The clock is ticking and time is running out for independent venues
If the last year has taught us anything, it is how resilient the events industry really is. We had the rug pulled out from under us and we’re still trying to get back on our feet. From pivoting businesses to helping their communities in a time of need and coming together to get through a crisis, changing paths was a necessity for the majority of businesses in the events world.
Where it all begins
Grassroots venues are fundamental to the entertainment industry ecosystem and one simply cannot exist without the other. They offer a space for local up-and-coming artists to flourish and give them an opportunity to bring their talents to the big stages. They embrace the multi-genre music diversity and take risks on new talent before sending them off to perform at sell out stadiums. Whether it’s Bruce Springsteen at the Stone Pony (New Jersey) or Lady Gaga at the Cutting Room (New York), these venues have been the jumping off point for so many. It’s crucial that these venues survive this crisis, because without them, where is the talent of the future expected to grow? In addition to artists, venues provide an opportunity for other industry workers to perfect their craft, from technicians to promoters and managers. A world without grassroots venues would be like the LA Kings without Peewee hockey, or the Premier league without Sunday League.
The event industry has been dealt a devastating blow, easily one of the worst hit and one of the first to close. Grassroots venues specifically are taking the brunt of the impact and are more vulnerable to having to sell or shut down completely, whereas larger venues have a bigger safety net and can afford to wait out the storm a little longer. In April 2020, Pollstar predicted that the industry would lose up to 90% of independent venues across the US and were projecting a loss around $8.9 billion without any government support. Since then, some relief has come for a lucky bunch, but will it be enough to keep them afloat?
Grassroots establishments will be more important than ever for the return of the industry and they are on the brink of collapsing. If they disappear, they will never come back. We don’t want to imagine a world in which independent venues are few and far between, or worse, non-existent. It’s expected there will be a greater demand for smaller events during a phased reopening and independent establishments will be needed more now than ever.
The domino effect
SXSW is responsible for one of the busiest weekends of the year in Austin, attracting thousands of people for the multi-day festival. In 2019, $355.9 million trickled into Austin's economy thanks to the festival, which is indicative of how events have an overall lasting impact on the society around them. You may not think about it while you’re spending money on drinks at a bar or settling your hotel bill, but every dollar you spend around the city is a result of you being there for one purpose-the concert, big game or festival. For every $1 spent at a venue, the surrounding businesses will earn $12 as a result, this includes hotels, taxis, retail, restaurants and bars.
If grassroots establishments shut permanently, it won’t only be devastating to the events industry; it will have a huge impact on the local economies in which they operate, affecting the entire culture of the city. Fewer events means less tourism, which in turn leads to less of a contribution to the local economy.
Independents band together
More than 2,000 venues across the US banded together in 2020 to form the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA), a nonprofit organization that aims to help preserve independent venues and promoters across the country. They jumped behind numerous campaigns, including Save Our Stages and the Restart Act, pushing for much needed government support. Donations from fans, artists and corporations allowed NIVA to divy up $3 million worth of grants between some of the hardest hit venues and promoters as part of their emergency relief fund. Of course, it’s only a temporary solution and will offer a bit of security for a couple of months.
After months of hanging in limbo, a $15 billion aid package was announced in December providing grants for a number of independent venues, promoters, agents and managers across the industry. Lobbying efforts for the Save Our Stages Act was worth it as they were finally claiming a small victory. Small businesses hit hardest are given priority for applying for the grant that will offer them a little relief for another six months. Unfortunately, the announcement came too late for around 300 US venues whose stages will remain empty for good.
The relief package has been like a carrot on a stick, dangling just in front of the venues who desperately need it but remains just out of reach. The grant application process was scheduled to open on April 8, 2021 but after some technical glitches on the Small Business Administration website that caused it to crash, venue operators are still not out of the woods.
Let’s talk about Texas
The Texas music industry provides 209,000 permanent jobs, $6.5 billion in earnings and $23.4 billion in annual economic activity. But after a year like 2020, it’s no surprise that these figures have declined drastically.
A number of businesses have already had to close their doors, including Austin-based promoters Margin Walker Presents and venues such as Threadgill’s, Shady Grove and Barracuda. These are just a few out of hundreds that have had to bid a sombre farewell and they’re not likely to be the last. Even though some venues have reopened their doors for limited capacity shows, the reality is that this is not the most financially viable option for the long run and there is still a lot of uncertainty lingering.
Back to business
With the recent easing of restrictions in the Lone Star state, there has definitely been a line drawn in the sand, with the majority of individuals in the events industry on the same side, saying ‘no thanks’ to reopening completely. Most feel it is too soon to be back to full scale events and jamming venues to the max just because they can. Many organizers still feel the need to keep their events at a limited capacity, enforce social distancing and promote mask wearing. They strongly believe that the safety of their workers, attendees and acts heavily outweigh the desire to make as much bank as possible. 30 venues throughout Austin recently teamed up and established the Safe in Sound initiative whose mission it is to continuously promote a safe event environment even with the new relaxed state regulations (i.e. lifting mandatory mask requirements and businesses opening 100%).
Live another day
Before the relief packages, venue operators have had to get creative and find ways to fight for survival. Businesses are still needing to cover the very basics, from rent to utilities, and have been relying on their community’s support to navigate through the crisis. Locals are asked to help by buying merchandise and gift cards and encouraged to hang onto tickets to cancelled events instead of asking for refunds. This support alone will not be their saving grace, but it is a lifeline that can help keep them alive another day.
Unfortunately, covering the bare minimum in such a difficult situation has become nearly impossible for some. A number of venues have been lucky enough to adapt in these hard times, amending their contracts with landlords temporarily for example, paying a lower rent to compensate for the fact that they were only able to partially open. However, things could change now that they are able to operate at full capacity, even though some might choose not to. Business is business after all.
Dog eat dog world
Owners and artists alike are concerned about large corporations taking over the smaller venues as it will potentially endanger the independent venue culture. There is overwhelming fear that the uniqueness, passion and more intimate connections will be lost altogether if the industry giants take over.
"You can't serve artists and fans if money is the main driver. It doesn't work. I would hate to see the homogenization of live music” - Scott Hammontree (the Intersection)
There is a distinct difference between major corporate run venues and the small independent one around the corner from your apartment. We have all likely experienced the cosy intimate shows and the large scale concerts in the biggest arena in the city and the two offer considerably different experiences. An industry dominated by the big sharks will surely change the event world forever, forcing that special charm and uniqueness that only independent venues can offer to be lost.
The clock is ticking and time is running out. It is imperative that we lend a helping hand and do whatever we can to help save these grassroots venues. The possible closures that are looming will most definitely threaten the industry in years to come. As long as they have been around, these venues have played such an important role in the music industry and we are responsible to stand up and rally behind them every step of the way. Even when they have been barely keeping their heads above water, many have been offering up their spaces as vaccination centers. Giving them the same kind of support they’ve shown their communities certainly isn’t too much to ask.