NIVA Names Cody Cowan COO

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RED ROCKER: Cody Cowan joins NIVA as chief operating officer, after holding the position of executive director for Austin’s Red River Cultural District. (photo by Ismael Quintanilla III)

The National Independent Venue Association, a group of hundreds of independent live music venues, is expanding its operation after forming an alliance to obtain federal relief funds during the pandemic. Their initial efforts helped the government distribute $16 billion tied to the Save Our Stages act after the lengthy shutdown of venues. 

A new face and position within the organization is Cody Cowan. On Monday, Cowan was announced as NIVA’s first chief operating officer. The Austin, Texas resident heads the city’s Red River Cultural District, an advocate to help preserve clubs and theaters in a community rich with live music.

VenuesNow spoke with Cowan about his new duties, and the top priorities for NIVA moving forward. 

VenuesNow: COO is a new role for NIVA as it grows. What are the important duties for you in this position?

NIVA has only been around for about two and a half years, and went from no staff and 300 volunteers across the country to now having a staff of eight persons, myself included. We’re in this growth phase of figuring out where the bottlenecks are and how to open things up to give members the services that they need, the support they need, and hopefully pull back some of the time spent by all the dedicated members because these people are back to work struggling to figure out how to make 2022 come out in the black. Having started several of these organizations now, you go in thinking, “I’m only going to spend five hours a week on this,” and then all of a sudden you’re working or volunteering a full-time job on top of your work. My role will be to come in to assist with that, with my background in operations and institutional framework and bring whatever support I can.

What have been the newest issues that are important to the organization, and just what’s at the top of the to-do list going forward? 

There’s a bunch of pans on the stove that I’m learning about. One would be NIVA Cares, which is like an insurance provider program looking at both employee benefits and commercial insurance. It’s not sexy, but when we’re looking at how the cost environment is strangling independents, I would say the majority of independent music and comedy businesses don’t have employee insurance for staff. Also, being able to really look at competitive wages, looking at equity in the workplace, and looking at insurance like other workforce development issues. We’ve had a really iconoclastic industry filled with a lot of outlaw independent creative thinkers, but one of the things the pandemic taught us is that we have to think of ourselves as a sector and as a professional music environment and how to make that sustainable for everyone.

I’m also looking at some of the licensing around performance rights organizations and mechanical licenses groups that promoters and venues purchased through the ASCAPs, and BMIs of the world. There’s a real equity problem with those (organizations). Let’s say you’re an independent lub and you’re paying tens of thousands of dollars a year into this licensing and publishing world. How much if any of that is actually going to the performers playing your space? It’s great that Beyonce or Bob Dylan is getting a piece of the pie, but how do you get independent artists to get what they deserve?

What have been some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned about the venue landscape in different cities?

City to city, everyone has their favorite place, their ‘Cheers.’ This is where I come home to, where and who I identify with, and this is who speaks to me and speaks for me and is my home away from home. Working with people on a bigger scale beyond Austin has made me understand the place that you call as your second home is your second home, and we have to honor and support that and try to find a way to keep these places going. All of us find deep intrinsic value in spaces and performance and the ability to access live performances. People absolutely love these environments, be they in venues and comedy clubs, working for promoters, working as musicians and performers. There’s a deep commitment to it and that commitment showed when times got tough. We realized we had to formalize our community and really start to come together with Save Our Stages and NIVA. I’ve never seen anyone step up and take care of business and show up for their communities like these people have. It’s inspiring. It’s incredible

How much of a priority is growth in terms of signing operators and owners as new members vs. servicing the folks that are already members?

NIVA is on the cusp of going from what we’re calling internally NIVA 1.0 to NIVA 2.0. In part, that is why I was brought in, not because there’s an absence of ideas, but it’s a cacophony of ideas and great ideas and energy. It’s about trying to focus that energy and go, OK, how do we (organize) this? You can’t do everything at once. I’m excited to look at membership growth and support and how to get members both current and hopefully future excited about the things NIVA’s working on. My experience is you have to live it to know it. If you’re thinking too high-level and not really meeting people where they’re at, then you’re probably going to miss the mark. I’m fortunate to have come up inside of this system and work with people that have done this as long or longer than I have. I want to look at what the board is highlighting as priorities for service like NIVA Cares with insurance and workforce development. These are things in terms of brass tacks that if you’re operating a venue can appeal to your budget and can appeal to the struggles that you have to develop business day to day.