First to close, last to open.
This has become a reality for many independent venues amid the chaos of the coronavirus pandemic. It makes sense: Venues are an amalgamation of everything opposite of social distancing, with large crowds, bars, food, merchandise purchases and general congregation. As shutdowns extend or even wane in states and regions, one thing that’s clear is independent venues face a unique hill to climb when it comes to reopening safely.
That’s where the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) comes in. You may have seen the phrase or hashtag “Save Our Stages” circulating – it’s become the easiest way to sum up the simple goal of this national group.
“This organization has no other agenda or goal beyond just seeing our members through this crisis, so that we can emerge on the other end of it still in business,” says Will Eastman, DJ and owner of U Street Music Hall, a member of NIVA. According to NIVA’s website, the association currently has more than 1,000 charter members in all 50 states.
“It’s a dire situation for the concert industry right now, especially for us as indies,” Eastman continues. “We have personal guarantees on our leases, we don’t have corporate bond offerings or stock that we can fall back on. This is a life or death situation for us right now.”
For Jon Weiss, a talent buyer who books Jammin Java, Miracle Theatre, Pie Shop, Pearl Street Warehouse and calls his home base Union Stage, involvement with NIVA meant a team in his corner, locally and nationally, as he and other staff members try to navigate ways to secure their existence through the pandemic. Union Stage, whose owners also count Jammin Java as their venue, has also joined NIVA.
“It’s definitely the power [in] numbers sort of thing,” Weiss says. “By working with NIVA, it’s not just us five venues trying to get support. It’s almost all independent venues, and a lot of independent promoters who don’t exactly own a venue but promote a lot of shows around their city. With something like LiveNation or AEG, they’re such big organizations that have such power behind them that they can move mountains. Small indies have to band together.”
Logistically speaking, Weiss explains that NIVA is calling for changes to Payroll Protection Program (PPP) loans to make sure the money lasts through the end of the year, and to advocate for mortgage and rent forbearance and business recovery funds. This is increasingly crucial as reopening plans are released around the country with standards that are confounding to the way a venue operates.
“Saying that you can have five people for every 1,000 square feet totally screws over music venues,” says Weiss. Mayor Bowser’s phase three of the reopening plan, in which venues would be allowed to open under those rules. Pie Shop, one of the venues Weiss books, is around 1,000 square feet in total.
“You can’t pay the sound person, let alone the door person, off [having] five people in a music venue. Or the bartenders who are showing up for tips,” he says. “It just feels like music venues are kind of left in the dust here to fend for themselves.”
U Street Music Hall’s Eastman faces a similar challenge in the looming deadline of phase three, which begins at an unknown date as of now, but still presents a real challenge on the horizon.
“[Phase three] would put U Street Music Hall’s capacity at 25 people, which is completely untenable,” he says. “I’m not trying to disparage anybody’s effort here. I think by putting that into the reopening guidelines, it was to give us something to say, ‘We’re trying to figure out a way where, if you’re being responsible, you can have some patrons in.’ But for our industry, unlike restaurants where you can socially distance people, you can’t socially distance a general admission venue. Even at 25 or 50 percent capacity it simply doesn’t work and is losing money, so there needs to be another plan for us. Otherwise, this entire sector is going to be decimated.”
While NIVA works with venues across America facing different reopening guidelines but similar challenges, there are ways individuals can support their work.
The board is made up of music industry professionals from some of the best loved, most successful venues in the country, who tell lawmakers what they need to continue, all backed by the success of their businesses pre-coronavirus.
One of the simplest ways to support NIVA is through signing the online petition. It’s simple and painless, requiring little personal information and autofilling the contact information of local lawmakers along with a pre-written letter around the support independent venues need now.
Weiss and Eastman both encourage all who want to see independent venues make a comeback – and in turn, support the local economy – to take a few minutes to sign.
For U Street Music Hall, individual support has come in the form of T-shirt sales, which has been successful but of course cannot stand as a long-term solution. At Union Stage and Jammin Java, promotions like ordering $75 worth of tickets to future shows come with a T- shirt emblazoned with the phrase, “I helped save live music in D.C., and all it took was getting tickets.”
Union Stage also offers takeout of their pizza, Union Pie, and Eastman says U Street Music Hall is hard at work planning a livestreaming TV channel that’s been in development since March.
“We need to continue our core work of presenting live band and DJ performances to crowds, and we wanted to do it in the U Hall way, which means that the sound, production and programming has to be great,” Eastman says. “We want to add something rather than just more noise to the signal that’s going on with live streams. We’re hoping that once we have this quality live programming up, we’ll have a way where viewers can donate, not just us but to various causes.”
In a similar vein, the first month U Street Music Hall sold its T-shirts, they donated 20 percent of their proceeds to We Are Family, a local nonprofit that provides food to the elderly. According to Eastman, it resulted in a donation of $4,100, one of the biggest single contributions the organization has received.
As Eastman, Weiss and NIVA member venues and promoters across the region and country fight for their work, livelihoods and communities, it’s clear that though NIVA exists to help an industry in a particularly tough spot, its message is one of hope and perseverance.
“Everyone I work with at NIVA is all on the same page that nobody’s going anywhere,” Eastman concludes. “We’re going to be here on the other end of this, we just need some support to get through it. Our goal is that we’re better off. We’re going to have better, healthier facilities where people are going to be mindful of touchless hand washing stations, cashless transactions – there’ll be a lot of things that will change in our industry for the better.”
One additional, simple signal of hope for individuals, venues and the industry as a whole that Weiss suggests is, “Find a show that’s the farthest out that you feel comfortable going to. And buy a ticket to support the venue and to show that you look forward to going there sometime soon.”
While many eagerly await the day venues safely open their doors, there are many ways to support them as they work through what that looks like. Simple, tangible steps – like signing the petition on NIVA’s site – can make all the difference in keeping music and jobs going strong in the District and beyond.
To show support for NIVA, write to your local lawmakers by visiting www.nivassoc.org and share the hashtag #SaveOurStages.
To support U Street Music Hall and find out more about their upcoming livestreamTV sessions or to buy a T-shirt, visit www.ustreetmusichall.com.
For more on ticket purchases from Union Stage, Jammin Java and other associated venues or to puchase Union Pie, visit www.unionstage.com.
Enjoy this piece? Consider becoming a member for access to our premium digital content and to get a monthly print edition delivered to your door. Support local journalism and start your membership today.