While the nightlife industry awaits its fate in a state of uncertainty; the entrepreneurs, artists, and workforce – from bouncers to bartenders – that fuel the night economy can’t help but wrestle with the thoughts of an existential threat to their careers and livelihoods. The inability of the federal government to provide continued stimulus for individuals and small businesses like ours, as the US faces a second wave of the pandemic, adds to the prevailing sense of gloom-and-doom.
Eight months into the coronavirus pandemic, the nightlife industry is still reeling from the shock of learning that a full-capacity reopening of venues will only be possible once an effective vaccine has been administered to scale. Based on conservative estimates given by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and National Institutes of Health (NIH), we are looking towards the end of 2021 or to the beginning of 2022 for the possibility of such a monumental task to be close to completion, or at least in full motion.
There are serious efforts to thwart a potential collapse of the nightlife economy; groups such as NIVA – the National Independent Venue Association – and other local efforts are active in this space.
But will these efforts galvanize enough support to reach critical mass? Will local, and federal politicians heed the calls, and subsequently act upon them? Because we know even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is fielding calls from his local Kentucky artists, including My Morning Jacket. Lastly, though surely not least, how important is the night economy and all of its tributaries to a country grappling with a pandemic and a recession?
These questions can easily be answered by some basic metrics; we know how important the industry is to the millions of people who aren’t just employed in it but who eat, drink and breathe it. The live music sector generates over $26 billion in annual tickets sales alone, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers. Then there are dance clubs and bars, which generate another $24 billion a year.
It’s not just numbers on a spreadsheet though: These are our neighbors, friends and communities; these are our younger selves; these could very well have been our future selves, but whether there’s a future for the industry is still hanging in the balance.
Millions of good-paying jobs are at stake, in addition to the massive number of part-time and independent contractor opportunities. Additionally, the ancillary economic impact of this industry casts a long shadow over the development of cities across the country. So yes, it’s a very significant industry to the economy; however, its importance is only of significance when it’s actually functioning and generating revenues. In other words, it’s important but not a priority during the pandemic.
Live music venues and dance clubs will not generate sales revenue during the pandemic; this means cities, states, and the federal government won’t receive any tax revenue from this particular segment of the economy until America is fully reopened.
For the average city comptroller or financial administrator, subsidizing these businesses while their doors are shut during a financially dilapidating pandemic might not necessarily add up. Their approach to locally beloved gathering places – today’s town squares – being permanently shuttered is a pragmatic calculation; another venture will eventually replace them, and that’s life: Owning a small business is a risk, after all. But the number crunchers seem to be working with busted calculations these COVID-ridden days.
Basically, there’s no financial incentive for local city governments – especially ones who are broke and getting even more broke as the pandemic lingers and redoubles its deadly, if stealthy, march – to fork over desperately needed cash to keep businesses afloat that won’t generate tax revenue or employment in the midst of this pandemic of global proportions.
But Biggie, rest his soul, was wrong: It’s not all about the Benjamins. This cut and dry assessment of balance sheets – and unbalanced sheets – misses the human toll of what losing venues would mean for our society. City administrators need new calculators: Their current ones don’t have a button for culture.
Nightlife contributes immensely to the cultural fabric of cities as it takes strangers and makes them one in the moment. And that cultural fabric isn’t a beggar on the street: Music, art, and booze-soaked nights are massive revenue machines, just think of how important tourism and new developments are to any community, just to name but two of many examples.
The argument for keeping them afloat doesn’t stem from greed; it’s born out of our innate human natures and the cultural importance of these establishments – or gathering places. If you don’t see, feel, and taste their validity, then you’ve missed out on life.
Unfortunately this resonates more with certain members of the community rather than with the echelons of power who hold the purse strings in city halls and ornate state capitol buildings nationwide.
As far as small business decision makers are concerned, the idea of encumbering themselves with more and more debt in the form of rent deferment or additional federal government loans generally doesn’t add up either. This practice might be attractive at first, but it can possibly turn businesses into “zombie” companies if they ever make it to the other side of this pandemic.
The prospect of finding a financially sustainable effort to keep the night time economy afloat during the pandemic is dimming daily. It’s come down to who can go it alone and best maneuver their way out of this by any legal means necessary. But these businesses have been there for all of us in good times, so why aren’t we there for them in the worst times?
The lack of a lifeline from the federal government is tragically resulting in many closures, either out of necessity or out of choice. However, this isn’t the first time nightlife establishments have seen their bank accounts dip dangerously low.
Clubstaurants (the much dreaded practice of restaurants masquerading as nightclubs) might see a return, even as an establishment solely dedicated to dancing might no longer be a viable business model going forward. The live music ecosystem will have to deal with the financial impact of the pandemic on individuals’ pocketbooks for it to eventually reach its past financial glory. This will depend on how long social distancing measures will still be in place after a vaccine has been widely used. The sector can face lower capacities for the short term, and a review of their ticket price structures could be in order.
The popularity of the industry has been slowly eroding as a result of technological innovations over the last 20 years. The internet was a game change. Large swaths of today’s youths veered off towards video games and other online diversions, including online dating platforms’ meteoric rise in popularity which also upended nightlife (will the next generation even know how to flirt in person? Hint: When you feel that spark from across the room, buy them that drink and send it right over). Other forces such as urban gentrification contributed to the alienation of club culture as a popular form of entertainment by pushing establishments to out of the way neighborhoods, or clipping their wings by imposing unreasonable restrictions on their operations.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been another blow to nightlife, and to the economic sphere it helps to support. However; the resilience, ingenuity, and creativity of the industry – from the sound or light folks to the barbacks – can help it pivot to the future by exposing yet unexplored efficiencies. Once on the other side, a realignment of priorities will be in order; archaic aspects of the business, such as the vapid practice of pushing bottle service on customers or paying exorbitant fees for uninspiring celebrity DJs, will take a back seat to a more practical and, hopefully, more personal, and local approach.
While politicians have failed established artists, venue owners, and labels, they’ve also failed younger artists and the staffers who are staples of their local clubs, bookers, visual artists, the pub down the block from the now shuttered venue, etc. The list is seemingly eternal. That’s because music, art, and culture are integral parts of all of our lives. None of us feel fully alive without it – whatever ‘it’ even is.
Scientists, researchers, and public health officials have shown elected officials what that other ‘it’ is. It’s known; it’s coronavirus, and it’s deadly. Venues — everyone from the person who sweeps up to the rock stars who light up our spirits — have felt the deathlike grip COVID-19 has held on their lives and livelihoods.
The difference between these two dueling crises is that the fallout and devastation wrought by one has been mostly avoidable, and it still is. While the federal government can’t end coronavirus, it can surely save the life of — and the lives within — an entire industry that up until now has been dismissed by the political class as a luxury. But nightlife, music, art, and the millions of jobs at stake aren’t luxuries – they’re the heartbeat and lifeline of any society. And America’s heart is crying out for a doctor to save it. Congress and the White House have the means. Sadly, they’ve failed to show the will, and even the heart.