It’s been well over seven months since venues across the country were forced to a screeching halt since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. In light of this standstill, the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) was formed, linking venues and stakeholders across the country together to lobby the federal government for adequate support to aid in the almost impossible spot these once bustling places were facing.
Some steps in the right direction have been taken. NIVA’s #SOSFest, a virtual three-day music festival presented in part with YouTube Music, raised over $1.8 million for NIVA’s Emergency Relief Fund, providing some aid to venues most in need. According to www.liveforlivemusic.com, the Save Our Stages Act was included in an amended version of the HEROES Act, a $2.2 trillion relief package that passed in the House of Representatives in early October.
The future of the bill, which was first introduced in the Senate in July, is not guaranteed. It still requires Senate approval, and the likelihood of new relief packages passing in the short days ahead of the 2020 election proves slim. Something more immediate – and local – is clearly needed in addition to what NIVA continues to advocate for.
In the District, that proposed aid looks like the Music Venue Relief Act (MVRA), which aims to provide relief at a local level for dozens of beloved D.C. venues. The MVRA is being advocated for by the DC Music Stakeholders Coalition, a group of venue owners, musicians and other stakeholders to encourage aid to pass locally.
Per the proposed legislation: “The pandemic has forced the closure of five longstanding D.C. music institutions, four of them cornerstones of the local music economy who presented the jazz, R&B and soul musicians bearing the torch of D.C.’s legacy of Black music. One of the most recent casualties was the beloved Twins Jazz, which supported D.C.’s vibrant jazz scene for 33 years and announced its closure on August 27. Most recently, U Street Music Hall has permanently closed its doors.”
In looking at those closures, it’s clear that the loss goes far beyond the economic or entertainment benefits that such venues bring to the city. They signify a loss of D.C. culture and Black culture, and the effects of such losses will ultimately be felt throughout the U.S.
“We’re losing the spaces that support our tremendous Black music community,” says Chris Naoum of Listen Local First (LLF), who is spearheading the campaign along with musician and board chairman of the Capitol Hill Jazz Foundation, Aaron Myers. “That’s what is even more troubling to me. It’s not the rock clubs that are going to be the first ones to go. It’s these smaller jazz clubs.”
Logistically speaking, Naoum explains, the current and impending closures will shake up an ecosystem that requires venues of all sizes and genres to grow a band’s touring abilities and allow them to progress from more intimate clubs to thousand-capacity arenas. This domino effect spells trouble for bands within the District going through the local circuit, as well as those from around the country and world who play the city.
“When different bands come through the city for the first time, they’re going to play at DC9. Then maybe next time, they play the Black Cat, and then maybe next time, they play the 9:30 Club. They serve as a [stepping] stone and give bands the ability to grow within their music community. If a venue dies, especially a smaller venue, that breaks apart the whole ecosystem.”
The MVRA proposes direct financial support to businesses that primarily operate as music venues from October 2020 through May 2021 commensurate with the venue’s size, with monthly funds not to exceed $15,000. Spaces categorized as “music presenters,” defined by the legislation as a spot whose “food and beverage sales account for over 50 percent of its gross annual receipts in accordance with a restaurant license” and that “hosts fairly paid live performances by musicians for a minimum of 48 hours per month,” are eligible for funds on the same scale, not to exceed $7,500.
For many of the venue owners and stakeholders involved in the coalition including Joe Lapan, co-owner of Songbyrd Music House and Record Cafe and Union Market’s new Byrdland Records, financial assistance is the only way to guarantee spaces like his and so many others can weather the pandemic. For now, Lapan and his team have been getting by on things like record sales and food orders.
“The two sides of the coin are either some type of financial assistance and relief, or some version of us getting back to our businesses,” he says. “But getting back to our businesses just doesn’t seem like something we’re ready to do in a safe way. D.C. did announce this pilot for six venues, but that’s very limited capacity and very limited dates. I think it’s a step forward, but it’s not a full return to what our businesses were. In lieu of being able to conduct our business, it feels to me like we have to be looking at some type of support from somewhere.”
At H Street’s Pie Shop, Sandra Basanti and team are trying to survive by selling the pies from which the venue takes its name. In the meantime, she looks to recent closures as something that could turn into a reality for venues throughout the city if action isn’t taken soon.
“I think what’s already happening is pretty clear,” she says. “We’ve already lost five of our venues due to Covid. It’s kind of a waiting game, like who’s next? That’s really scary and daunting. You have a couple articles out showing that [people have been] moving out of D.C. during this year, and D.C. dropped on the list of best places to live. I think that venues have a lot to do with that kind of stuff. I would hate for this to end up changing the entire landscape of D.C.”
At the time of writing, over 1,200 people have signed a petition in support of the MVRA. Their site also provides an email template that individuals can use to reach out to the council and administration about the proposed legislation. Among other direct actions, LLF created a music community platform checklist that included responses from 21 of the 2020 DC Council candidates to aid D.C. voters to make informed decisions when casting their ballot.
And while Basanti and Lapan are supporting themselves and their business in different ways that are by no means sustainable in the long term, even that has not been the case for many more venues in the city. Every day, small venues are faced with uncertainty when it comes to not only just reopening, but simply surviving long enough to get to that point. U Street Music Hall shuttered at the beginning of October after 10 years of hosting multi-genre shows in the U Street Corridor.
Naoum, Basanti, Lapan and the entire stakeholders group remain hard at work advocating to those who can pass such legislation to create the sorts of far-reaching relief that venues need and have not seen. Recently, members of the coalition asked the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities to allot funds from their $5 million budget to support such venues as a start to meet the financial needs created by the coronavirus crisis. And while locals can support with their votes, emails and signing petitions, Naoum notes that people can show support as individuals in addition to all of the above.
“Contact your local venue, tweet at them, email them, and ask about GoFundMes and funds for staff,” says Naoum. “If you have a favorite space, the best thing to do, no matter when, is contact the spaces that you really love and care about and see how you can help. If you have a favorite musician, contact them, too. They may be doing live streams and taking Venmo donations on their live streams. Make sure to support the folks that you are fans of whether they’re venues or musicians themselves.”
The MVRA can be read in its entirety through the last link on https://linktr.ee/savedcvenues. On this site, you’ll also find the email template to sign and send to local lawmakers, a signable digital petition and more. Learn more about the coalition and sign up for email updates on www.listenlocalfirst.com. Follow them on Twitter @listenlocaldc. Learn more about the venues and ways you can support Songbyrd, Byrdland Records and Pie Shop at www.songbyrddc.com, www.byrdlandrecords.com and www.pieshopdc.com.
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