There’s Power In The Union: Inaugural NIVA Conference Celebrates Chapter One, Kicks Off Chapter Two In Cleveland

ROCK & ROLL HOOCHIE COO: NIVA executive director Rev. Moose opens us the NIVA Independent Awards at Cleveland’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame on June 11, 2022 (Photo by Rustin McCann)

Cleveland — The inaugural National Independent Venues Association Conference kicked off this week (July 11-12) in what seemed a combination post-pandemic victory lap, a long-overdue in-person group hug, a collaborative educational session and a call to organizational arms to further harness the trade association’s collective power and define its goals.

Following a board meeting on Sunday, nearly 600 attendees over the course of two upbeat days gathered along the banks of Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River (the Music Box) and downtown (Pickwick & Frolic) to communicate, inform, reinvigorate and create strategies for their growing constituency who still face myriad challenges the association seeks to ameliorate. Panels, keynotes, one-on-ones, roundtables, awards and rollicking parties (thank you Big Freedia!) seemed to echo a sentiment from an old workers’ anthem penned by Joe Hill more than a century earlier: There’s power in a union.

“We’re celebrating NIVA’s monumental, historic and successful chapter one and we’re starting to write chapter two,” NIVA president Dayna Frank told Pollstar at the conference’s end. Indeed, during her State of the Industry address, Frank noted that, “From absolutely nothing, you and I passed the largest arts funding bill in American History,” referencing the massive $16.25 billion SVOG grants that somehow passed a wildly divided U.S. legislature during the worst of the pandemic literally helping save so many stages.

But that was just stage one. “Our doors may be back open,” continued Frank, who is also CEO of Minneapolis’ iconic First Avenue, “but we all know our business is anything but normal. Many of us are still climbing out of the absolute abyss that was the first quarter. There were rising costs in every corner of operating a venue and promoting shows and for artists just trying to stay on the road. Cancellations and continuous postponements are still coming in and we continue to keep navigating COVID surges and new variants.”

IMG 1714
Neato NIVA & NITO: Dayna Frank, president of NIVA, and the inimitable Frank Riley of High Road Touring and president of the National Independent Talent Organization at the NIVA Independent Awards outside the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Finding ways to overcome those challenges permeated the NIVA Conference’s proceedings be it ticketing, marketing or advocacy, panels on insurance, agencies or labor, as well as security, crypto, DEI, technology and sustainability—the struggle is real and far from over, but the sense that together they shall overcome was palpable.

Hal Real of The World Café Live, who is President of the NIVA’s 501c3, foundation NIVF, outlined the organization’s many educational and philanthropical endeavors.

Frank also mentioned NIVA’s first Washington, D.C. fly-in event for the week of Feb. 13, 2023 when members will meet directly with Congressional members.

Monday night’s semi-formal awards ceremony at Cleveland’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame recognized many of the venues and their personnel’s charitable pursuits in addition to the legislators who helped realize NIVA’s Save Our Stages initiative. Winners included Howie Kaplan, owner of New Orleans’ Howlin’ Wolf, who won “Best Community or Charitable Engagement by a Venue, Promoter, or Festival;” Magnus’ Michel Vega, who won “Best Support of an Artist’s Charitable Work by a Manager;” and Tobi Parks of Des Moines’ xBk Live who won “Best advancement of IDEA from a Venue, Promoter, or Festival.” Parks is also leading an initiative called D TOUR which helps venues in secondary and tertiary markets attract and develop national talent together.

If the NIVA Conference’s posters were any indication, all jammed with the ticketing company logos that included See Tickets, DICE, Etix, Lyte, TXR, Venuepilot, Viewstub and axs, the conference was an opportunity for hand-to-hand combat between ticketers battling for indie venue business. It seemed hard to throw a stone without hitting a ticketing rep of some stripe.

Also, Cleveland, it turns out, really does ROCK. In addition to easily catching a Guardians baseball game at the centrally located and refurbished Progressive Field, the three historic and wondrous venues used for music and parties –the Beachland Ballroom, Happy Dog and Grog Shop, located in different parts of the city–were ideal for music, drink and schmoozing. As were the two conference venue locales, The Music Box and the Pickwick & Frolic, which offered multiple stages, eating areas and outdoor space.

While there’s already talk of a NIVA conference in another city next year, when asked for his thoughts on the confab, NIVA’s outgoing executive director Rev. Moose, who is never at a loss for words, gave his comedic take on year one. “After fighting so hard for the independents, we are proud to sell out…the conference!”