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. Mikeal Maglieri, president at the Whisky A Go-Go and Rainbow Bar & Grill, says that the Save Our Stages / Shuttered Venue Operator Grant will help tremendously but there’s too much uncertainty for it to quell fears just yet.
“There is so much red tape and applications are not even available, and after reading into everything I really don’t feel there is enough funding to support all the venues that are eligible so it’s going to be a rat race with a lot of upset venues,” Maglieri says. “I hope I’m wrong but it’s not looking good and I’ve given up on counting on it.”
The Whisky, like many other venues, has been hosting livestreamed concerts but that does little to replace fully attended shows.
“We’re not coping at all, this is a mess,” Maglieri says. “I’ve rescheduled everything so many times with no hope in sight. We have been doing livestreamed concerts which doesn’t nearly fill the void of physical concerts. In addition, I can’t put anything on the books for the future due to the uncertainty of being able to open.”
Alex Hernandez, owner of Alex’s Bar in Long Beach, says that the passing of the Shuttered Venue Operator Grant is a much-needed positive during dark times.
“With all the debt we have accumulated, it is the only way we can attempt to move forward,” he says. “I think we are all running on fumes as we near the year mark of being shut down. … It has been a very difficult time. My mental state of mind was in a dark place but thankfully the support of my wife, family and friends has made me feel hopeful again. We have taken advantage of every grant, PPE loan, and offer out there. Online merch sales and our drive-thru liquor store gave a few staff members the opportunity to come back and at least get some sort of income.”
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.