Building Back Live: NITO Celebrates SOS But ‘Still A Long Way To Go’

The passage of the Save Our Stages Act, which includes $15 billion in grants for shuttered venue operators, is a major victory for many facing immediate closure and whose businesses were forced to a halt in 2020. With such little government support for the last nine months, the fact it passed at all was a surprise to many. 

Maybe even more of a surprise was the inclusion of talent agents, artist managers, promoters, talent buyers and festival producers. While having different financial circumstances from brick-and-mortar venues, booking agents in particular, which rely on volume of shows and commissions for revenue, remain among the most impacted by the COVID-19 shutdown. 
The inclusion of agents and managers to Save Our Stages can largely be attributed to the formation of the National Independent Talent Organization, started by a core group of agents including Entourage Talent’s Wayne Forte, Ground Control Touring’s Eric Dimenstein, High Road Touring’s Frank Riley, Leave Home Booking’s Stormy Shepherd, Madison House’s Nadia Prescher, Mongrel Music’s Brad Madison, New Frontier’s Paul Lohr, Panache Booking’s Michelle Cable, Partisan Arts’ Tom Chauncey, Pinnacle Entertainment’s Scott Sokol, Sound Talent Group’s Dave Shapiro, Skyline Artists Agency’s Mark Lourie and Bruce Houghton, TKO’s Steve Schenck, and The Kurland Agency’s Ted Kurland and Jack Randall. 
“It was extremely unlikely the bill would ever pass, unlikely all of us would get together, the  whole process unlikely, as unlikely as the pandemic,” says Frank Riley, whose High Road Touring is an independent force in the concert industry. “An organization like NITO didn’t exist prior to early April, and in hindsight it would have been useful.”
The organization, which represents a varied roster of artists from Robert Plant to Bassnectar, to Slayer, to Jack Johnson, quickly grew to include more than 90 agencies, and counts member artists and artist managers among its ranks. 
“We’re grateful the bill passed and we can maybe live another day and maybe bridge the gap to not go extinct, but we’re also realizing how much bigger of a crisis we’re in, that goes far beyond anything financial and beyond our industry,” says Madison House co-founder and owner Nadia Prescher, based in Colorado. “We never had anything like this in this industry, some of us are real competitors and we’ve figured out how to be together and work together. When we’re on the side of this, I’ll do anything for NITO members now.”
NITO’s efforts were initially focused on the broad, long-term RESTART act, but with flagging traction in congress at the potentially $2 trillion-plus price tag, they quickly jumped at the chance to align with NIVA. 
“This is life and death and remains life and death, that’s what started NITO,” says Riley, who adds his own High Road Touring would likely have been forced to shut down without relief. 
“There were a lot of people, talent agents in dire straits pretty quickly, being so interconnected a lot of people would be affected as well. We were looking out for ourselves but quickly it became apparent saving ourselves wouldn’t be possible without being involved in the larger community.”
After securing this relief, NITO’s mission going forward is to continue fighting for broader, long-term help for the entire industry, as well as continuing NITO as a going concern in a sector of the business often considered cut-throat. 

NITO auction
– NITO auction
Sonic Youth frontman and guitarist Thurston Moore shows off a signed Fender guitar, which was auctioned with the proceeds benefiting NITO. His agent, Eric Dimenstein of Ground Control Touring, is a NITO founding member.
“There are alliances that lobby on Capitol Hill for years and years and spend millions getting their word out, and here we were brand new, trying to get together quickly,” Prescher says. “I regularly said we were rowing a boat and building it at the same time, and half the time passing the oar back and no one is back there. We were frantically building this organization while simultaneously trying to educate congress how desperately we needed help.”
With most NITO members unable to really get back to business without a full coast-to-coast touring business to sustain it – which could easily take another six months in an optimistic scenario – the immediate impact of the SOS and $900 billion omnibus relief is still huge for its members and clients.
“NITO represents not only independent agents and managers but also a vast number of artists and touring crew, so it was important for us to see the extension of PUA benefits as well as PPP, because that helps our artists as well as other independent small businesses out there,” adds Leave Home Booking’s Stormy Shepherd, long known for representing punk rock artists.
“We still have a long way to go pushing and extending those benefits into the upcoming year. We do acknowledge that after a few months of PPP or PUA, we need to keep pushing to get those businesses and individuals the continued help they need.” That includes the artists themselves, who talent agents work to serve.
“Potentially going for another year without touring is a really scary thought for a lot of them financially,” Shepherd adds. “You can only sell so many T-shirts on your website and play so many livestreams, you can’t make ends meet for another nine months that we’re potentially talking about without being able to get back out on the road. What about the rest of spring and summer and potentially the rest of fall? They have real living costs.
“When going through the educating process with elected leadership, we had artists on those calls with us as well as promoters and venue owners to give a broader view of how the industry operates. 
“Most don’t have any idea. It was really powerful for senators to hear from artists , and smaller and mid sized artists that depend on this to put food on the table. There’s this misconception that artists are well-funded and able to survive through a pandemic.”
While hoping for accelerated vaccination rollout across the country and continued support from government officials and the public, it’s little surprise that the agents behind the scenes will continue to fight hard for themselves and their artists – but now, even for their competitors.
“Even if it wasn’t successful we knew we had to give it everything,” Prescher adds. “We’ve never had to defend the industry like this in our entire careers, no matter how long we’ve been doing it. We’re proud of the work, and we’re so grateful to NIVA for being so welcoming in allowing us to fight side by side with them. 
“This is just the beginning, we have a lot more work to do for the rest of the community. We knew we were going to see our colleagues from other agencies, and we wanted to be able to look these people into the eye and say we did everything we could to save your business.”