Music venues need our help more than ever

 By Harris Wheless

Cover photo: Jon Lidell

May 13, 2020

As businesses shutter and prepare to go without for unknown stretches of time, music venues, which already operate on razor-thin margins, now find their financial positions even more tenuous. 

On April 25, Threadgill’s, the iconic Austin, TX venue where Janis Joplin got her start, closed after 87 years. There may be more soon to follow. Venues of all sizes are struggling with dwindling ticket sales, lack of bar patronage, ticket refunds, hefty rent payments and other remaining overhead expenses.

Motorco Music Hall. Photo by Lauren V. Allen

“There may be others that will fall out simply because they’re going to have to declare bankruptcy,” said Josh Wittman, co-owner of Motorco in Durham. “We’re only two months in. I mean, that’s just it, we have to see how the general population reintegrates themselves into the world and that will really dictate what music venues can do.”

Music venues were among the first businesses to close as the COVID-19 outbreak spread across the U.S., and will likely be among the last businesses to reopen. While venues do qualify for some small business relief, many venue operators say that Congress’s initial relief bills don’t match their business needs. 

“I would really love to see some targeted relief that goes to industries that are shuttered because, while I’m glad that there’s attention and concern for small business, I feel like thus far the programs have been so one size fits all,” said Liz Tallent, Marketing and Events Director at The Orange Peel in Asheville. 

Liz Tallent, Marketing and Events Director at The Orange Peel in Asheville, North Carolina

In response to these industry-specific challenges, a group of independent venue owners and concert promoters have come together to lobby Congress for federal aid during the pandemic.

The National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) was founded to advocate for financial relief as venues remain closed in accordance with federal health guidelines. The association is made up of over 1,300 prominent venues (a number that is growing daily) from across the country, including 49 from North Carolina. 

You can take action and support your local music venues by contacting your legislators through NIVA (National Independent Venue Association).

“In order to protect lives, our employees and artists may remain without jobs and we may be without revenue for an entire year or more,” NIVA said in a letter to legislators. “Even once venues are permitted by the government to reopen, our industry will require months to return to usual schedules, due to the intricate and complicated process of artists’ planning, scheduling, and tour routing. Further, capacity limitations and other restrictions will likely inhibit our ability to fully recover for years.”

North Carolina venues shut down before or immediately following Governor Cooper’s statewide stay-at-home order which took effect March 30. In most cases, this involved furloughing employees, cancelling and rescheduling shows, issuing ticket refunds, and scrambling to find ways to save or generate revenue.

Adam Lindstaedt, owner of The Pour House. Photo by Rich Levine

“The biggest problem that people are worrying about is the massive rents,” said Adam Lindstaedt, owner of The Pour House in Raleigh. “And if we come back at 25 percent capacity, how on Earth are we going to come up with more money than we already were to pay those additional expenses?”

Despite challenges, venues are finding their own unique ways to adapt to the shutdown. Many are conducting live streams and holding remote benefit concerts for artists and employees. Venues in Raleigh co-created the Raleigh Music Venue Employee Fund to benefit staff of The Pour House, Kings, Slim’s Downtown, Lincoln Theatre and The Wicked Witch. The Pour House is refocusing its energies towards its record shop, and Motorco is offering takeout from its accompanying restaurant, Parts & Labor. But some venues lack the resources or infrastructure to fall back on an alternate revenue stream.

Durham’s Motorco Music Hall. Photo by Lauren V. Allen

“It’s really hard to pivot to any of those things, for any of us in the industry, because none of us are making any money right now,” said Tallent. “It doesn’t feel wise to invest in some new strategy. So I think everybody is trying to find a way to keep our staff working or keep some of our staff working to make a little money. 

On April 23, Governor Cooper unveiled a three-phase plan to reopen the state. Phase 1 allows some nonessential businesses to reopen and permits people to leave home while maintaining social distance from others. 

Perry Fowler, owner of Petra’s in Charlotte, North Carolina. Photo by Jessica Malone

“I’m hopeful for June 1, but that doesn’t mean that everyone else is going to be ready to go out on June 1 to go to shows,” said Perry Fowler, owner of Petra’s in Charlotte. “Even if we were to operate at 50 percent, 40 percent, or 30 percent capacity, what am I supposed to tell a band– to promote a show but don’t promote too hard?”

NIVA’s letter to Congress includes a list of policy requests for targeted legislation and regulatory assistance that would benefit the live music industry. The association asked that the existing Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program be modified so that more help be given to venues and other businesses that are shuttered. NIVA also recommended that revisions be made to the program’s loan cap, loan forgiveness, and how long it stays in effect.

The Orange Peel in Asheville, North Carolina. Courtesy

Other requests include several forms of tax relief, rent and debt forgiveness, expansion of unemployment insurance, and the establishment of a business recovery fund. NIVA also asked legislators to dedicate more resources towards treatment and the development of a vaccine, and to establish national guidelines for reopening and the return of large gatherings.

“This whole idea of venues coming together and just trying to have a single voice is the most important thing that will come out of this,” said Wittman. “And for the future, we’ll at least be able to have a better idea of how we can all give ourselves ideas on how to survive. Having a live music venue already is a daunting task, a very difficult task. So it’s not like these challenges are going to go away. This is yet another one of those challenges that we have to overcome.”

You can take action and support your local music venues by contacting your legislators through NIVA (National Independent Venue Association).

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