US grassroots music venues are yet to receive billions of dollars of emergency government funding to rescue them from closure and allow to reopen after coronavirus restrictions lift.
It has been predicted that 90 per cent of US venues stand to be lost without government funding, with an estimated 300 already closed in the last 14 months. Venues spent much of last year pleading with the government for support, before Congress passed the #SaveOurStages bill in December to allow shuttered businesses like independent venues to get a $16billion emergency relief grant fund. But five months later, only a fraction of the money has started to be distributed.
Audrey Fix Schaefer, from the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA), told NME that while they were “incredibly grateful and relieved” that the bill had been passed, the money was needed urgently.
“We’ve all been without any revenue whatsoever since March 2020,” Schaefer said. “The bills keep on stacking up, the eviction notices are coming faster, people are feeling incredibly stressed and demoralised.”
The money is supposed to come as a grant handed out by the Small Businesses Administration. Within four and a half hours of applications opening, it had to be shut down because there were technical difficulties. It reopened three weeks later with around 11,000 businesses applying. However, up until last week “not a single penny was released”.
“The amazing news is that we have vaccines and that states and cities around the country are re-opening,” she continued. “But for us, we can’t reopen until we get that money. We can’t get our employees back or put deposits on bands.
“There are venues that aren’t permitted to reopen because their landlords won’t allow them to until they pay their back rent – which is only fair. This is business survival as difficult in 2021 as it was in 2020.”
As for the very real and potential threat that venues face unless the cash is released urgently, Schaefer said: “If you have no revenue and enormous overheads, how can you last forever?
“Right now, independent venues are starting from a position of difficulty because they don’t have the resources of stockholders money or mass Wall Street lines of credit because they are small independent businesses. They’ve gone through all of their savings. So many of them have taken second mortgages on their homes, drained their retirement funds or have taken money from their kids’ college funds. They’re doing anything they can to hold on, but they didn’t think they would have to go through these hoops because the money was promised five months ago.”
While Live Nation has reportedly booked twice as many shows for 2022 as it did for 2019, that only stands to benefit larger major venues which can automatically afford to re-hire staff for training and make their buildings COVID-safe.
If grassroots venues make to reopening, Schaefer predicts that most of them will take three to five months to fill their calendars full because “the intricacies of scheduling thousands and thousands of tours at the same time during a pandemic are unprecedented.”
In the grand scheme of things, Schaefer said that losing these venues would not only be devastating to the music scene, but also on local economies.
“It’s not just the venue that is impacted by the shutdown, it’s everything around us,” she said. “There was a study out of Chicago that showed out of every dollar spent in a venue, there was $12 of activity in neighbouring venues. Music’s a big part of tourism. If a venue goes under, then there will be a domino effect.”
She continued: “Very few artists start in a stadium. They start in small, local clubs. We give them the space to hone their craft and develop their artistry. The ones that do become stars, do it because they’ve been out there with us. Lady Gaga started in a room with 200 people at The Bitter End in New York City. Elton John really hit it when he played The Troubadour in LA with a seven-night run. He said that if he didn’t make it then, then that was it.”
Beyond pressuring government or donating to the NIVA Emergency Relief Fund, Schaefer said that “one of the most important things music fans can do is to get vaccinated.
“Somehow or another, convince your friends and family. We want people to be safe and the science is showing that it works. Vaccines are the gateway drug to concerts, but they’re also the gateway drug to being able to stay on this planet for as long as you can.”
Tyler Myers is director of New York’s Knockdown Centre – a favourite spot of LCD Soundsystem‘s James Murphy which championed them when he joined the fight to save independent music venues in the US, saying that supporting the act “is the least we can do as a group of people who take care of our own”.
“The Save Our Stages Act has had a pretty stuttered launch,” Myers told NME. “We applied in April, watched our application sit there for over a month, and only went into review status last week. It’s just very frustrating because at the time, the grant felt like it was going to be this godsend that would help us bridge the gap to being able to reopen. Now, we’ve been put in an awkward position where our state opened up more quickly than everyone thought it was going to, but now we’re still waiting to have money to do a proper reopening.
“There should be a period where we’re able to train, discuss how we’re operating differently and how we need to work differently in order to keep people safe. Instead, we’re being rushed along to reopen.”
He added: “From a competitive standpoint, we’re approaching a dearth of artists because everybody’s booking and everyone is trying to play in the first month of reopening. We don’t have the money to properly train for that. It’s all a bit of a hustle without being able to properly fund it, because it has taken the Federal Government more than six months to figure out how to implement and fund a grant process.”
As for what happens next, Myers said that the Knockdown Centre faces a “scary” future without urgent action and funding.
“I feel torn because my inbox has three flavours of email: one of excitement at all these great things we could do, the second is sheer terror at why the applications aren’t going through or being told they won’t get funded because the Federal Government thought they were dead, and then there are employees who want to get ready but I don’t have the money to be able to do that,” he added. “It’s a rollercoaster.”
Over in the UK, the vast majority of grassroots venues have so far been saved through the pandemic due to public donations, “people power” and pressure put on the government for emergency assistance.