As we all emerge out of quarantine and into what will be a more normal existence, a panel discussion at South by Southwest moderated by Andy Gensler of Pollstar broached the topic of what is next in the world of live music in independent venues. Joined by Grace Blake from Iridium, Amy Madrigali, a Troubadour agency associate, and Dayna Frank, CEO of Minneapolis venue First Avenue, the conversation offered frank ideas of what has happened and what is coming down the road.
All three venues were coming off fantastic showings for 2019 and were looking forward to great things in 2020. In fact, First Avenue was due to celebrate its 50th anniversary in April of 2020. And then, as Andy Gensler put it, “The gut punch was South by Southwest canceling.” Although talks of forming an industry association between Rev. Moose (eventual NIVA co-founder and Executive Director) and Hal Real had begun a little earlier than when the pandemic hit, the SXSW cancellation gave an urgency to the situation that led to the formation of NIVA (National Independent Venue Association). From an initial steering committee of about 30 people, NIVA has grown into an organization that has kept independent venues front of mind during lobbying efforts (#SaveOurStages Act) and fundraising, all with the goal of financially shoring up the independent venues and all of the people who are dependent upon them. Blake and Madrigali both serve on the NIVA board and Frank is the current president.
When asked about their takeaways from this year, all were quick to answer. Blake said, “We were really able to provide some comfort into how to navigate the system. We were able to say to Congress, you really need to step up and help these venues who have never asked for anything. For me, it was a lifesaver.”
Madrigali related, “To echo what Grace said, we came together. Sending 2 million letters to Congress. Showing the power of what we can do in our cities and our country. We can communicate with our government. My first lobbying call was with Representative Adam Schiff – myself and my GM. In his world, LD is Legislative Director and in my world, it’s a Lighting Director. We had great support from our representative and we are really lucky.”
Although President Biden signed the American Rescue Plan into law on March 11, 2021, Frank reminds us there is much to be done, “We are waiting for the SBA to finalize rules and open up applications for grants. We are nagging them every day. We’re hopeful that an SBA administrator gets confirmed soon so someone from the administration can guide the process along. We definitely need the SBA to provide the safeguards.”
Gensler then asked about the future: “We’re seeing some southern routing opening up in New Zealand. Are things creeping back to your venue at all?
According to Blake. “New York has some of the strictest restrictions. We have to walk before we can run. I do look forward to the vaccination process to continue to happen so that, as we head to herd immunity, we can get closer.”
When asked about Live Streams, Madrigali said, “We had the SOS Fest (October 2020). Coming up, we are doing a TV show. It’s minuscule as compared to where we were before. In November 2019, we had booked 30 nights. In November 2020, we had booked 5 live streams.”
Frank hasn’t found it financially feasible to open for less than full capacity, so summer may not be in play, but fall may be a different story, “When the fall happens – and I am going to will it into existence – we will be busier than we have ever seen.” Blake is “cautiously optimistic”, and is looking toward the fall as well. “October is almost booked. November is getting booked, December. 2022 is looking good, especially for overseas acts.”
For those venues still trying to hang on until the fall, Madrigali recommended checking the SBA website to apply for funds. Frank recommended that artists try to get PPP loans as an independent contractor.
For more information about NIVA and the work being done, go to www.nivassoc.org. Since it can take time for grants to be issued, money is still being raised to help those venues in the most need. A donation link is provided on the website.