Independent venues are dying, and Congress isn't doing very much about it. Since March, COVID-19 has shuttered venues across the US and they’ve been struggling to survive without revenue from shows as rent, insurance, and payroll payments continue to stack up. Though owners, operators, and industry workers banded together to form the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) and have been lobbying for Federal assistance since late March, Congress left for recess in August without a vote, leaving the entire industry without a lifeline.
This is a dire situation for live music. In a June survey by NIVA, 90 percent of independent venues reported that they would shutter before the end of the calendar year unless Congress passes legislation that will enable them to cover expenses until there is a vaccine and it's safe to host concerts at full capacity. While #SaveOurStages has been the organization's slogan since its formation, when Congress came back in session earlier this month, they introduced a more urgent rallying cry: #DoNotAbandonUs.
“Our members expected a resolution in July and have held out past their breaking points, borrowing or scraping together anything they could until Congress makes a decision, but there is no further to go,” said Dayna Frank, president of NIVA and CEO of Minneapolis' First Avenue Productions, in a press release earlier this month. “Businesses will be closed and homes will be lost if Congress doesn't take immediate action. We need action now.”
Hundreds of independent venues across the country have already closed for good, like Boston's Great Scott, Austin's Barracuda, and recently Amityville, NY's Revolution Music Hall. According to statistics from NIVA's Nashville chapter, that without relief, in 13 weeks there may be only one independent music venue left standing in Music City. (On Sept. 1, the Nashville COVID-19 Financial Oversight Committee approved $2 million in CARES Act funding for its independent venues, which is just enough to cover two months’ worth of expenses and won't get these institutions entirely through the pandemic). "Every day, I get between one and three emails about another venue who will be forced to close permanently," said NIVA Head of Communications Audrey Fix Schaefer.
But NIVA hasn't given up. "Having Congress do nothing was a collective gut-punch, and it hasn't gotten better since then," said Fix Schaefer. But, she said, "As Congress keeps failing to act, we keep pushing ahead and we keep contacting senators and representatives and we keep adding on co-sponsors to Save Our Stages Act. We're going to use this time because really that's our only choice." So far, the Save Our Stages Act, which centers around the creation of a grant program that will help venues cover costs associated with utilities, mortgage and rent, maintenance, personal protection equipment, and complying with local and state safety guidelines, has been co-sponsored by 162 members of Congress. Likely owing to NIVA's argument that venues are big economic drivers for cities, it's got broad bipartisan support, with supporters ranging from Texas GOP Sen. John Cornyn to New York Democrat Sen. Chuck Schumer.
But even though Congress has been back in session since September 8, lawmakers have yet to come to a deal on a coronavirus stimulus package, which NIVA hopes will include the Save Our Stages Act or the RESTART Act, a broader loan program catered to small and medium-sized business that will remove some of the hurdles that previously made it difficult for music venues to benefit from the Paycheck Protection Program.
"Since Congress isn't considering other pieces of legislation, these bills need to be in the overall COVID package" said Fix Schaefer, pointing to the toll the partisan gridlock is having on American workers and businesses. "What we need for them to do is to get back in a room, come up with some type of a compromise so America can get what America so desperately needs and that's help." To Fix Schaefer and NIVA, every day that goes by increases the risk that these businesses will be unable to hire employees back when it's finally safe to re-open.
Beyond the human and moral argument that independent venues deserve Federal Aid because they've been forced to indefinitely close at no fault of their own, saving these institutions makes obvious economic sense. A 2018 study from the Chicago Loop Alliance found that $1 spent at a venue resulted in $12 of economic activity for neighboring businesses. Elsewhere, in places like Texas, the music business brings in a sizeable amount to the state's economy. According to a government study, the music business makes $23.4 billion in economic activity while employing 200,000-plus people and generating $390 million in tax revenue.
In other words, culture isn't the only thing cities lose when these independent venues close down; they also lose tax revenue, jobs, and potential income for neighboring businesses. Congress has the power to stave off an extinction-level threat to the entire industry and harness that economic potential when it comes time to reopen—but each day of inaction means more and more businesses are forced to permanently shutter. Citizens concerned about the future of live music can petition and write their Congressmen through SaveOurStages—since March, NIVA says, some 2 million people and over 600 prominent recording artists have signed an open letter to Congress—but ultimately, the responsibility falls on our politicians. At a #SaveOurStages rally in New York, LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy summed up what's at stake: “This is a natural ecosystem that can’t be built. It’s like a coral reef of venues. It’s like a natural national asset that if it goes away, it doesn’t come back.”