How Struggling Indie Venues Are Lobbying Local Governments for Support — And Getting Some

As Congress debated the next federal coronavirus aid package this week in Washington, independent music venues across the country have been waiting in anticipation for what will either be a saving grace or a devastating blow to their businesses. Now, as Capitol Hill heads into the weekend with a planned recess days away, there’s still no clarity whether proposed legislation supporting these businesses that have been shuttered since mid-March will make their way into a final package and save an estimated 90% of them from closure by the end of the year.

The Save Our Stages Act, introduced by Sens. John Cornyn (R-TX) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) on July 22, would establish a $10 billion grant program exclusively for live venue operators, promoters, producers and talent representatives. The Restart Act, introduced in May by Sens. Todd Young (R-IN) and Michael Bennet (D-CO) in the use of Representatives, applies to all small businesses and would provide grants to eligible recipients in an amount equal to 45% of gross revenue from 2019 with a cap of $12 million. Both offer immediate assistance; neither are guaranteed to pass or save venues in the long term.

“If we got fully funded through the Restart Act we would get only half of what we need to survive for what we realistically think is a year from now,” says Steven Severin, who is the co-owner of indie venue Neumos in Seattle and member of the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) that has been lobbying the federal government for funding.

Severin says he sees a widely-used vaccine as the only way fans will be able to safely attend general admission concerts again in the U.S. — which could easily take until at least summer 2021 to produce and disperse. In the meantime, venues are still paying rent, taxes, licensing fees and insurance that can amount to $75,000 a month.

“We’ve already been closed for six months and we’re going to have to go another year,” says Severin. “Just getting the Restart Act is getting us through the year so we can find out what to do next.”

But independent venues aren’t just looking to Capitol Hill for help. Increasingly during the pandemic, they have focused on lobbying their local and state governments for assistance. Coalitions have formed around the country in cities including Austin, Nashville, New York and Cleveland. In Chicago, independent venues had already created Chicago Independent Venue League (CIVL) in 2018 to fight off corporate development. And Seattle’s Seattle Nightlife Music Association was running for a decade before adding all Washington state venues to become the Washington Nightlife and Music Association (WaNMA) once the pandemic hit.

WaNMA, of which Neumos and Severin are members, has had one of the more successful appeals to its local government: On May 12, King County Council unanimously passed a bill that provides $750,000 to local independent venues. Venues applied for the grant money in July and are now awaiting the results. King County officials have also been helping to connect WaNMA with business leaders to raise more money from the private sector.

“Once you split the money up between all the venues it is not the money that is going to make the difference, it is the fact that our government is saying that venues are important. That, in a pandemic, where money is going to the most important fabrics of our city, that music venues fit in there. That’s huge,” says Severin.

In Tennessee, Music Venue Alliance Nashville (MVAN) is currently petitioning its city council to establish a fund to protect independent music venues as well. The 16-venue alliance, which includes Mercy Lounge and The Cannery Ballroom,  is asking the committee that oversees the COVID-19 response fund to earmark $2 million of federal relief money the city has received in order to help keep independent music venues safely closed through March 2021. The fund would be about 2% of Nashville’s total aid from the federal government and would likely ensure the venues would still be around when Music City fully reopens to the public.

“We feel like it’s a bit of a no brainer; the reality is it’s not. It is a big undertaking even to get to the point to make the ask, much less present a convincing enough argument so that we’d get a yes,” says Chris Cobb, Exit/In owner and co-founder of Marathon Music Works in Nashville.

Even for a place dubbed Music City, Cobb says most people — including those in positions of power — don’t understand the economics or the ecosystem of live music venues. In 2019, MVAN says its members paid $576,000 in liquor taxes, $1.2 million in sales tax and $5.2 million to more than 46,000 local and visiting performers for 5,600 concerts that generated $6.1 million in ticket sales.

“I have this conversation with people outside of Nashville and they’re like, ‘Oh, come on. It’s Music City, everybody gets it,’” says Cobb. “And the reality is they don’t.”

Cobb notes that appealing for funding at a local level makes a lot of sense for MVAN and other indie venues around the country, since they tend to have existing relationships with city councils and officials. “The beautiful thing about a network of independent music venues is that a lot of us are already pretty active members of our community. We host the fundraisers. We give the room away for free, however many times a year,” he says.

Cobb, like Severin with Neumos, and the rest of the MVAN members are also involved  in NIVA efforts and fighting for indie venues on all levels. The 500-capacity Exit/In also qualified for funding from the state’s small business package, which Cobb says will cover one month of his closed, fixed overhead. (The Exit/In has now been closed for four months.)

“If you own a music venue right now, you are probably doing everything you can possibly do to figure out how to not file bankruptcy,” Cobb says. “From an assistance perspective that looks like [appealing to] the federal level, state level and local level.”

Austen Bailey, talent buyer for Mohawk in Austin, agrees that venues need to be tackling the issue of survival however they can. “We’re unable to be divorced from any of those levels of engagement,” says Bailey, who is also part of the Music Venue Alliance – Austin. “The more organized and unified venues are about telling the story of the $23.4 billion in economic activity that the music business in Texas produces while employing 200,000-plus people and generating $390 million in tax revenue the better.”

In Austin alone, at least six music venues have permanently closed since the pandemic hit and more continue to face uncertainty. According to a study released in July by Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston, without funding the city will permanently lose 90% of the roughly 50 venues that MVA-Austin represents by Halloween.

Live music “is what the city is known for. It’s part of our identity. Our tourism industry — which means our hotel tax revenue — is absolutely contingent upon having our live music venues open when we recover from this,” says MVA-Austin president and founder Rebecca Reynolds. Not to mention the “cultural and personal and emotional impact that it would have if we knowingly allowed all of these businesses to slowly close permanently.”

In late July, MVA-Austin presented a budget request for a Music Venue Preservation Fund to the city that asks for $19 million for fixed costs for venues of all sizes and an additional $1 million to help subsidize livestreaming costs. The city is expected to vote on the proposal in late August. That money, they hope, could come from the next federal aid package — but, of course, that is still uncertain.

The Austin City Council “has agreed that there is a need for such a fund, but we don’t have it yet,” says Reynolds. “So we are asking them to complete the work that they started.”

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