Loud music. Bright lights. Bands playing our favorite songs as we sing along to the melodies surrounded by a sea of strangers and friends. This was the nature of concerts before the coronavirus pandemic hit. Now, independent venues across the nation are struggling to survive.
The Rebel Lounge in Phoenix, 191 Toole and The Rialto Theatre in Tucson, and The Orpheum Theater in Flagstaff have been closed since mid-March. The venues have experience furloughs, layoffs and little to no revenue over the last three months.
Dan Hernandez, the Tucson venues’ talent buyer, says they have lost around $1.5 million in ticket, merchandise and bar sales since their doors shut.
Susan Walter, The Orpheum Theater’s general manager, says it is surviving through sponsors and live webcasts from its stage to Facebook Live. The venue has been operating for 103 years.
Stephen Chilton is the owner of The Rebel Lounge and the vice president of The National Independent Venue Association (NIVA). The organization provides a voice, tools and resources to independent venues across America.
Venues and promoters can become NIVA members for free. There are about 2,000 members located in 50 states. NIVA stemmed from an initiative called Independent Venue Week, which originated in the United Kingdom. Chilton says The Rebel Lounge participated in Independent Venue Week, and he discussed via Zoom the challenges the venue was facing when clubs closed. Participants realized their problems needed a larger solution, and the organization was formed to find answers.
Chilton says while other businesses have offered options such as takeout and delivery, the mandates brought on by COVID-19, such as social distancing, cannot be easily accommodated by his industry.
Hernandez says visiting venues is “… the weekend stuff you go to on a date, where you meet your friends, where you make friends, where you grow up and define yourself in music and culture.”
Chilton adds, “Is it worth having a concert that feels empty? If you erase all of the communal aspects, is it worth having them?”
Artists don’t want to go on tour and look at empty venues, Chilton says. Bands would rather wait for COVID-19 restrictions to lift and have a full crowd.
“We are usually a 1,000-person-capped venue, and we do not expect to get back to that until the pandemic is over,” Walter says.
She says she hopes to welcome back a limited number of people to spread out over the venue’s 20,000 square feet in the fall, but it depends on if the state’s virus data indicates it would be safe.
Chilton says venues could be closed well into 2021. Some concert halls are not permitted to open until there is a coronavirus vaccine or cure. This is why NIVA’s No. 1 priority is lobbying for funding at the federal level.
“We need big, federal aid. Nothing short of that is going to save us,” Chilton says.
At The Rebel Lounge, Chilton says he pays more than similar-sized revenue businesses because there are concerts. For example, he pays 10 times more for insurance than other bars.
Walter says the industry is at a standstill, with venues forecasting to lose almost $9 billion of revenue if they stay dark through the rest of 2020. Although the programming has gone dark, the venue’s mortgage and other bills have not.
Initially, NIVA representatives were looking for revisions of the PPP loan to extend the eight-week period, Walter says. They wrote letters and got 20 congressional representatives to sign and support the revised Cares Act 4.0. But even those revisions are not specific enough for the industry.
“We are going to be the last businesses back, and we are going to need help for a long period of time,” Chilton says.
Now, Walter says they are supporting the Bennet-Young RESTART Act, which will stretch over seven years with payment options.
For concertgoers and live music lovers who want to support their venues, NIVA’s SaveOurStages.com will automatically email visitors’ local representatives anywhere in the country to let them know they care about independent venues. The site asks for the visitors’ basic information to locate the correct representative.
The process takes about 30 seconds, Chilton says, and users can share they care on social media with #SaveOurStages. So far, more than 500,000 emails have been sent.
In a June 18 statement, NIVA announced that 600 artists, including Foo Fighters, Lady Gaga, Billie Eilish, Kacey Musgraves and Wyclef Jean, signed a letter to Congress to join the #SaveOurStages movement.
Without help from Congress, Hernandez says 90% of independent venues will not be able to survive another three months with no income. The loss of venues will be felt in local economies. Every $1 spent on a ticket at small venues generates a total of $12 spent on restaurants, hotel and retail near the venues.
“People have always wanted to gather around music. The industry itself is relentless, and I know that we can reinvent. It’s just a long road ahead,” Walter says.
National Independent Venue Association
Save Our Stages