Building Back Live: The Stages Of Save Our Stages

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A New Victory? Finding itself in the unprecedented position of fighting for its own survival and lobbying the government for support, live venues across the country and a coalition of supporters made their case to Congress, and largely got it in the form of $15 billion worth of relief via the Save Our Stages Act.

The formation of the National Independent Venue Association itself was almost as unlikely as the situation that quickly took hold in March 2020. Never before was the patchwork network of thousands of independent nightclubs, theatres and other venues across the country forced to work together on more than a cursory level – and never before did they have to contemplate their own collective survival, because of things completely out of their control. 

If the formation of NIVA was already an unlikely undertaking, the passage of the Save Our Stages Act, which started as a mere hashtag to spread awareness of the plight of local venues across the country but became a $15 billion element of a $900 billion relief package assisting a large chunk of the live music ecosystem, seemed all but impossible. That it passed during a lame duck session of Congress when things appeared to be completely bogged down politically was nothing short of a holiday miracle.

Pollstar Building Back LIve

“We’ve been excited and let down so many times over the last nine months, that until we saw Schumer wearing a mask and Pelosi and Klobuchar talking about it as a done deal, we were still biting our nails,” says NIVA treasurer and Austin club owner Stephen Sternschein. “Once it was in the bill for sure, we were all pretty stoked and excited and started celebrating. Maybe a little too early, but we’d been waiting a long time for some good news.” 

The Save Our Stages Act had bipartisan support, with 230 sponsors in Congress. Designed to provide a lifeline for venues that have been mostly – and often completely – shuttered since March, the SOS bill also includes talent representatives, artist managers, talent buyers and promoters, although many in the business are yet unclear whether they qualify and many are surprised to learn their business may be included.

“The statistic used time and time again that 90% of country’s independent venues were in peril of immediate closure if they weren’t able to get this funding is completely true,” Rev. Moose, NIVA executive director and founder of and marketing consulting firm Marauder, one of the organizers behind the U.S. edition of Independent Venue Week. “Now that we have actual funding, true funding from the government imminently coming, it gives people the ability to think about their businesses in a way where they exist in six months to a year, however long it takes to return to operational status.”
The big money comes in the form of an SOS grant totaling 45% of 2019 gross earned revenue, with a possible supplemental grant “if funds remain after initial grants are distributed” equaling 50% of the initial grant awarded if businesses are still experiencing 70% earned revenue loss comparing Q1 2021 with Q1 2019. The grants top out at $10 million, still sure to give an immediate lifeline to businesses that have been nearly left for dead.

Magic Bag
Niva via Instragram
– Magic Bag
The Magic Bag in Ferndale, Mich., celebrates what NIVA treasurer and Austin club owner Stephen Sternschein called “A Hanukkah Miracle.”

“I don’t think this time last year any of us expected anything that happened in 2020,” says Audrey Fix Schaefer, longtime communications head for I.M.P. and who spearheaded NIVA’s outreach and public relations efforts. “I didn’t expect to be part of a group of people coming together to achieve something that everyone said couldn’t be done, but that’s what happens when people are in a very desperate situation and the only way to have any hope is to come together.”

With 3,000 member venues quickly on board after initial town-hall style Zoom calls started by Rev. Moose in March and some early financial support including from See Tickets, the collective talents and relationships of a group known for its cunning and type-A personalities were organized and utilized in an impressive manner. First Avenue’s Dayna Frank is credited with having the foresight to recognize early on that a big-time lobbying firm was essential to be heard effectively in Washington, which led to the selection of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, led by Casey Higgins with collaboration from Ed Pagano. 
However, the efforts “involved a lot of the skill set our members were utilizing on a daily basis,” adds Moose. “When we came to the table meeting with lobbying firms, we were telling them we collectively have mailing lists of over 100 million email addresses. We’re at our core promoters, we’re used to reaching out to the public. This was a time we had to use it for our collective selves and our own existence.”
Ensuring their own existence strengthens not only local communities and adjacent business like restaurants and hotels, but the greater concert industry as a whole. 
SOS Foo Fighters
Courtesy YouTube Music
– SOS Foo Fighters
The #SOSFest, which was partnered with YouTube, was a high-point in visibility for NIVA, enlisting major artists such as Foo Fighters playing the Troubadour, Brittany Howard, Reba McEntire, The Roots and many others playing local venues in support. #SOSFest was even emblazoned on Google’s Search page for a period.

“Small venues, promoters and businesses are an important part of the live ecosystem and it was great to see them get support through Save Our Stages,” adds Live Nation Entertainment President and CEO Michael Rapino in a statement to Pollstar,  who oversees by far the largest live entertainment company in the world and operates. “We can’t wait to see everyone back to shows and back to work, and the best way to make that happen is to continue to rally together as an industry for all those who still need support, and to push for things like liability protection for venues and core standards that will allow us all to ramp up quickly and safely.”

Getting from March to December was no small feat for businesses of any size. There were starts and stops along the way as #SOS was altogether left out of the second round of relief passed in the summer, which Moose said seemed like a simple mistake at the time that would be soon rectified. The rallying cry became more dire, but there were high-profile moments like the SOSFest, partnered with YouTube Music in October that featured high-profile artists like Foo Fighters, Brittany Howard, The Roots, G-Eazy and many others playing local venues to support #SOS. 
With any well-meaning and complicated government relief comes winners and losers. Non-indies in the business, which make up the bulk of the overall touring industry, may be able to benefit from PPP loans, extended unemployment insurance benefits or other measures included in the omnibus bill passed in December, although for many it is simply not enough. Likewise, companies formed in 2020, in many cases formed directly as a result of the pandemic, are unable to qualify as they have no 2019 revenue to calculate. 
“The industry continues to be in a difficult position so any relief that is received by our industry is a positive for MINT,” says agent Patrick McAuliff, one of the founding members of MINT Talent Group, which formed in 2020 with a host of agents who were laid off from their previous employers. “Unlike those that were already established, we knew when we opened our doors the risks COVID posed.”
Another issue is the dilemma poised by SOS grants precluding businesses from taking a PPP loan. Business could potentially be turned down for an SOS grant and then have missed out on PPP funding if it runs out.
“A major one I see that’s important to note is independent music festival promoters and producers do qualify,” says Mike Mauer of Valmont, a marketing and ticketing firm that works with festivals, amphitheatres and other venues. “A lot of festivals I’ve spoken with are confused since the text of the bill doesn’t reference them directly. [But] they qualify under the definition of a promoter.”
Also left out for the most part appears to be the production industry ), with lighting, video, transportation, creative (see upcoming Guest Post by Fireplay’s Nick Whitehouse), and the touring crews that have also seen their business down to zero.
“Live events workers were among the first to lose their jobs, and will certainly be the last to return to work,” says Nurit Smith, executive director of the Music Forward Foundation, which is administering Live Nation’s Crew Nation relief fund that has raised more than $16 million with its own pledges, high-profile fundraisers and more as the global company largely has been forced to wait out the pandemic. “Through Crew Nation we’ve seen first-hand what the impact of this shutdown has had on these workers, and it’s so important that we come together to get them the help that they need. We support the Save Live Events Now Coalition, and all other efforts to bring more relief to the tens of thousands of live workers who have been left out of recent government stimulus and who will remain out of work for many months still to come.”  

Andrew Lloyd Weber
– Andrew Lloyd Weber
Theatre impresario Andrew Lloyd Weber became a high profile proponent of #SOS, not to mention a COVID-19 vaccine trial participant.
 SOS’s inclusion of NITO, which includes more than 90 agencies, management companies, artists and many others, was a major victory for many as well. 
“Our goal was to help ourselves, right? That was the very beginning of it,” says Moose. “But the composite of ‘ourselves’ was always the broader community. We just had to make room for more people that should have been included from the very beginning. That’s what we’ve always wanted to see happen.”
“There’s a lot of folks who are going to benefit outside of venues,” adds Sternschein, who called the passage of SOS a “Hanukkah miracle.” Sternschein said without the relief, he would be forced to lay off all staff at his Empire Control Room + Garage and Parish venues in Austin but is now able to hang on. 
“Tons of people are going to be re-employed from this, I don’t think there’s any question there. Without this relief, it would probably take two or three times as long for whoever is left to pick up the pieces to start touring again. But now that we have some predictability in terms of access to resources, we can focus on planning to reopen as safely and quickly as possible. And that’s what’s going to get touring crews back on the road.”
As Save Our Stages may have done just that for the time being, the fact remains that the live business largely remains shut down, with many venues and businesses already closed and surely more to come. NIVA’s efforts are now largely about educating members on the next steps, Moose says.
“Our employees need help,” Schaefer adds, referring to the overall venue landscape. “More than 96% are on furlough, so extending the amount that unemployment lasts is vital. As much as we would love to hire them all back, when you’re shuttered, you can’t. Seeing venues close every day, it became a compulsion or obsession to keep going and try to save them.” 
Asked if there was anything else the SaveOurStages bill could have included or accomplished, Moose adds bluntly, “I would have liked to see it happen seven months earlier.” s