David Byrne On Saving Independent Venues: Exclusive

David Byrne
Jason Moore / [email protected]
– David Byrne
performs at Memorial Auditorium in Raleigh, N.C.

Congress is this week debating various forms of aid to music venues, specifically independent music venues. There are three bills that have been proposed – the RESTART Act covers all kinds of closed businesses, Save Our Stages focuses on independent music venues and the ENCORES act allows music venues to recoup some of the devastating losses they are experiencing. I’m not the person to get into the numbers or the details on these bills, but I can offer my own insights from a working musician’s point of view.

For many of us, we got our start playing in small clubs. We often began our careers as live musicians before we ever had the chance to make records. Talking Heads were lucky  we were in the right place at the right time. Within a year or so we could quit our day jobs as we made enough money to pay rent and groceries entirely from playing live shows in small clubs. Needless to say, rent was low and we were living modestly. But imagine! We could survive, sort of, playing small clubs. Not every act is as lucky as we were, but by and large clubs and small venues have kept a lot of creatives afloat. Let’s not forget, Lady Gaga started off playing piano at a Bleeker street club, The Bitter End. A Star is Born, indeed.
As time passed I’ve played a wide variety of venues, and I came to realize that there’s a kind of ecosystem at work  the little clubs nurture the acts that will eventually play the 800-capacity clubs and those in turn feed acts into the 1,500-capacity small theaters and ballrooms. Those venues support acts that will eventually play 2,500-seat theaters and carry their own crews and support. Each level feeds into the next. Musicians need each rung on this ladder to be in place in order to be able to reach the next one. When there are gaps in the chain, when there are rungs missing in the ladder, then musicians’ struggle to leap to a higher level – one that might be just beyond their reach.
If you’re touring and you know how much you need to pull in each week then you need venues in each city that can accommodate how many people you can draw. Like many, I’ve often underplayed in some cities where the right size venue is not available  I can do that a few times but if I do it too often suddenly I’m not making my weekly nut. It’s a supply chain  if the rubber for the wheels isn’t available you can’t make a car. And so far no one has found a way to outsource music. 

There are always a few exceptions  musicians who seem to leap from the bedroom to the stars  I love Billie “Pirate” Eilish and Dominic Fike’s “chicken tenders” was on repeat the other day. But those are exceptions. I’d wager most musicians  like Lady Gaga – have worked their way up through a hierarchy of venues.

There’s been talk of musicians turning to Patreon and other fan support systems  I don’t know enough to vouch for those as supporting a sustainable life for musicians. I do know that the independent labels, like the musicians whose music they release, survive on slim margins. They don’t have the money for spectacles, marketing campaigns and ad buys  they’re reliant on their acts playing those clubs as the primary way to win over converts.  

David Byrne
Frances Sealy / ConcertLivewire.com
– David Byrne
David Byrne emulates Hamlet during his band’s show at the Beale Street Music Festival at Tom Lee Park in Memphis, Tenn., May 5.
It should be obvious then that if this supply chain of talent and creativity collapses then nothing new will filter up and we’ll be left recycling the stuff already at the top over and over again. Pretty soon all the acts will be as old as me!
The economic damage will be massive if there are no life preservers. Pollstar estimates $9 billion in ticket sales lost … and for every ticket sale $12 in other related economic activity is generated. So that’s 9x 12= over $108 billion lost to the economy. I’m biased, but it seems to me this is a good investment of tax dollars. It might seem like a lot now, but to start things up from zero will cost a lot lot more. Investing now will save a lot of money  and pain … and we’ll eventually get some great new music and some wonderful shows.