Four months after concert venues across the nation closed to slow the spread of COVID-19, the live music industry is in dire shape. Rising cases amid patchwork reopenings have pushed the eventual return of concerts and shows further and further into the future, with no hope for a return until there's a vaccine, no new cases, or an effective treatment for the virus. A June survey found that 90 percent of independent venue owners, operators, and promoters would have to close within six months without federal assistance. And while the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) has offered temporary relief to some music businesses, several venues have already permanently shuttered.
In April, to stave off an industry-wide collapse, over 2,000 venues and promoters in all 50 states formed the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA). Since then, the group has tirelessly pitched Congress for financial relief, soliciting over one million emails to representatives through their #SaveOurStages campaign; earned co-signs from over 1,100 artists, including Lady Gaga, Coldplay, Foo Fighters, Mavis Staples, and Neil Young; and even hired the nation's top lobbying firm, Akin Gump. Still, if Congress doesn’t act this month to bail out independent venues, NIVA representatives fear it will be too late to save their industry.
"Our fight right now is do or die," says NIVA Head of Communications Audrey Fix Schaefer, who also works for I.M.P., the D.C.-area concert promotions and production company that owns the 9:30 Club, Merriweather Post Pavilion, and other iconic venues. "If there's no help before the end of July, Congress goes on recess in August. Since it's an election year, it's harder to pass sweeping legislation before November.".
Among its different proposals, NIVA points to the bipartisan RESTART Act proposed in the U.S. Senate and still awaiting a vote, which promises extended assistance to the small and medium-sized businesses that have been hit hardest by the pandemic, going beyond the PPP's 8-week coverage period to offer loans that could be used to fund six months of payroll, benefits, and fixed operating costs. "This is the only piece of legislation that will allow independent venues to hold on," says Fix Schaefer. "While the PPP program was very well-intended, it was not suited for our industry. This is."
Because the PPP was originally intended to offer businesses eight weeks of assistance in maintaining payroll and other operating expenses, with the aim of enabling them to hold on to existing staff, it didn’t speak to the specific predicament faced by independent concert venues, many of which had already been forced to furlough or lay off staff in the absence of ongoing live music events—all while remaining on the hook for mounting overhead costs.
"We couldn't spend the money as dictated in PPP," says Fix Schaefer. "RESTART will allow us to put that money to our enormous overhead like rent and mortgage and insurance and utilities and taxes. With that, we will be existing entities when we are able to open up when it's safe."
Still, Fix Schaefer says that the RESTART Act is just a start for saving venues. "Because of all the canceled and refunded shows, it's like a vacuum cleaner went to our savings accounts," she says. "All the money that was already spent on that show, marketing, production and other things is gone." To staunch the bleeding, Fix Schaefer says, NIVA is looking into tax credits for ticket refunds. The organization is also supporting the House-passed HEROES Act, which includes expanded rent and mortgage relief; an Employee Retention Tax Credit; and the Clean Start Act, which gives tax credits to businesses for costs related to cleaning and ensuring the safety of staff and concertgoers.
For Fix Schaefer, these measures aren't just necessary while live music is still on hiatus; even if venues open up for business again, she says, it'll be a long time before they are operating at full capacity. In cities like Washington D.C., where Fix Schaefer works, no events permitted in D.C. at concert venues until there's a vaccine. In many others, large gatherings will be capped at 250, or 25% capacity, until one is ready
"The concept of a 25% capacity might work well for a grocery store or for a retail outlet, but it doesn't work for us," she says. "We don't get to only pay 25% of our rent or utilities." She adds that when you factor in payroll and other costs associated with reopening, some venues will lose more money when they open at a limited capacity than they would completely shut down. The lack of a uniform response to the pandemic nationwide is another problem: If bigger markets are still shut down, that hurts the smaller markets nearby, because bands are less likely to pass through.
In the months since its inception, NIVA’s #SaveOurStages campaign has been successful in mobilizing music fans and industry professionals across the country to call their representatives and express their support for the RESTART ACT, among pieces of legislation. But while the proposal has support from over 150 representatives across both parties, as of press time, no vote has been scheduled.
Fix Schaefer says that she hopes that the powers that be recognize that public health and protecting our cultural institutions are not mutually exclusive. "We obviously understand the need to protect the public," says Fix Schaefer. "We're the public. Our employees are the public, our fans are, the artists are." Still, she says, "They've taken our businesses from us. Public health is important, but they are leading us to die."