co-founded NITO, or National Independent Talent Organization. A non-profit coalition of independent talent agencies (whose combined members booked more than 40,000 concerts and grossed $500 million in ticket sales last year), NITO’s purpose is promoting the welfare of indie musicians and advocating for the survival of the live music community. This week, NITO held its fourth Town Hall meeting in Los Angeles; the event was hosted by Congressman Peter Welch (the original Democratic sponsor of the House version of the Save Our Stages Act) and Charlie Anderson, a senior adviser for Senator Michael Bennet, author of the RESTART Act.
[1/2] On Wednesday, NITO lent its support to @LiveEventsCo & @CAEventsCoal, who presented ONE VOICE: A Day for Action at Xbox Plaza at @LALive. The event honored the 12 million workers in the live event industry currently affected by the COVID-19 shutdown.— National Independent Talent Organization (@NITO_Live) August 14, 2020
🎥: @VillaVisuals pic.twitter.com/djglzHwng8
Speaking with Yahoo Entertainment/SiriusXM Volume, Riley gets candid about exactly what’s at stake if independent clubs and agencies go away for good — and what music fans can do to help NITO ensure that does not happen.
Yahoo Entertainment: First off, please explain what NITO is, and what this non-profit sets out to do.
Frank Riley: It includes artists, producers of shows, roadies, tour managers, agencies, managers, the whole independent ecosystem coming together and having one voice. We went out and hired a lobbyist, a company called Greenberg Traurig, to speak to Capitol Hill on our behalf, and that was the beginning and that's been our intention. We've branched out in larger ways — we're now 92 independent agencies, hundreds of artists. … What underlines or makes common all of our members is that we're shuttered businesses. We're pretty much 100 percent underwater, no income, very vulnerable. We're not subsidized by corporations. We don't have outside income. We work on behalf of artists, and that's how we generate our income. And how artists generally make most of their living is out on the road touring.
The coronavirus has obviously spelled disaster for the indie music community as a whole.
Yes, as it pretty much eliminates the idea of live performances. There's a couple of exceptions, some drive-in concerts out there, some streaming events and other things going on, but those are minuscule in terms of what we do generally. … So, the intent of our lobbying is to provide subsidies for the artists, for the agencies, and for the managers and the other people associated with live shows and live touring — so they can survive through this period and come out on the other side, and become the viable businesses that they were before this disaster.
Besides the obvious financial concerns here, there is so much to lose culturally and socially if these smaller venues go away. Can you explain what’s at risk?
The independent community is a place where music begins, generally. It's a sustaining area for lots of artists that aren't superstars. It's the pathway forward for musicians who want to be [professional] musicians. … Almost any band or artist has some start in the independent venue, a small club generally in their location, their locality, where they live, and then they branch out. There's a ladder of development for artists that exists throughout America and around the world. You start off small, you gather a small following in your own local area, then you move forward into a more general area.
If you start at CBGB, you know, the pathway is up to the Mercury Lounge in New York City, up to the Bowery, then out through the Irving Plaza. You can see the ladder. Most of the venues that are below theater capacities are independent, and there's an endless number of them that are the stepping stones to development of a career. You do not arrive on the Staples stage or the Forum stage fully formed on your second show. It's a process of development. It's a process of learning your craft. It's a process of building an audience, and the independent talent organization is an integral part of that development. Artists are discovered by independent agents, generally; they're developed through that network. And what happens if that network closes down or does not exist, is a diversity of voices with intriguing and innovative ideas that come together to form something new and viable and wonderful does not exist.
So what are you hoping Congress will do to help?
Well, if there's a bill coming, it's likely to be a compilation of pieces of separate bills, and what that big bill hopefully will include are pieces of provisions that would support the independent venues, the independent agencies, the artists, and all the people that help produce shows. So it would be a small subset of a much larger bill. We fit underneath a category called “small businesses.” We're unique in that we're completely “shuttered.” That's the term that they use. The independent music community’s businesses are by and large down to 90, 95, 99, or a hundred percent. It's actually more than 100 percent, because there's expenses involved and they're moving backwards. So we're losing money while not earning money. And the deeper that hole gets, the less likely it is that that organization will survive. That's what's at stake here. So that larger bill in Congress would hopefully have some money allocated to our wellbeing and survival.
But I’ve got to say one thing here really quickly: We're not looking for a handout. We are the victims, like everybody in America, of a catastrophic event that nobody has control of. But unfortunately, our business was one of the first businesses to shut down because we're about public gatherings, and we'll be one of the last businesses to reopen because audiences need to be safe. Artists need to feel safety. We're all responsible for each other. And if we're responsible for each other, we're not going to do things that would jeopardize the wellbeing of anybody in our audiences. That's not our intent. We're about happiness and joy and community and the best parts about being a human being. We don't want any part of the bad parts.
As you mentioned, there are some other ways that the concert industry is trying to stay afloat, like drive-in shows and live streams. Do you think these are practical solutions for the long term, or even the short term?
They appear to be Band-Aids on a gaping wound. We’ve got think about this in a wider way. Bands generally do not live together. So to do a show, they have to go through some quarantine process or some kind of vetting or safety protocol, in order to come together. … And not everybody wants to put themselves in those situations where there is additional exposure, where there is the possibility of getting something that you don't really want to get. And so then what you have is a limited pool that’s predetermined to the locality where the show is presented. So if you think about going out and playing a show in Colorado, they'd have to come together, they'd have to get out to Colorado, they'd have to play the show, and then they'd have to return. It would have to be financially viable — and that doesn't seem very likely.
But what about drive-in shows specifically?
It works for a time or two. It's novelty. It gets people out and gives a little bit of the joy of communal gatherings and some live music. But it isn't necessarily the full experience all the way.
And what about live streams? They are becoming more sophisticated and creative, sometimes taking place on socially distanced soundstages or in empty traditional venues that are closed to the public at the moment.
I think streaming is going to become is a supplemental adjunct to live performances. For the time being as a standalone event, a lot of them are really well-produced, but lot of them don't have very good sound. A lot of them don't have a lot of very good visuals. Hearing and seeing something through a computer — we all know this — is not ideal. It’s a substitute. It's not the full experience. Part of the full experience is the community that shows up and interacts with the situation within a venue. When you limit that kind of community, you're limiting some part of the experience.
The possibility has been raised of concert venues reopening with live audiences, but with extremely reduced capacity. What about that?
Venues that are filled a quarter- or half-capacity, if these were normal times, those would be considered “bomb” shows. Those would not be acceptable. So thinking that that is going to represent anything other than opening the bar up and selling some drinks and keeping the lights on in the venue is a mistake. That's all it's going to do. This is sort of not completely authoritative by any means, but I was told a month or two ago that Dayna Frank, the president of NIVA [the National Independent Venue Association], asked her group on a Zoom call, “How many of the independent venues would be willing to open up on a reduced capacity?” And she got no yeses. Zero. None. Now, there are smaller venues out there that could open up the bar and serve drinks and serve that function to their audience, but in terms of paying bands and generating some income that way, it’s not going to happen for a time.
And also, in order for us to get started, we need a certain amount of time to put things together, to route a tour, to get an artist who lives in Boston out to San Francisco and all the spaces in between. So this isn't an immediate thing. If you're coming from the U.K., you don't show up here tomorrow and start your tour. It's kind of be routed and booked and promoted, and tickets have to be sold. It's a process, and it's an ongoing process, and there's no way it's less than six months. It might be a year, or a year and a half, for some artists to get back on the road in a productive way.
All of this is sounding pretty dire. How can music fans help the cause?
We need all the support that we can get. On our website, nitolive.org, there's a call to action. There's a button there, you press it, you put in your zip code, and it generates the Congressperson that represents you and the senators from your state — it automatically generates a note to them. Numbers matter in Congress, because numbers are votes. So it's personalized and you can tell them your story, which is even better. It generates the letter to these Congress people and in turn it illustrates your support for your local venues, your local community, and what that means to you generally. … It's what we really need. That's the place to start.
Today on #VolumeWest - @lyndseyparker chats w/ Frank Riley of the #NationalIndependentTalentOrganization (@NITO_Live) about the work this non-profit is doing to help independent musicians and venues across the country. To learn more visit https://t.co/5cere8Id3H! 8pm ET / 5pm PT pic.twitter.com/8KQvCFiYE0— SiriusXM VOLUME (@siriusxmvolume) August 14, 2020
So, bottom line: Do you have hope that the independent touring industry can survive this pandemic and rebuild again?
As the president of NITO, I have to have hope. I believe in the cause. I believe in the people that I work with. We all believe that there's hope. But the truth of it is, without some federal intervention, without some federal subsidy, we may see up to 90 percent of our venues closing and being repurposed into eateries or whatever. We'll see the loss of independent agencies that represent artists. We'll see artists moving to other sources of income. There's a disaster looming in front of us. But if our voices are loud enough, if Congress will hear us, if there's some reason in leadership in D.C. in the near future and in the far future, we will get through this. Because no matter what happens, there will be live music. There will be musicians. There will be sources of joy and community. There has to be — otherwise, what's the point of being a human being? That's what I believe. So I do have hope. But it's a perilous situation, and I can't overstate the danger that's looming in front of us.
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The above interview is taken from a portion of Frank Riley’s appearance on the SiriusXM show “Volume West.” Full audio of this conversation is available on demand via the SiriusXM app.