Q’s With: Live Music Society Executive Director Cat Henry On Small, Independent Venues & Their Place In The Live Music Ecosystem 


Q’s With: Live Music Society Executive Director Cat Henry On Small, Independent Venues & Their Place In The Live Music Ecosystem 

As part of its presence at NIVA ’24 in New Orleans this week, the Live Music Society hosted its first Music In Action Summit. The one-day meeting on June 6 brought together representatives of the 31 Music In Action grantee venues for the first time to address day-to-day issues faced by venues with caps of 300 or less.

Prior to the summit, Cat Henry, executive director of the nonprofit Live Music Society shared her thoughts on the struggles and accomplishments of small, independent venues and their place in the live music ecosystem.

Pollstar: Live Music Society has distributed $3.7 million in funding since 2020. Financial awards are meaningful, but what is the general mission of the Live Music Society?

Cat Henry: The mission is to recognize and protect small venues and listening rooms across the United States.

But really, we base everything we do on two principles: one, we believe that music is at the center of what it means to be alive. It’s so important – an important part of living and surviving this life. 

And that we believe owners and operators of small venues are very creative in many different ways, not just programming. That they require unique business acumen to make it all work and that they have creative ideas they have always wanted to realize. Our role is to help them get to the point where they can try new things and we believe they have the capacity to implement them with our help. To really change the game for their venue.

Cat Henry, executive director of the nonprofit Live Music Society

You recently announced the current class of 24 Music In Action grant recipients, who received a combined $710,000. What type of results are the venues hoping to achieve?

The Music In Action grant is about audience development and community engagement that ultimately will benefit the bottom line as it raises visibility and awareness for the venue.

We are seeing projects that we are funding that aren’t solely trying to bring more revenue dollars in the door, but by increasing the different communities they serve. You can’t keep selling tickets to the same people over and over again, so they have to be creative about finding new audiences and who they partner with. . 

Seems as though these venues are balancing big ambitions with a small space.

There is a lot of passion. A lot of venue owners are musicians. People who are knowledgeable about the field. And yes, there is a certain culture of personality in every venue. When you get to 300-cap or under, there’s an element of the pirate spirit, in a way. Hitting the high seas and seeing what you make of it.

Why the focus on small capacity venues – both for-profit and nonprofit?

It’s difficult when you have a smaller capacity to actually make it work. One of the biggest questions we face as an organization is the answer to the question ‘Does it work?’ and ‘If it can work, how does it work?’ if you’re not relying on booze, if you can’t sell enough tickets. It’s not something we have the answer to but it’s a conversation that we want to promote amongst our venue owners so they can share how it works for them.

During the NIVA ’24 conference, the Society is hosting a happy hour, a working lounge and taking part in a panel with Society grantees. How does participating in this event advance the conversation?

We see NIVA as a sister organization because they are a trade association and we are a nonprofit foundation so we’re not in the business of political lobbying and so our network and our community is such a niche – 50 to 300-cap – but many of our network owners are also members of NIVA. There is a lot of overlap, and we want the same things. NIVA foundation is very supportive of venues on the emergency funding side and the workforce development side. So, we aren’t looking to replicate resources that already exist. It’s good for us to see what’s happening, what’s available and where we fit. 

The organization has a travel grant to help bring some of your venue operators to the conference. What’s the goal?

Bringing people together and this is an opportunity. We have a travel grant, and NIVA has their own travel grant, but we provided $30,000 to allow people to come to the conference and we asked them to stay an extra day so they could participate in the Music In Action Summit the day after the conference, so they can share with each other what they got from the conference which, is a natural segue into talking to each other about their specific size venue and the challenges they face.

What are your expectations going into the first summit?

This is an experiment. We are beta testing the idea of bringing venues from across the country – which is what NIVA does – and then evaluating what we do and seeing if it would work for us to do it regionally and more than once a year.  

First of all, we need to see if it works. If it’s helpful. And whether we should think about doing it in various regions across the country.

How does this have the potential to influence the giving strategy of the organization?

Originally Live Music Society hadn’t intended to be solely a grant making organization, but right after we applied for nonprofit status, COVID 19 raised its ugly head, and we were able to pivot and go immediately into emergency funding. In 2022 we paused to think about the original goals for the organization and that’s where we came up with the two, new grant programs Music In Action, which is the audience development and audience engagement program, and the Toolbox grant, which will run this fall. 

The Toolbox grant provides practical support. How is it being used?

It is a smaller grant that is for more practical, one-time things. People have used it to increase their ADA accessibility, adding a disability lift to the stage in some cases. To build bathrooms. To replace wiring in historic buildings. A capital improvement fund.

What’s next?

Now that we have established those two key grants, we are going back to the original goals of looking beyond grant making to how we can create community, enable venues to talk to each other, to ask venues whether there are services or access to consulting support that we might be able to provide. 

We are in listening mode. Hearing what the community needs and that will inform our three to five year plan for the organization going forward. 

Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Pollstar‘s sister publication, VenuesNow.