Over the weekend, 25 artists from across the contemporary pop spectrum – ranging from the Foo Fighters and Miley Cyrus to Reba McEntire and The Roots – all took part in the first-ever “Save Our Stages Fest.” The downer of a name is because venues nationwide keep closing permanently in the midst of COVID-19 lockdowns, because Congress and President Trump have refused to extend coronavirus stimulus funding to the nation’s shuttered music halls, dive clubs, and amphitheaters alike.
The three-day virtual festival and fundraiser was tightly produced, giving it the flow and feel of a traditional (ie, those in-person ones we all long for…) music festival. Fans watching from home – or at a park or wherever – were treated to live, pre-taped performances from the names who adorn lineup posters for the likes of Lollapalooza or Bonnaroo – or that big box theatre or stadium you know you’re missin’ right now.
The newly minted NIVA (National Independent Venue Association) put the e-fest together; much in the proven and polished vein of virtual benefit concerts held earlier this year, such as “Live From Out There” and “Quarantine Comes Alive.” And NIVA carried the torch well. Each performance was pre-filmed, edited, and woven together with a mix of interviews from industry professionals and musicians like Slash – who channeled some serious classic rock nostalgia by taking fans back through his wild memories when Guns N’ Roses were the biggest names on Los Angeles’ infamous Sunset Strip in the mid-1980s.
It’s fair to say that the first–and hopefully the last–Save Our Stages Fest was a financial success. Thanks to the well-curated mix of indie up-and-comers and headline-level names, NIVA managed to haul in $1,247,155 in donations to benefit the NIVA Emergency Relief Fund. The event also offered viewers a brief welcome back inside some of America’s most beloved music venues since they closed en masse back in mid-March, making for an eerie confirmation that many – but not all – still exist. At least for now.
Brittany Howard and her band – not the Alabama Shakes – grooved through her new solo material under the glistening stage lights inside Nashville’s historic Ryman Auditorium. Reggie Watts kept the mood light with his awkwardly funny but informative hosting. Miley Cyrus unleashed her insatiable on-stage persona at Hollywood’s infamous Whisky a Go-Go with heart-pounding covers of The Cure’s “Boys Don’t Cry” and The Cranberries’ “Zombie.” Dave Grohl went acoustic as he and the Foo Fighters played their crowd-pleasing hits at Los Angeles’ landmark Troubadour. The Roots woke up any rats who snuck in the back door of New York City’s legendary Apollo Theater with their undeniable coolness and trademark neo-soul. Not to be outdone, The Revivalists proved why New Orleans’ Tipitina’s should be considered a national historic landmark with help from Tarriona “Tank” Ball of Tank & The Bangas.
Yes, organizers certainly succeeded in gathering some of music’s most marketable names, but the Save Our Stages Fest proved the artist’s point: Live-streaming will never deliver the same rush of adrenaline that live shows deliver on a nightly basis across the country. That was evidenced by G-Eazy’s fumbled attempts to pump up a nonexistent audience inside San Francisco’s The Independent. There was no need for stage barriers or venue security for this festival, as the screen did a fine enough job of making viewers feel completely distant and disconnected from the performer.
Still, the bulk of the performances were enjoyable to watch, but sadly, no more enjoyable than opting to spend a Sunday afternoon binging Schitt’s Creek in your pajamas while drinking through a case of White Claw (don’t judge me brah). Compared to what else is available on the collection of streaming libraries these days, opting to watch live music from home is simply boring. It’s vanilla. Safe. But no one buys a concert ticket with $20 in additional fees because they want to feel safe on a Saturday night. We buy em for the rush.
There were no new friends – or potential dates – to meet at the bar or in the smoking section during set breaks, no merch booth for you to add to your prized collection of stickers, patches, and ripped tees, and there certainly weren’t those glorious – but dreaded – pains of muscle fatigue one usually feels from the waist down after dancing until 3 a.m. the night prior following a rough week at the office.
As the event played out over the weekend, it also became unusually clear that no one – as in, not a single artist or interview subject – was going to mention anything about politics. There was zero mention of support towards a specific political candidate or policy, and, surprisingly, as the nation approaches this November’s highly-anticipated election, the word “Vote” was not mentioned once. Not once. How is it possible that mere two weeks out from what many are describing as the biggest election in a generation, that all of these artists – who were explicitly there to flex their grassroots influence in the face of the failure of the political class – didn’t say a single word about voting?
The lack of initiative on behalf of the artists to push boundaries and ruffle a few feathers managed to bring the event down to an underwhelming “concert” experience, unable to evoke even the slightest of emotion that one gets at an in-person concert. There was no shock factor in hopes of keeping fans on their toes, and each participating artist seemed to be okay with sticking closely to the script as if their reputation depended on their ability to keep their mouths shut, rather than speak on what we’re all feeling right now.
By the time Sunday’s broadcast was halfway over, it was evident that each artist was likely given specific instructions not to draw attention to any political bias. Amazingly, the same music industry which has taken a nearly-unanimous left-wing stand against Trump and most Republicans over the past four years remained silent. Forget the myth of conservative censorship on social media; this was artist censorship on social media – by the artists themselves!
Possibly the most controversial thing anyone said during the broadcast was when Phoebe Bridgers subtly mentioned, “I remember we wrote this song about QAnon,” before starting into one of her songs. Brittany Howard, who likely had the best performance all weekend, did manage to channel the communal mood when she belted out, “I don’t know about you, but I’m sick of this bull-SHIT!” Amen. So are we. So we appreciated that someone finally said what we were all awkwardly thinking on our well-worn couches!
In order for NIVA to successfully lobby for the passing of the proposed Save Our Stages Act, they needed each participant to play nice, at least for 30 minutes. Of all the times to speak up in hopes of convincing federal legislators to pass a much-needed relief bill for venues, this was the time to do so–with reservations of course. After all, when have musicians – especially rockers and hip-hop artists – ever been ones to play by the rules and keep their mouths shut? Where in the hell was Rage Against The Machine? Or even GWAR when we needed them?
At some point during each performance, similar to how they do during telethon fundraisers, each performer took a minute to seriously address the dire situation that many of the venues and their employees featured throughout the broadcast find themselves in. Those moments were a harsh reminder of the present reality for the music community heading into the final months of 2020 – and Coachella isn’t going to be around next spring to cure those post-winter blues.
Though Save Our Stages Fest made for a well-produced, unifying call to action for a drowning concert industry due to COVID-19, the $1,247,155 raised is still just a temporary fix, and nowhere near the long-term financial support that many venues need to pay their bills until live music returns in its full unshackled and unrestrained glory.
The virtual benefit was the largest undertaking so far from NIVA since its formation in the spring. The event did manage to attract impressive virtual attendance numbers, as viewership bobbed between 5,000-7,500 real-time YouTube users throughout the weekend and peaked at just over 20,000 for the Foo Fighters’ set on Saturday night.
SOS Fest allowed fans and curious onlookers watching from home to feel, even for just a brief moment, like they were almost back at their favorite hometown venue. It will remain yet to be determined, however, if the incredible efforts from the participating artists and Save Our Stages Fest reaches its ultimate goal in getting some serious financial assistance for the estimated 90 percent of local, independent venues who predict they’ll be forced to close permanently without help from the federal government by early next year–possibly, even sooner. But no matter how many times someone like Macklemore can give a “Hell Yeah!” to raise the energy inside an empty Neumos, the future for America’s concert industry still seems awfully bleak.