Fighting for Their Future: How Independent Music Venues Survive the COVID-19 Pandemic

This week marks a critical time for the future of independent music venues

The future of live music remains uncertain, but this week will go a long way towards determining what it looks like whenever bands can return to the stage.

In the Senate, Senators John Cornyn (R-TX) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) introduced the bipartisan Save Our Stages Act last week aiming to provide $10 billion in aid to qualifying independent music venues. Additionally, Senators Michael Bennett (D-CO) and Todd Young (R-IN) and Representatives Jared Golden (D-ME) and Mike Kelly (R-PA) introduced the RESTART Act that would provide aid to numerous small businesses including music venues.

If Congress fails to pass these bills before it goes on recess in August, the results could be devastating for independent music venues. “We can’t have Congress go on recess without something passing or we will collapse,” Audrey Fix Schaefer, Communications Director for the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) and I.M.P., which owns venues such as the 9:30 Club and The Anthem in Washington D.C.. tells RADIO.COM.

Schaefer and over 2,000 independent venues making up NIVA have been campaigning over the past few months for additional federal funding to ensure their businesses can survive the COVID-19 pandemic. An earlier survey from NIVA estimated that 90% of independent venues would close without additional funding.

With venues across the nation still shuttered since shutdowns were put in place back in March, expenses are continuing to mount and revenue is nowhere to be seen. “Even though our venues are shut, they cost us an enormous amount,” Schaefer says. To paint a clear picture of costs, venues are responsible for rent or mortgage, utilities, taxes, and various insurances, all of which Schaefer calls “astronomical” costs.

“Normally we do just fine covering that, but if there’s no revenue there’s no way to do it,” she said. “The economics of our business are based on sold out shows.”

Joe Shanahan, owner of the Metro in Chicago echoed similar sentiments.

“Here we are six months later approximately with no revenue whatsoever still having to pay insurance on our buildings, taxes on our buildings, licensing on our buildings, and still trying to hold on to a building manager, cleaning crew, a general manager, or a talent buyer, because those things aren’t going away.” he said in an interview with RADIO.COM.

Because of this, reopening music venues at a reduced capacity won’t help those businesses. “The only thing worse than being completely shuttered is trying to open at 25% because you’re going to lose money,” Schaefer admitted. From artists to fans, the economics simply won’t work.

“Band’s aren’t going to be able to get on the road at 25% pay because it’s expensive to tour,” Schaefer says. “You also can’t charge people who walk through the door for ten times as much just so you can cover everything.”

The cost of all this is built into the ticket price, something every owner takes into consideration when booking a band. “The cost of what it takes for a band to get out on the road is predicated by that ticket price,” Shanahan says.

“If you went from a 1,000 capacity to a 500 capacity, if that was the safe number, those numbers still will not work.”

An additional wrinkle in the situation comes from the fact there’s no universal reopening guidelines for music venues. In Washington D.C., where Schaefer is based, venues won’t be able to reopen until a vaccine is available. Even if she feels like it’s safe to reopen, Schaefer says “it’s not in our hands whether we’re comfortable or not.”

Katie Tuten of the Hideout in Chicago and one of the founding members of the Chicago Independent Venue League (CIVL) has a similar mindset when it comes to the feasibility of reopening.

“We’ve all resided ourselves to the fact that unless we’re at full capacity, it isn’t going to happen.”

Even if they were allowed to reopen before a vaccine is in place, Tuten said "we’ll go out of business before we put our fans and staff in jeopardy.”

Venues of all shapes and sizes make up NIVA. That’s also why it presents a challenge to create reopening guidelines that suit every venue. “Every member has a different situation, different comfort zone, different venue,” Schaefer says.

“Some people have outdoor venues so that has a different comfort zone. Other people have small venues in basements with very narrow staircases to get in and out of them. You can see how there are unique challenges for each venue.”

The ability to keep their doors open isn’t the only thing driving NIVA members. It’s also being able to provide for their staff and employees. As Schaefer puts it, music venue workers don’t have many options to look for other work. “Let’s say you were a restaurant worker and your restaurant folded, there’s a lot of other restaurants in town. Right now, If you’re a bartender or door staff or any other position in concert venues, you can’t just go to another concert venue for another job because they’re closed too.”

At I.M.P., Schaefer said they had to furlough “95% of employees.” The employees that make up venue staff are considered family and Schaefer says everyone is “personally invested in making the experience something that has fans wanting to come back regardless of what band is there.”

As a result, her company has taken several initiatives to help out employees of need. “My company set up what’s called the I.M.P. Family Fund where we got donations from our customer base and grants we issue to employees that are in especially hard times,” she says.

“We also have a food pantry that we operate every two weeks where employees can put an order in for food. That’s just one company, one venue. Venues across the country are terribly worried about their employees.”

Shanahan and Tuten both had to make equally difficult decisions about their staff. “I furloughed about 100 people,” Shanahan said. “These are people that have worked for the company for many years. It was really hard. It was really hard to actually send out an email that said ‘file for unemployment, you’re furloughed.’”

“All of our staff was furloughed except for two. It was a general manager, our talent buyer, and our cleaning crew,” Tuten said.