Independent music venues fear they’ll be forced to close forever

Laveta Brigham

Music venues were among the first businesses to close due to the coronavirus pandemic and they’ll likely be among the last to reopen. They’ve been shuttered for six months and, with experts predicting live music won’t return until spring or later in 2021, that doesn’t seem likely to change soon.  Owners […]

Music venues were among the first businesses to close due to the coronavirus pandemic and they’ll likely be among the last to reopen.

They’ve been shuttered for six months and, with experts predicting live music won’t return until spring or later in 2021, that doesn’t seem likely to change soon. 

Owners of nearly 3,000 venues have formed a new group, the National Independent Venue Association, to lobby for federal assistance to help stay afloat. Among them are stages that have played vital roles as springboards in musicians’ careers and music culture. Washington, D.C.’s iconic 9:30 Club, where The Smashing Pumpkins and Bob Dylan famously played, and Minneapolis’ First Avenue, which was featured in Prince’s film “Purple Rain,” are among NIVA’s charter members. Others include: the Troubadour in Los Angeles, where Elton John became a rock star; Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee, where Elvis Presley made his first and only appearance on the Grand Ole Opry; and The Town Hall in New York City, where Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and other jazz greats played. 

“The last six months have been like a terrible, awful dream,” NIVA spokeswoman Audrey Fix Schaefer told USA TODAY. “Independent venues are fiercely independent and they’ve never really come together on one thing like this before. We’ve always been able to individually recalibrate, and this quickly became a situation where that wasn’t going to be possible.”

A survey NIVA distributed to members showed 90% of venues think they will be forced to permanently close in the coming weeks or months if funding doesn’t arrive.  

More: Once the coronavirus pandemic subsides, will music lovers pick streaming over in-person concerts?

Legislation that could provide relief includes the RESTART Act and the Save Our Stages Act. They would provide financial support in the form of loans, grants and tax credits and have bipartisan support. Both are in committee.

Billie Eilish, Willie Nelson, Jimmy Buffett, Billy Joel, Lady Gaga and Gary Clark Jr. are among the dozens of artists who signed a joint letter to Congress asking for financial relief. 

“Independent venues give artists their start, often as the first stage most of us have played on,” the letter says. “We urge you to remember we are the nation that gave the world jazz, country, rock & roll, bluegrass, hip hop, metal, blues, and R&B. Entertainment is America’s largest economic export, with songs written and produced by American artists sung in every place on the globe.”

The experience, Fix Schaefer says, has been eye-opening. 

“We get up normally every morning wanting to book a show, to put on a show,” she said. “It’s not talking to politicians. This is not a matter of blue or red; it’s a matter of green.”

While they wait for help, bills are piling up. Venue owners still have to pay rent, utilities and insurance even though they have little or no money coming in.  

More: Masks, temperature checks, empty rows: Post-coronavirus concerts could look very different

“We are at the precipice of a mass collapse of this industry,” Fix Schaefer said. “These are such good, hardworking, determined people. They don’t deserve to be left out to dry like this.”

USA TODAY checked in with venues across the country to see how they’re faring. Here’s what we heard:

Rebel Lounge in Phoenix

What looked to be the best year ever for the Rebel Lounge has instead been a colossal flop because of the pandemic. The venue, which opened in 2015 and holds 325 people, focuses on rock and has hosted a variety of acts, including The Heavy, Louis the Child and Jimmy Eat World.

Owner Stephen Chilton had been on pace to book a record number of shows, only to be forced to turn around and cancel them. Last year, Rebel Lounge had about 380 acts and prior to the March shutdown, 150 had already been booked for 2020. Only 50 actually happened. 

The venue once had 35 employees but only two workers remain on the payroll now, both part-time. 

Stephen Chilton outside Rebel Lounge in Phoenix on March 27, 2020. Chilton has been busy trying to reschedule summer shows into an already packed fall schedule.

The darkened venue has seen some life in recent weeks, with Chilton allowing a few local artists inside to stream their music online. Still, the experience is far different than getting to see a show in person, he says.

“It is hard on everyone,” Chilton said. “Everyone wants to see shows return. Our regulars are people who live and breathe music.”

Hartke Presents in Wichita, Kansas

Adam Hartke, co-owner of Hartke Presents, anticipates the COVID-19 shutdown for music venues could last until the middle of next year.

His company operates multiple venues in Wichita. Many people, he says, don’t realize the impact businesses like his have on local economies.  

More: Amid coronavirus, rapper Pitbull plans series of four livestream pay-per-view concerts

“The past six months have been the most difficult, emotionally draining, mentally challenging time we have ever faced,” he said. “We have been caught in a whirlpool plunging us relentlessly into a very stark reality void of much hope, filled with uncertainty as we tirelessly work to educate our communities and country how dire our circumstances are and how likely we will be to go under without help.”

That help is needed as soon as possible. A number of venues nationwide have already closed and those that haven’t feel helpless, Hartke says.

“We feel as if we are drowning in an unforgiving ocean staring at a beach full of life jackets, screaming for help to the lifeguards that are nervously watching us drown in their periphery as they argue endlessly over who is the most just and caring member of their crew,” he said. 

Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Maryland

For the first time in 43 years, Jean Parker isn’t overseeing summertime concerts at the Merriweather Post Pavilion. The amphitheater, which seats nearly 20,000, dates back to the 1960s and hosts a variety of national and regional touring acts.

Each summer, the venue presents about 35 concerts and festivals. Acts booked this year had included the Dave Matthews Band, Halsey, Kenny Chesney, Michael Franti and Rod Stewart. 

“For no fault of our own, we have been deprived of bringing that much-needed element of fun and enjoyment to others,” Parker, the venue’s general manager, said. “During times of hardship, having a form of escape is needed more than ever — and not being able to provide that has been crushing.”

Rivers Cuomo, left, and Scott Shriner, right, of Weezer perform during the Virgin Mobile Freefest concert Sunday, Aug. 30, 2009 at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Md.

While music venues remain closed for the foreseeable future, Parker says most of Maryland’s economy is up and running again. Gyms, malls and casinos reopened in June and indoor movie theaters and outside entertainment venues were allowed to reopen with limited capacities prior to Labor Day. Still, music venues remain closed. And even if they were open, many musicians have already pushed their tours to next year.

“Nobody knows what the future holds since there is no history here we can rely on,” she said. “Any amphitheater operator knows having grass on your lawn seating area at the end of the summer concert season signals a slow year. In 2020, it was a no-concert year, so the grass is unfortunately greener and plusher than ever.”

Tipitina’s in New Orleans

Robert Mercurio, co owner of Tipitina’s, says the coronavirus shutdown has left him with nightmares. The Uptown venue dates back to 1977 and has been home to a number of live album recordings by bands such as Phish and Wilco.

The Big Easy was hit especially hard by the coronavirus pandemic — especially the music industry. Jazz Fest was canceled, traditional jazz funerals were halted and jazz pianist Ellis Marsalis Jr. died April 1 from complications of COVID-19. He was 85.

“It is truly horrifying trying to figure out how we will get through this,” Mercurio said.

With no concerts scheduled, the four remaining staffers are still keeping busy, though.

More: Country fans can watch Kane Brown’s drive-in concert at more than 200 outdoor venues

Tipitina’s in New Orleans was hopping, pre-coronavirus. Now it is struggling, like many independent venues across the country.

“The owners and our paid staff have been trying to make the most of our time with cleaning, fixing needed repairs and painting,” he said. “The venue looks the best it has in years.” 

Funds from the Paycheck Protection Program helped, but more assistance is needed to prevent having to lay off the remaining workers, he says. Forty employees have already been cut.

“The owners are struggling to try to get the bills paid and figure out what the future holds,” he said.

Neumos and Barboza in Seattle

Steven Severin, co-owner of Neumos and Barboza, compares the past six months to slamming into a wall at 300 mph. Neumos caters to the indie rock crowd, while Barboza focuses on spotlighting up-and-comers in an intimate setting.

“It’s been madness,” he said. “I’ve never worked so hard to lose money.”

Patrons have been helping by making donations via the Keep Music Live website, which was established to help Washington music venues stay afloat.

But government assistance is a must, Severin says, since elected officials ultimately were the ones who ordered venues to close. A number of other industries have already received aid. 

“You can’t tell us to shut down and then go and save the airlines, Wall Street, big businesses and then leave us to rot and close,” he said. “People are underestimating the impact of all of our types of businesses shutting down.”

Follow Gary Dinges on Twitter @gdinges

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Independent music venues fear they’ll soon be forced to close forever

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