Q’s With: NIVA Founding Members Dayna Frank, Rev. Moose and Gary Witt

Dayna Frank, First Avenue
– Dayna Frank, First Avenue

The National Independent Venue Association was recently formed to lobby with a unified voice for assistance from the federal government after thousands of small businesses across the country were imperiled by the spread of coronavirus. Within a matter of days its membership grew to some 450 members and a week later it had expanded to 900.

Led by venue owners including First Avenue CEO Dayna Frank, Pabst Theater Group Executive Director Gary Witt and Marauder Managing Partner Rev. Moose, the group has raised money to retain a powerhouse lobbying firm, Akin Gump, and on April 22 sent a letter to Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi, House of Representatives Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Democratic Minority Leader Chuck Schumer explaining the importance of independent venues and putting them on notice to expect requests for specific funding programs to protect their businesses for the duration of the pandemic and resultant economic crisis. 

There is more information, including signup and contact forms, at NIVA’s website: www.nivassoc.org. NIVA board president Frank, Moose and Witt explained the organization’s formation and purpose to Pollstar.
Pollstar: How did NIVA come to be formed?

Frank: NIVA came out of an Independent Venue Week town hall that Moose started having about a week after everything was being shuttered, and it was just so powerful. It was probably the first time for many of us to talk to each other, to independent promoters and venue owners, and be able to share resources and knowledge. We realized that if we are going to make it through we have to do it together and be unified. At the end of one of the town halls we talked about the need for a group, a trade association or alliance, to be formed with all the independents to share knowledge and resources and, most importantly, to get some representation in D.C. as these stimulus bills are being written to make sure we have resources and protection for the long-term health and future of our industry.

Was it difficult to bring all of these independent operators under one roof to support NIVA? 

Moose: I knew the conversations had been bouncing around for a few years that it would be good for the venues to have, especially the independents. It’s difficult to wrangle them and, when we brought Independent Venue Week to the United States a few years ago, we had support of many of the people that are now in this group. We started with about 20 venues. It was a little bit of a litmus test as to how something like this would work.
For the last few years as we in Independent Venue Week have been growing our network around the country and we knew we had to do something. Now, that something accelerated and those conversations accelerated; all the other conversations that nobody before ever had time for.  Now we have some major players, all very passionate people from around the country who would otherwise would be consumed with the day-to-day operations of their business, who now are collectively consumed with the survivability of their business.
To do that, we do have to be able to come together and be able to link arms to come up with a plan and put that plan into action. The necessity has always been there. But now it’s right there in front of everybody. We’re really trying to save these businesses that are cultural anchors in their communities across the country and we’re trying to do that together. We’re doing that with people who are not used to working together. These are fiercely independent businesses and they often compete with each other in the same market. So this shows how serious this is, that we were able to rally more than 400-plus of them together in not even two days.

Rev. Moose, Marauder
– Rev. Moose, Marauder

When and how did you decide that a lobbying firm was something you wanted, or needed?

Witt: The original step was working with Moose and the Independent Venue Week group. It was obvious we had to have a united voice and we knew that from our work together. Each of us, after the work we’d done in trying to get stimulus loans, knew that we needed to have a voice in D.C. And after the first round of stimulus loans was complete, we knew we had a short window to be able to impact this.
So this large group of completely independent organizations went out and we hired a lobbying firm that is actually the largest lobbying firm in America, Akin Gump. Importantly, we wanted to find someone with the power to do the number of things we needed to do in a short period of time. We realized that what seemed like a long period of time was days, weeks, whatever. We didn’t have any experience in this area previously and we needed someone who would be able to deliver our message We wanted someone with a history of doing some work in similar industries. Theatre, film industry – we thought there was a similarity there. Really the important factor for us is that they are incredibly powerful and they understood our message and how important we are. 
We aren’t just people who sell tickets; we are people who develop community in each city. We are people that, if it wasn’t for our venues that existed, in many cases you wouldn’t have bars, restaurants, and coffee shops around us and you wouldn’t necessarily have the same existence of people who visit a city. Today, we’re actually more like a visitors and convention bureau. People visit our cities and come visit us because of the artists and the shows that we do, and help cities kind of grow together.

How is NIVA being funded? 

Witt: It’s with the generosity of See Tickets and Lyte that we’ve been able to make this commitment. We’re certainly going to need more organizations to be able to contribute financially and we’re talking with people and are open to talking with more people. It’s an interesting ask, because it’s not just the independent venues that are impacted by this. It’s all the other businesses and companies that depend upon these venues whose drinks get sold, the ones whose merch gets sold, the ones where ticketing fees get added on. All the other ancillary fees that come with a night out are affected by these rooms not being able to be open.
It’s in the industry’s best interest if we, the venues, are able to continue to operate and hopefully we will continue to see more companies that are able to realize that. I also think that because we’re talking about hundreds of venues across the country that it is a matter of ongoing solicitation and sales to try to get people to work with these different vendors and gives them an opportunity to build alliances and build allegiances in places that they might not have otherwise had that goodwill. Certainly, every single business out there is looking towards who’s healthy and that’s a big part of the conversation.
For the venues that join us, there’s no cost to be a part of this. It is thanks to the support we’ve gotten so far and hopefully the support we’ll get in the future that we are able to get to the level of power of the work we’re able to do with Akin Gump as well as some of the things we’ll be able to do to help out and provide additional information for other independent venue owners. 
Gary Witt, Pabst Theater Group
– Gary Witt, Pabst Theater Group
How can people outside of the venue world financially support NIVA?

Moose: There will be GoFundMe or similar efforts. Some will be able to reach out to their fans or their user base with limited edition merch, golden tickets, or other creative ways that they’re coming up with to engage. I think that most of these we’ve seen so far are to support their staffs and that says a lot about the kind of venues we’re working with as part of this collective. Their interest was being able to help those people be able to pay their bills. We’ve seen really large numbers raised through that. What we’re trying to do through NIVA is to make sure the business interest can be preserved as well so those jobs can come back and they have jobs to come back to.  
Witt: As far as being able to accept funds outside of the inner circle, if you will, this organization is so new and things are moving so quickly a lot of these conversations are happening in real time and we are learning new things every day. We are rolling new elements out, new materials are being created. 
Importantly, it’s not just about money. It’s about the message and information we want to share with as many people as possible. One of our strong monetary tools is that every one of the venues across America has a strong database. First Avenue has a strong database, 9:30 Club, everybody has a database. What people can really do is send out the information we send out and make sure that gets out to cities across America who represent us at our state level as well as the federal level to hear our message. They are our allies in this war.