Sending Out An S.O.S.

Live Independent Music Venues Call on the Federal Government for Aid as They Face Dire Circumstances During COVID-19 Closures

By Bob Paxman

It’s a dire scenario that would have seemed improbable at the end of 2019 — the death of live music venues. Yet, as we approach the final months of 2020, such a prospect is not only imaginable but all too real. The onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many music venues in Nashville and all around the country to permanently close, causing financial headaches to employees and staff and putting industry-related personnel like sound engineers, production companies and booking agencies out of work.

Club owners, artists and industry insiders are sounding the warning bell that the situation is truly desperate, and these are not the shouts and murmurs of alarmists. The figures don’t lie. “There are 15 independent music venues in Nashville,” says Chris Cobb, owner of Nashville live music mainstay Exit/In, “and they have experienced a 90% revenue loss since March. About 15% of those venues will be gone in a month.” The unfortunate reality grows even more stark. “By the end of the year, only one [of the 15] will have the resources to stay open.”

The Steel Mill, a popular rehearsal and special event space in Nashville, lights up in red on September 1 as part of the #RedAlertRESTART campaign to draw attention to closed live music venues and the loss of entertainment industry jobs around the world.
Photo Credit: Jason Rittenberry/Moo TV
Exit/In, a well-known venue in Nashville, displays “Support Live Music” on their sign amid the shutdown of many live music venues due to COVID-19 across the country.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Exit/In
Bridgestone Arena lights up in red on Sept. 1 as part of the #RedAlertRESTART campaign to draw attention to closed live music venues and the loss of entertainment industry jobs around the world.
Photo Credit: Jason Rittenberry/Moo TV

Ryan Henry, General Manager of Marathon Music Works in Nashville, is among those feeling the pinch. “We are closed,” says Henry. “Our part-time staff has no work. Our vendors have no work. [And] our bills are still due. It is about as bad as you can imagine for everyone involved.” The pandemic closures have also sorely affected The Bluebird Cafe, a renowned Nashville music venue and top tourist destination. “The Bluebird closed on March 13 and has not been able to reopen safely, regardless of the guidelines in place,” says General Manager Erika Wollam Nichols. “For The Bluebird, we need to have 65 people in the room in order to break even. That cannot be done safely, [and] of course, this creates a hit to our budget.”

The COVID-19 closures have affected venues in major markets most severely, but venues in smaller markets are hardly immune to the financial hit. According to Jeff Meltesen, Marketing Director for The Caverns in Pelham, TN, the music/tourist venue was prepared for its biggest year ever before the pandemic altered its economic course. “We were planning for more than 75 concerts,” Meltesen says. “Instead, we’ve only had four shows to date, with the last show being on March 7.” Thankfully, the unique venue, where concerts are held in an underground amphitheater, took advantage of its stunning surroundings as an alternate income source. “We are lucky to have multiple caves on our property,” continues Meltesen. “We are now offering tours of portions of the caves. [But] the revenue from the cave tours is nowhere near what we need to survive.”

NIVA and Save Our Stages

Further predictions estimate that a whopping 90% of independent venues around the country will be permanently shuttered within the next few months — that is, unless help arrives. That aid may come from the federal government through the efforts of the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA). The alliance, which now boasts more than 2,600 regular members, was formed this past March to target legislation to help venues survive. Two NIVA initiatives, the RESTART Act and the Save Our Stages Act, have been presented to the United States Senate and House of Representatives.

Save Our Stages is specifically asking for a $10 billion grant program for live venue operators, which can be used for payroll, rent, utilities, insurance and other expenses. Small wonder that the campaign is often abbreviated as S.O.S, as it serves as a literal lifeline for music venues. U.S. Senators Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and John Cornyn of Texas introduced the Save Our Stages bill in July.

Cobb, a member of NIVA, finds some early encouragement in the response to Save Our Stages, as they receive support from Congress. “Congressman Jim Cooper [TN-05] is a big supporter,” says Cobb. This is the largest initiative we have taken on since we formed. What we are trying to do is get legislation passed that ensures the survival of these venues.”

Survivability remains a serious issue in Nashville as well as other music meccas such as Los Angeles and New York. Justin Kantor, Co-Founder and Board Vice President of NIVA and Director of Operations of Greenwich Village music club (Le) Poisson Rouge, agrees that the bailout is vital for clubs to be able to carry on. “Right now, it is a disaster,” notes Kantor in a darkly factual tone. “Venues in New York are closing every day. The clubs need debt relief. Right now, there is a moratorium on evictions, which is good, but you don’t know how long that will last.

“It’s not just us that have been hit hard,” he adds. “In New Jersey, upstate New York, Brooklyn, it’s the same for everybody. When I see the reports that 90% of clubs will close without some kind of help, I would say that is a pretty accurate figure.”

“Clubs are the foundation of the touring industry,” states Cobb. “It’s not just the club owners and the staff who are being hurt. Technical support people like road crews and audio engineers depend on touring.” Venues must stay afloat because every portion of the industry depends on live music.

“Bands tour from city to city, big and small,” adds Henry of Marathon Music Works. “With no one able to tour, this impact is the same for us all.”

Cobb manages a chuckle, if not exactly a laugh, at the notion that music clubs can somehow alter their mode of operations to stay viable, as some have suggested. “We don’t have options,” he points out. “You can’t have a ‘to-go’ concert or a curbside show. There are streaming shows and [online] merchandise sales, but they don’t really put a dent in the revenue loss. That’s just putting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound.”

“The realities are ongoing expenses without any revenue,” says Meltesen. “Mortgages, maintenance, employee salaries, ticket refunds — there’s a lot of money going out and not much, if anything, coming in. We don’t know how long we or our friends at other venues can hang on without some sort of federal aid like what NIVA is pushing for.”

NIVA has also enlisted the help of YouTube to further the Save Our Stages initiative. Through a unique partnership, NIVA and YouTube are working together to produce programming that will assist in bringing live performances back into music venues in a safe way. In addition, YouTube will aid in raising awareness and funds for the NIVA Emergency Relief Fund, which supports America’s most at-risk venues and provides short-term relief for independent venue owners and promoters facing eviction or permanently closing due to COVID-19.

Additionally, on the evening of September 1, #WeMakeEvents led an initiative across North America, using the hashtags #RedAlertRESTART and #ExtendPUA, to light buildings, structures and residences in red to raise awareness for the struggling live events industry and communicate that the music community is on red alert for its survival. The display also acted as a way to create congressional pressure to act now in passing the RESTART Act and to back and its efforts supporting the continuance of Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, which provides relief to those without work due to COVID-19. Following this collective effort, Nashville’s Metro Council committed $2 million in funds from the CARES Act funding to aid music venues in the city that bring in less than $5 million in annual revenue.

How You Can Help

Naturally, the artist community has the venues’ collective backs. In June, around 600 artists signed a letter to Congress on behalf of NIVA’s request for government assistance. Brothers Osborne, Miranda Lambert and Willie Nelson were among the Country artists who signed the letter in support, alongside artists from other genres such as Coldplay, Billie Eilish, Dave Grohl and Neil Young. The letter read, in part, “The live music experience is inextricably tied to our nation’s cultural and economic fabric. In fact, 53% of Americans — that’s 172 million of us — attended a concert last year.” As Kantor notes, “artists all around the country have been very supportive.”

Fans and the general public also have the power to lend a voice and a hand. On the website, fans will find a petition with an attached message that they can sign. “They will email your representative for you,” says Cobb. “Anybody can do it. You can also write a personal letter to your representative and tell your story about how much live music means to you. This legislation is desperately needed.”

For more information and additional resources, visit the CMA COVID-19 Resources page.