Sadly, at the moment the safest bet is that the nation’s music venues – whether small or large; divey or luxurious – won’t reopen at full capacity until 2022, and that will send shock waves across the concert industry. The coronavirus pandemic has already left a graveyard of American venues permanently shuttered in its wake, and signs that the pandemic is intensifying means the wasteland of boarded-up dance halls and stages is only going to grow.
If you catch a nervous music owner, talent booker (who’ve had to go virtual to survive, but even they admit that’s no viable replacement to live music), or cash-strapped artists on a good day, you’ll hear muted optimism that maybe smaller and outdoor venues will find a legal loophole to reopen by next summer, and maybe some cities will be able to manage their coronavirus outbreaks by then. But, in reality, the odds aren’t looking good. And everyone in the industry knows it.
Those opinions are all debatable because everyone’s opinion has value when public health officials and elected politicians continue to send mixed signals. But America isn’t anywhere close to finding either a temporary or long-term solution to the peculiar havoc and economic devastation COVID-19 has wrought upon the nation’s live entertainment industry.
As winter nips at the fading fall foliage in many states, major cities and small towns alike are bracing for what is expected to be a deadly winter as coronavirus infections continue to spread like western wildfires. The numbers of cases and deaths seen back in the spring and into the summer are likely to be topped again before the end of the year with holiday party season right around the corner. The sobering data doesn’t help to contain the freak-out anxiety being felt by industry professionals heading into the final months of this horrific year.
The once-unified optimism – grounded in seemingly eternal hope, if not reality – shared by both the Live Nation-sized concert promoters and the smaller, independent music venue owners back in the spring, has soured. It’s now slowly devolved into an unmistakable dread and somber acceptance of our sad recent past, depressing present, and bleak near-future. Most promoters know that if a new round of much-needed federal aid is coming (and venues were cut out of the first rounds of stimulus funds), it’s unlikely to arrive until next year under a possible Biden/Harris administration.
Regardless of who’s living in the White House come late January, the partisan stubbornness seen in Congress over the past 12 years has left a divided country hopelessly wondering what next week’s elections mean for more another round of stimulus checks and long-term unemployment benefits – let alone an entire industry bail-out.
Despite the full-court press put on Congress by the National Independent Venue Association (or NIVA). With the nation’s political class having basically abandoned Washington for two of the last three months (and no, ramming through a Supreme Court nominee counts more as electioneering than legislating…), artists, NIVA and others have had to step in and do what the federal government is supposed to: Save what’s arguably the nation’s top global export – our music, culture, art, and, at its core, our uniquely American identity (you may feel anger or even misplaced hatred in your heart in this ridiculously pitched political season, but you wouldn’t see red or blue if you were at, say, a Dolly Parton show).
With Trump doing his best to minimize the seriousness of the pandemic (even as his own public health officials keep quietly shouting, ‘THERE’S A FUCKING PANDEMIC PEOPLE!’), NIVA recently put on the star-saturated Save Our Stages Fest. The virtual concert and fundraiser raised $1,800,000 million (and counting…), but that’s chump change when discussing the high operational costs that music venue owners in markets like New York City have to meet every month.
It is worth noting – at the very least – House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s latest partisan stimulus bill, the Heroes Small Business Lifeline Act (introduced in October by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and fellow Democratic Senators) contains the same provisions as included in the bipartisan Save Our Stages Act, which has 200+ bipartisan Congressional cosponsors and counting. Both the above-mentioned bills remain un-passed in this hyper-partisan and selfishly petty Congress.
Since March, a number of musicians have benefited from commission-free sales of digital music, unique merchandise, livestream performances (both ticketed and donation-based), and various subscription initiatives through their respective websites. The drive-in and “safer” outdoor concert format being utilized by artists within the jam band genre has also offered a temporary income solution, but like the widespread use of face masks, even those models are not failproof.
It’s the gig workers, the hard-working folks who work on an hourly or per-event basis (venue security, concessions, guest services, parking attendants, porters/janitorial, box office staff, photographers, sound technicians, lighting designers, etc.) who are the ones facing the brunt of the financial hardship. They can’t lean on licensing and streaming royalties to get them through the winter. Many (if not all) of the tens-of-thousands of hard-working employees who lay the groundwork for the live events ecosystem can at least file for unemployment benefits, but the brick-and-mortar buildings in which they used to work on any given night, cannot.
What many industry outsiders don’t seem to realize is that while the large-scale concert halls, arenas, and amphitheaters owned by Live Nation and AEG will reopen at some point, even their Scrooge McDuck-level piles of cash will dry up eventually. For every 1,000-seat venue in a larger economic market like Cleveland or Nashville that a mid-level artist will play on a Friday or Saturday, most concert tours also factor in stops at a 250-500 capacity music venue on a Tuesday or Wednesday to help even the tour’s budget for the pricey cost of traveling to the likes of New York City or and LA.
Removing smaller venues out of the touring landscape is similar to removing minor league baseball from the MLB. No artist — no matter how talented — can make the jump from coffee houses to arenas without the natural launching pad provided by small and medium-sized venues. The business model for how promoters gauge which acts they book will be thrown completely out of whack, leaving the smaller artists and music venues to wither on the vine.
Being a small business owner in the concert industry is difficult enough when one considers the tremendous uncertainty that comes with often-fleeting popularity in artists and their fan bases. Residents who live in smaller, quieter communities – major cities are not always excluded either – often require some serious, long-term convincing of the wider economic benefits that come with bringing a new music venue to town. After all, it’s no secret that live music brings scores of out-of-towners, large scale alcohol consumption, excess noise, and in the case of Grateful Dead and Phish circles – unauthorized camping and illegal ‘drug’ use (ever hear of the nitrous mafia?).
Concert venues have always had to battle their way through difficult odds and a savagely competitive industry to survive, but now they’re backed up against a brick wall that the government – federal, state, and local – itself erected without their input or taking the time to realize the human cost of excluding the entire industry from government support. No artist booking radius clause or force majeure insurance will help save them.
To no one’s surprise, Congress continues to drag its feet and fail music venues, artists, and fans alike. But, again, it has become dangerously realistic that venues might not reopen for business until 2022. Venue owners are now the emaciated wild dog backed up against a wall and facing sure starvation if it doesn’t literally claw its way to survival. At some point, that dog has gotta eat or die, but either way, it will not be a pleasant experience, for any of us.