Independent Venues, Stakeholders Confer Over COVID-19 Upheavals

Independent Venue Week – Independent Venue Week
Facing what many of them are considering an existential crisis as efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19 continue to disrupt the live entertainment industry,  75 independent venues and stakeholders put their heads together today on a call organized by Independent Venue Week.
With everyone trying to navigate the material about public safety and regulation that is constantly being shared and updated, the purpose of the call was to share experiences among venues that are in different stages of dealing with COVID-19. You can reach out to [email protected] to be included in future calls like this.

The call opened with a U.K. event and activation organizer who had a several-week head-start in dealing with the escalating public concern about the spread of the disease. The call also touched on various legal ramifications of different situations, insurance questions, and governmental regulation.

“The primary aspect [we discussed] is how do these businesses continue to operate, in the very near future or in the long term after being affected by something like this,” Rev. Moose, of Marauder which organizes Independent Venue Week in the U.S, told Pollstar. “We’re trying to make sure the owners and operators of independent venues have the ability and information to be able to move forward. Without them in our communities, everybody is worse off. There will always be live music and there will always be places to congregate, but these independent rooms are the ones that best serve their local communities.”

The call also included Stephen Sternschein, who is helping to organize the “Banding Together” initiative in the wake of SXSW’s cancellation, and other venue owners from the U.S. and the U.K.

“It was really sobering, it was fucking scary. The dude from England, you know they’re a few weeks ahead of us [in terms of the length the coronavirus has been spreading in the country,] his first message, was “We laid everybody off, we have no business. Everything dried up. My message to you is start planning to shut down now.”

One general takeaway seemed to be, in cities where the disease was spreading, the forced closure of venues for public health did seem likely. When that point comes, Sternschein said, is up to public officials and he is doing everything he can to keep the music industry in Austin alive until he is told to close up shop.

Sternschein said he and his team are trying to still organize hold together some semblance of SXSW in Austin among the local clubs that are still able to operate. 
“It was an uplifting moment to be on a call with so many people facing the same issues … to be able to offer more than empty words, and say ‘Here’s what we’re doing.’ We’re doing everything we can to raise money from concerned folks that understand the impact this is having on our community, we’re doing everything we can to support people affected in our community, we’re working with our city government to access relief funds as quickly as possible, and we’re operating our business until we’re told it’s not safe to do so. You know, I have 100-plus people who rely on our venues being open to live, so this is our obligation to take care of them, and also we want to make sure people are safe and we are being responsible about bringing people together.”
It was also discussed on the call whether independent business owners in the live industry can get access to the SBA loans or tax relief mentioned by Donald Trump in his address to the nation March 11. 

Moose told Pollstar the stakes for many people on the call couldn’t be higher. “I think anybody in the entertainment sector who is not concerned right now, I think, is just kidding themselves. The entire ecosystem is dependent on artists being able to perform.
“If artists aren’t able to pay their bills, they are probably not going to be able to afford the bare minimum of what is required to be a professional or semi-professional musician. And if the venues aren’t able to stay in business, who are you going to sell tickets to. I don’t think anyone expected something like this to happen at a global level.”

The call was meant to help industry workers like Steven Matrick, talent buyer for Lola in New York and is organizing the New Colossus Festival in New York City. The event – a takeover of eight NYC venues with independent artists from around the world – launched last night, March 11, as scheduled, and is continuing as planned, despite escalating limitations on public events in the city. 

“We are a three-man team with 10 volunteers. We are processing the cancellations one at a time. We booked 110 bands to come, we have had about 15 cancel and we are spreading out the other 90 or so across the festival. They are stepping up and taking more shows. 

“Tomorrow there is an ordinance that venues can only operate at half capacity. We will try to have venues prioritize badgeholders and people coming to see shows over their normal clientele so the bands can have audiences. That is Friday, we will see what happens on Saturday when Saturday comes.”

“What’s crazy is the bands all have two, three or four showcases. So one band cancellation is devastating. So 15 … we are filling 40-50 shows a day right now. We wake up, we fill em, we forward them to venues to update, and we go from there.”

New Colossus has had to cancel the March 13 show at Bowery Ballroom due to the prohibition of events with more than 500 capacity, reducing the number of venues associated with the festival to seven. Matrick said they will reschedule that show, which was to feature LIFE, Public Practice and A Place To Bury Strangers, to later in the year. 

Even states with no known cases are being affected dramatically by the outbreak.

Nick Checota, owner and president of Logjam Presents in Montana told Pollstar

“As with our peers, our entire revenue model has been eliminated in a matter of 3 days.  With our venues being mostly dark, we have limited revenue. Our operation is designed to continually host and promote shows, so our overhead, which has many salaried employees remains fixed.  With a strong commitment to our retaining and supporting our staff, Logjam anticipates significant losses over the next 2 months. Hopefully this does not last more than 30-60 days.

“At this point, Montana has not reported cases.  We are not in an assembly ban, but the governor told me one MAY come.  We are still doing shows if they have not cancelled, but they are few and far between at this point.  For shows that are occuring, we are taking significant extra steps in the venue, with additional cleaning staff, extra sanitization, etc.  Overall, I anticipate this will have a significant impact on our business.”

Thomas Cussins, President of Ineffable Music – which manages numerous artists and oversees Patchwork Presents and California Roots Festival – told Pollstar: “In unprecedented times, we are encouraged by the unity being shown by agents, managers, talent buyers, promoters, fans and artists. While these club closings and postponements will put our business in an extremely tight spot, we look forward to coming out stronger on the other side!”
Sternschein said in spite of the massive challenges facing the independent music community, he is confident many will figure out a way through this crisis. “The people around me and all around the country, the independents, are the most resourceful, hardcore, get-shit-done MF-ers I’ve ever seen anywhere. If those folks come upon a problem, all they do is solve it. That’s our job, that’s our living. It’s a big one, it’s gonna be challenging, but I have full faith in this group of people to work together and get through it.”