• October 27, 2020

EXCLUSIVE: Lumineers Fear Trump and Congress Have Set American Music Back During COVID

 EXCLUSIVE: Lumineers Fear Trump and Congress Have Set American Music Back During COVID

The Lumineers and hundreds of other artists have been begging Congress to help save shuttered, local venues for months. Photo by Danny Clinch

Throughout this year’s concert season most all live venues across America remain shuttered. It’s been like this since March. But now hundreds and hundreds of venues fear they’re going to have to close permanently, because they were excluded from government assistance in the initial rounds of coronavirus aid packages. But Congress and the Trump White House still have a chance to salvage what they helped break.

It’s not just venues themselves – or the musicians that scuff their stages and chip the paint off their formerly green rooms – but it’s also all the businesses tied at the hip to venues: The restaurants, dispensaries, bars and late night taco stands. That’s been a central part of the pitch to lawmakers at the US Capitol from the National Independent Venue Association or NIVA, which didn’t even exist in January. Even so, now they represent 2,500 venues nationwide, and those venues leaned on their fans and music industry connections to drive that point home to lawmakers in Washington.

Until this week, those calls were rejected by the White House, but now Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is reportedly open to assisting American music, but that’s only if they get a deal with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. She and other Democrats also support the effort to try to salvage venues, but they’re currently haggling over the price tag of the overall measure.

The fact it’s taken this long to even get venues and musicians to be included in negotiations has unsettled many musicians, especially Wesley Schultz, the lead vocalist and guitar player for the Lumineers.

“These places won’t survive without help and assistance,” Schultz told The News Station. “Otherwise, you’re left with sort of the giant places or the chains. So you have like Hard Rock Cafes and arenas.”

While Schultz doesn’t seem to be a fan of those chain “cafes,” his band now fills arenas. But he says this fight – that he, his fellow Lumineers co-founder and drummer Jeremiah Fraites and more than 600 other artists have engaged in – isn’t about big acts like them.

NIVA polled its members and got a stomach churning response: A full 90 percent of local, independent venues predict they’ll be forced to close permanently without assistance from the federal government. That’s not only because they’ve been forced to close their doors since the spring, but also because they were excluded from the previous rounds of stimulus funding because those federal dollars required the money go to maintaining a workforce. But without concerts, and the revenue they bring in, there was no way these venues could pay their workers to stand around for some six months now. The fate of those clubs is weighing on Schultz these days.

He says the Lumineers couldn’t be filling stadiums unless they went through the sometimes awkward, often grueling and always exhilarating smaller club circuit. Schultz is worried politicians in Washington are ripping that same opportunity away from tens of thousands of young artists nationwide.

“I thought about it, like, if you’re a painter and they were like, ‘Okay, you can get into the Guggenheim or you’re done.’ You don’t have a shot – you go here or you go there; there’s nothing in between,” he bemoaned.

Schultz says he was prepared to open up for U2 on their 30th anniversary tour back in 2017 – crowds that surely weren’t there to see the Lumineers – because earlier in their careers they’d played house shows and small clubs, which didn’t always have much of an audience at all, let alone an audience there to see them.   

“I think performers have done things like busking and played coffee shops and small gigs. So when they get to the bigger stages, they basically attempt to recreate that intimacy. But if you don’t, you don’t know that you’ve not spent a lot of time in it. I think you’re at a big disadvantage,” Schultz says. “You know, you have a guitar player, you have so-and-so on bass and you have so-and-so on drums, you also have an audience. The audience is like a member of the show, if you treat it that way.”  

The ripple effects of taking away that audience-induced tutorial – whether it’s eye rolls or the intimacy – from young acts will be felt by all of us, because the majority of bands never play a 200 person venue, let alone a stadium. Which is why Schultz fears Trump and Congress are making grave missteps for American culture by neglecting venues of all sizes in their time of dire need.

“You’re almost wiping out, like, a musical middle class by taking this away. Like, you’re saying, ‘you’re either below the poverty line or you’re like living high on the hog,’ you know?” Schultz said. “If you don’t offer that, there’s no real ladder to climb. There’s no where to go. It’s kind of like you’re creating a pretty oppressive haves and have nots environment. Verses having all these clubs that serve different size audiences.”

The dominoes were already toppling before President Donald Trump and his top advisors gave up on negotiating a bipartisan solution with Democratic leaders in August. Beloved venues across the states have already closed for good. In Denver, the 3 Kings dive club went under. Threadgills in Austin– where Janice Joplin got her start – is now permanently shuttered. And Boston lost the rock venue Great Scott, which had been around for 44 years. That’s just to name a few, and more closures are expected soon.

Trump and most Republicans don’t seem to have seriously considered a broader economic rescue package to help resuscitate these clubs that are drowning in red ink. And the four executive orders Trump signed from his New Jersey golf course this Saturday – including  an effort to provide an extra $400 to people on unemployment (even if Congress initially made that $600) and a call for his agencies to consider banning evictions – are all viewed as unconstitutional by most legal scholars.

With both the U.S. House and Senate now prepared to gavel out until after November’s election – even as America hit the mind boggling 5 million mark for COVID-19 cases this weekend – fear is growing that local venues everywhere are going to slowly board up their windows and doors. That would be a punch in the gut for musicians but also for the local communities they’ve been one with for years or even decades.

“They kind of define cities, a lot of these venues. You know, for me, I think of a few clubs in Denver that we still go back to and play like secret shows at,” Schultz said (and no – we’re not sharing those venues with you, but nice try).

That’s when Schultz got nostalgic. While he now calls Colorado home, he’s a Jersey boy, and that means he cut his teeth in New York City venues. He used to play the Bitter End – a small venue that’s been around since 1961that was a pivotal steppingstone in the careers of Joni Mitchel, James Taylor and even Lady Gaga – and remembers it fondly.

“Everybody starts somewhere, and that somewhere is clubs,” Schultz said. “Even then, I mean, that was so – it was so hard to get into those clubs. It was such a sought after thing.”

And if a thousand – or possibly thousands – of venues go under because of this pandemic it will be felt for years and years and years. And artists are hurting.

Earlier this month, Americans for the Arts – a nonprofit art and education advocacy group – released a report showing the unemployment rate for artists (of all stripes) was at 62%, which far outpaces the national unemployment rate of 10.5%. That’s why lobbying lawmakers in Washington for a lifeline for these venues has become a rallying cry for musicians and a bipartisan group of lawmakers.

Two proposals being pushed in the nation’s capital could help them though. The RESTART Act would help finance venues and other businesses for a full six months, while the Save Our Stages Act would create a $10 billion grant program targeted specifically at the music industry.

They would go a long way, even in ways we can’t see right now. Schultz and the Lumineers have performed some charity live streams during the pandemic. And live streaming has surely been important for small, medium and big acts alike to stay in touch with, and hopefully expand, their fans during the pandemic. But streaming has nothing on the live concert experience.

“There’s a reason why concert DVDs don’t sell like movies do or like TV shows, and the reason is because it relies on that human connection. Actually being there makes a big difference. You don’t really get that same intimacy,” Schultz said.

It’s not just about the economy – though Schultz surely has been one of the biggest cheerleaders for his fellow artists during the pandemic – it’s also about mental health and community.  

“Not to be overly heavy about this, but a huge part of, to me, the human existence is feeling alone, and I’ve felt so much less alone with people and not alone, I guess, when I’m at some of my favorite shows and those memories as a spectator and as a performer sometimes as well,” Schultz recounted.  

That’s partly why Schultz thinks this recession offers an opportunity for all of us to rethink society’s relationship with painters, photographers and especially musicians.  

“We kind of pride ourselves as a country on valuing the arts in some ways, but we actually make it a very rebellious choice to do that. And that’s just kind of like a contradiction, right?” Schultz bemoaned. “Like if you go to Germany, they’ve got all these grants for artists and paths to be an artist without needing to always mix that with commerce. They want art.”  

Americans love art too, even if our government officials don’t fund it anywhere close to the level other nations do.

“This is doing everyone a disservice if even some of these venues closed down, because we’re all actually loving it, we just aren’t putting an onus on it right now. Because it’s hard, people don’t have food on the table. So they can’t pay their bills, they can’t pay the mortgages, their car payments – whatever it is, it feels like a luxury,” Schultz said.

But art isn’t a luxury – it’s life giving, which Schultz thinks lawmakers in Washington have lost sight of in the midst of this pandemic, hence hundreds of venues are bracing for the worst.

“Once life resumes, this is such a huge part of life – it enriches our lives. It is why I think it was put on the back burner, but I think people are going to really miss this if they aren’t a little bit more, you know, thinking ahead – just one step ahead,” Schultz said. “We’re not going to be in this forever. This is a temporary thing, but these clubs, if they close, that could be forever on that – that might turn into something else.”

Matt Laslo

Matt Laslo

Based in Washington, Matt Laslo is a veteran political and music reporter. Since 2006, he’s been a contributor with VICE News, VICE News Tonight HBO, The Daily Beast, Rolling Stone, Playboy, Billboard, The Atlantic, NPR, etc. He’s taught journalism at Boston University (MA) and The University of Maryland (BA). And he teaches political communications at The Johns Hopkins University MA in Government and Public Policy program. He can be found on most all social media platforms as @MattLaslo.

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