Stephen Chilton is the vice president of the National Independent Venue Association and the owner of The Rebel Lounge. He remembers the beginning of the pandemic all too well.
“We were the first things to close,” Chilton says. “We started seeing our events at The Rebel Lounge and events that I promote get canceled a few weeks before the shutdown orders.”
Chilton knew right away that this pandemic wouldn’t just magically disappear.
“I immediately knew it was going to be a long haul,” Chilton says. “It takes months to plan and promote a concert. It’s not like we can just reopen.
“We produce mass gatherings, and that’s what’s the least safe thing right now.”
He was particularly worried after the Austin entertainment festival South by Southwest was canceled.
“They weren’t getting guidance from the government on whether it was safe to go forward or not,” Chilton says.
“They made the decision internally to cancel, and that was the first domino. They were the ones who had to make a tough decision because no one would make it for them.”
After seeing venues nationwide canceling events, Chilton knew he needed to take action.
“NIVA and the Save Our Stages movement was a reaction to that,” Chilton says.
“South By was the first thing that everyone noticed, and that was when we started seeing lots of acts canceled, because a lot of our March is artists touring in and out of South By. Without South By, they canceled their tours.”
On March 12, 2020, Chilton says, hundreds of venue executives jumped on a Zoom call to talk about what they were seeing in other cities.
“The next week we got on and we all realized no one was talking about small venues, no one was talking about small promoters, everything was about the NBA, Coachella and arenas,” he says.
The Save Our Stages movement is not just exclusive to venue owners or promoters. It goes toward a plethora of others who keep the entertainment industry afloat.
“In NIVA’s membership, we’ve always included promoters, festivals, comedy clubs, performing arts centers and independent venues of all sizes,” Chilton says. “The Save Our Stages campaign was the public campaign behind our advocacy.”
Chilton’s goal has always been to help small venues stay afloat. In the beginning, though, he knew there was only one thing that would keep the touring ecosystem alive.
“We needed to lobby for federal aid, because it was clear that nothing was going to save us individually,” Chilton says.
“This is a national problem, we’re a national ecosystem of touring, and until we nationally can come back, we’re all in trouble.”
His lobbying has proven somewhat effective, but Chilton will not remain satisfied until he sees venues receive the compensation he feels they deserve.
Stimulus bills have helped somewhat finance smaller venues, but more aid is urgently needed so clubs do not shutter.
He also reminds the general public of one economic fact.
“No business is set up to go 12 months with no revenue,” Chilton says.
In addition, Chilton exclaimed that venues are not only expensive to rent but that they are almost as pricey to insure.
“My insurance is 10 times that of similar-sized bars or restaurants just because of the nature of what we do,” Chilton says.
To raise funds, Chilton partnered with local artist Sage Aune to launch men’s and women’s apparel and a koozie featuring “I <3 AZ’s Independent Venues.” Sixteen independently owned venues are disguised on the merchandise in an admission ticket. They are available at iheartaz.net.
“Whenever I’ve done shirts or something like this in the past, you want to do something that people actually want to wear,” Chilton says. “I love the design and think that Sage did a great job with it.”
Chilton hopes patrons who purchase merchandise know they’re making a difference.
“I hope customers know that every dollar helps and that their money is going directly to save those venues,” Chilton says.
The Valley’s Zia Records and Stinkweeds as well as Rainbow’s End Records in Flagstaff are selling the merch. He’ll also peddle them at the coffee shop he’s running at The Rebel Lounge and The Nile Theater.
Above all, Chilton has a message for the general public.
“I look forward to seeing people in these shirts at shows,” he says.
Saving Arizona’s Venues