US live music scene: “Without government support, you won’t have independent venues in America”

Artists and venues told NME they're still facing challenges associated with COVID

Independent venue owners, associations, and touring artists have spoken to NME about what the US live music community still needs from the US government to survive this stage of the ongoing pandemic.

With ticketholder no-show rates reaching a high of 50 per cent last month and the National Independent Venue Foundation recently relaunching its Emergency Relief Fund, venues and artists told us they are still facing show cancelations, financial challenges, and health risks associated with COVID.

Ella Williams, AKA Squirrel Flower, was set to tour independent venues across America in January, following the release of her second album ‘Planet (i)’. But when the highly contagious Omicron variant caused an uptick in COVID cases in January, Williams made the call to push back the first two weeks of her tour.

Advertisement

“I didn’t postpone the shows because of local guidance or venue guidance,” she told NME. “I just decided to myself.”

Squirrel Flower
Credit: Squirrel Flower/Press

Williams has had to conduct her own research on COVID rates and venue safety while out on tour, telling us that’s it’s been hard to make moral decisions for “me, my band, my fans, and for the venue workers because there is no government guidance.”

For her, the lack of guidance for artists is a symptom of the government’s lack of respect and support for the livelihood of Americans in general.

“I don’t think the government gives a shit about any workers in the US right now,” Williams told us. “When you look at [president] Joe Biden he’s not giving [money] to anyone except for already wealthy people and bailing out banks and large businesses.”

In 2020, the government started multiple Federal Unemployment Programs to support those who could no longer work because of COVID. Those benefits expired in September of 2021.

Advertisement

“At the beginning of the pandemic when the government was offering support, a lot of musician friends of mine were in a comfortable financial position for the first time in their lives,” the singer explained. “We’re now seeing so much amazing music that came from people being able to focus on their craft and not have to worry about being in debt or being behind on rent.”

When asked how she handles COVID safety concerns without the support of a large team, Squirrel Flower told us: “I am effectively my own tour manager.”

“When you go to a venue, you’re essentially having to advocate for your needs and COVID adds another element to that,” she said. “You’re having to ask people working to wear masks or ask the venue to check proof of vaccination, even if the state doesn’t require it.”

For Williams, touring during COVID also means covering the added cost of masks, COVID tests, and even hotel rooms since crashing with friends could lead to accidentally contracting the virus.

“For anyone going to shows right now: if they have the means to, they should buy merch and support artists in any way they can outside of just buying a ticket,” she told us. “There are a lot more expenses behind the scenes now.”

Despite her frustration over the lack of government guidance across all venues, when asked about recent tour stops at Brooklyn’s Baby’s All Right and Manhattan’s Mercury Lounge, she said “at the root of it, everybody at these venues is doing the best they can.”

Squirrel Flower
Credit: Getty / David A. Smith

Dayna Frank, CEO of First Avenue Productions and president of NIVA, has witnessed the struggle Williams told us about first-hand. “Working class and emerging artists have had the toughest time over the last couple of years without touring revenue,” she told NME.

Formed in March 2020, shortly after the pandemic shuttered the doors of almost every independent venue in the US, NIVA successfully lobbied to obtain $16billion in federal relief funding via the Save Our Stages Act, which passed as part of the COVID-19 relief bill in December of 2020.

“The grants were a god-send,” Frank told us. “I don’t want to swear, but it feels like a fucking miracle. I can’t overstate what the impact has been and will be for decades to come from this grant program. Without it, you wouldn’t have independent venues in America.”

She added: “That’s why you saw everyone fighting so hard in 2020, because we all see our books, we all know what the realities are of keeping our businesses open when there was no business, no resources, and no hope.”

Dayna Frank
Credit: Caitlin Abrams

Now, the coalition is lobbying for additional funds to deal with “inflation and worker shortages compounded by the fact that COVID is still ongoing.”

“There’s about $2billion left [in funding] and NIVA is advocating for more time [to use those funds],” Frank said. “Because of the shutdowns, there were fewer concerts and fewer events to utilize the money. At the same time, venues in urban areas that were shut down completely, have use for more funds.”

NIVA is also working on a proposal to open its relief program to businesses that were deemed ineligible for the first round of funding. Last month, the organisation spoke before the US House Small Business Committee. At the time, no-show rates for ticket-holders had hit a high of 50 per cent.

“That no-show rate, we call it the drop count, is one of the key metrics we watch for,” Frank said, noting that when rates reach 50 per cent “you can’t operate profitably for artists or venues.” As COVID rates have dropped, however, so has the rate of no-shows.

NIVA shared that currently “on average, across new venues, we’re seeing a 15 per cent [drop count] which is a massive improvement from 50 per cent. Industry standard in the before times was about three to five per cent, so we still have a little bit to go, but it’s certainly trending in the right direction.”

Independent venue owners are hoping that the rate will continue to drop because, as Frank told us, when attendees don’t show up it’s “impossible to plan, you’re overstaffed, you have too much inventory and the entire economics are askew.”

“Artists and venues rely on customers entering the venue, buying drinks, buying merch, coming with friends, to make all of the finances of a concert work,” she said.

On how fans can assist in lowering no-show rates, Frank said: “If you have a ticket for a show that’s been rescheduled, and you can’t go to the new date or you’re exposed [to COVID] give your ticket to somebody who will go. Let them experience the band, let them experience live music.”

According to NIVA, independent venues have been hard at work ensuring the safety of fans who attend shows during the pandemic. The organisation recently distributed 200,000 KN95 masks to venues across the country, and has also worked with venues, promoters, and bands to push for vaccination checks and cleaning procedures so fans feel safe at shows again.

“The safety of concert-goers and fans are as important to us as it is to them because without them we don’t have a business and we don’t have this magical experience that we’ve worked so hard for,” Frank said. “Every independent venue owner I know is doing every single thing they can to keep everyone safe.”

Squid at Empty Bottle
Squid plays at Empty Bottle Credit: Ricardo E. Adame

Looking back on how his venue endured the past two years, Bruce Finkelman, owner of Chicago’s The Empty Bottle told NME: “I think our perseverance as a people and as a music scene has been amazing.”

Like many venue owners in the US, Finkelman has had to make his own decisions on which COVID protocols to follow for his venue because “a state could go ahead and mandate something and have a certain restriction and then the city could do something completely different.”

The team at The Empty Bottle decided to follow Center for Disease Control guidelines, noting that although they have to adhere to city and state mandates to keep the venue open, their main concern has been to “ensure that our families, our staff, our performers, and our guests are as safe as possible.”

He added: “The only thing that made sense was to take whatever advice we could from medical professionals and actually use that as our guidelines above and beyond the politicians.”

Now that Omicron is subsiding and “there appears to be a little bit more comfortability with the idea of going back into a venue and seeing performances,” Finkelman is excited to welcome fans back, adding that, “as a venue owner, there’s nothing better than being able to see our spaces utilized as they were intended.”

“The most important thing for all of the independent venues is that we want to be around,” he told us. “I speak from Chicago having one of the best music scenes in the world and groups like CIVL (Chicago Independent Venue League). We’re concerned with making sure our music scene gets preserved for years and years to come.”

Though there’s still uncertainty surrounding how long certain protocols will be in place and if new variants of COVID will arise, the Chicago venue owner said that The Empty Bottle is starting to feel the way it did before the pandemic.

Dry Cleaning
Dry Cleaning perform at The Empty Bottle Credit: Ricardo E. Adame

“There is a spot at the end of the bar where you can see the bartenders working and you can see the band and you can see the people,” he said. “That’s my favourite place on earth.

“One of the things I looked forward to throughout the pandemic was being able to sit on that stool again and see that happen again. It’s been pretty amazing to slowly get more and more glimpses of that as we move towards whatever this post-pandemic normal is.”

Last week, Dr Ross McKinney Jr., an infectious disease specialist, and chief scientific officer of The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), told NME that although “we may be in a quiet period in terms of COVID” during this upcoming music festival season “there’s still no way to tell” if that will last.

Though Dr Mckinney Jr. said he understands why events would “just throw their hands up and say ‘It’s not worth the effort’,” he still thinks that “it’s the right thing to do to require vaccination.”

“When people are vaccinated, they are less likely to get sick themselves and less likely to make others ill,” he told NME. “It’s not perfect, but right after your booster [you can have] as high as 90 per cent protection against getting infected at all and later on you’re still less likely to get seriously ill. Even if you do get infected, your period of being infectious will likely be shorter.”

Advertisement
Advertisement