#SaveOurStages campaign demands federal help for independent music venues

At the time of this writing, two congressional acts up for consideration in Washington DC are the last hope for struggling, independent music venues across the nation. While the HEROES Act, HEALS Act, and Prioritized Paycheck Protection Program Act helped many businesses stay viable, no help was available to most of these venues.

In a nutshell, the Save Our Stages Act (S. 4258/H.R. 7806) establishes a $10 billion grant program for live venue operators, promoters, producers, and talent representatives; doesn’t penalize industries that rely on part-time employees; and ensures sufficient funding for venues to survive until they reopen. The RESTART Act (S. 3814/H.R. 7481) offers up to 90% forgiveness for loans to companies that have high revenue loss; doesn’t penalize industries that rely on part-time employees; and ensures sufficient funding for venues to survive until reopening based on gross 2019 revenue. Both acts have bipartisan support.

“What these local economies need is not red, not blue, it’s green. It says a lot that people on both sides of the aisle care about this and understand,” says Audrey Fix Schaefer, communications director for the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA). “When we put on a show, restaurants have a lot more customers, people travel, hotels get filled. We’re tourism destinations. These venues can be a part of the economic renewal.”Audrey Fix Schaefer, Communications Director for the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA). (Courtesy Audrey Fix Schaefer).

In fact, a frequently cited study done in Chicago found that for every dollar spent at an independent music venue, $12 was spent at other businesses nearby. Fix Schaefer’s day-job is with I.M.P., an independent concert promotions and production company, and four independent venues: 9:30 Club, Lincoln Theatre, The Anthem, and Merriweather Post Pavilion.

“The 9:30 Club celebrated its 40th anniversary during the pandemic. That’s quite a milestone for an independent venue to sustain 40 years and thrive. Up until the pandemic, it was the number one most attended club of our size in the world,” Fix Schaefer says. “We’ve faced a host of economic challenges— recessions, the gas crisis, 911, musical changes in taste, the tragedies and mass shootings. We always found a way to recalibrate and take care of ourselves until now. Unless we get assistance from the federal government, the entire industry is at the precipice of disaster.”

A survey of NIVA members found that 91% of its member independent music venues will have to shut down if they remain closed for a total of six months. In Michigan, 73 independent music venues belong to NIVA and are actively supporting the legislation. Locally, The Intersection, The Pyramid Scheme, The Sanctuary, The Stache, Tip Top Deluxe Bar & Grill, and Wealthy Theatre are taking part. (Scott Hammontree explains The Intersection’s involvement in this Rapid Growth Media op-ed.)

“Our NIVA members are the people who sign on the dotted line, who personally guarantee their homes [as collateral]. They have taken that risk. In the past, they’ve done fine. They’ve battled through,” Fix Schaefer says. “It’s like eminent domain, when the government, for the greater good, takes people’s property away for the greater good and public safety. They shut us down and effectively have taken away our businesses and let us hang out to dry.”

Pyramid Scheme co-owner, Tami Vandenberg, agrees.

“Fortunately, we were established. We’ve been around almost a decade and paid off all of our debt. We can hold on longer than many but there certainly is a point where we can’t anymore,” she says. “I think we are also interested in working with the State, city, county, any entity that can pitch in. We provide a lot of revenue for those entities.

In other relevant local mobilization, members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) Local 26 West Michigan Stagehands union pushed gear cases from Calder Plaza to Rosa Parks Circle to demand an extension of the federal $600 weekly unemployment benefit. Like the venues they serve, their means of financial survival are quickly evaporating.

“To everyone that loves music, cares about venues, so many have stood up to be counted. That is what has gotten us to where we are,” Vandenberg says. “I am extremely grateful to everyone who has mobilized and encouraged people to think about what they want to still be there when we get to the other side.”

Founded last spring as a response to the pandemic, NIVA had no experience lobbying elected officials. However, its campaign to pass the #SaveOurStagesAct and the #RestartAct has resulted in 1.6 million emails sent to elected officials. When asked what the music world will look like without independent venues, Fix Schaefer says,Tami Vandenberg courtesy Terry Johnston.

“That’s a world I don’t want to imagine. It would also be devastating for the entire music industry and the music ecosystem. It’s not only bad for the musicians of today to not have places to work and entertain fans, it’s really going to be horrendous for any new artists wanting to try their hand at this. You need the small local venues to hone your craft. There would be no Bruce Springsteen without The Stone Pony, no Lady Gaga without The Bitter End, no Elton John without The Troubadour, and no Lizzo without 1st Avenue.”

NIVA is still encouraging people across the country to join the campaign. And, Vandenberg hopes more Grand Rapids area residents will act locally to encourage state, county, and city leaders to take action to save Grand Rapids and Lakeshore area independent music venues.

“Think about what you still want to be around in a year,” Vandenberg says. “We really can’t do take out. Also, reach out to your favorite artist and ask how you can support them—buy merchandise, music— every dollar helps.”

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