Audrey Fix Schaefer was sitting in the dentist’s chair on the morning of March 11 when she received a text saying Mayor Bowser was about to declare a state of emergency in the District. She skipped her afternoon plans and went straight to meet with her team at I.M.P., the independent concert promotion and production company behind 9:30 Club, The Anthem, Merriweather Post Pavilion and Lincoln Theatre.
Fix Schaefer, who is I.M.P.’s communications director, and her colleagues sat around a small table in their offices near the 9:30 Club and tried to wrap their heads around what it would mean for their venues now that gatherings in D.C. were limited to 1,000 people.
“The very difficult decision was made to start postponing shows,” she says. “We thought it was going to be for three weeks.”
That night, iconic punk band Dead Kennedys took the stage at the 9:30 Club, marking the last show of 2020 at any I.M.P. venue. Fix Schaefer says the three-week closure turned into an eight-week shutdown, and then it became apparent that there would be no concerts until the nation had a readily available vaccine to address the pandemic that has rocked our economy and tested every ounce of our livelihood.
“We realized we were going to have to think differently. It’s not just about rescheduling 40 shows that were going to be that month. It was figuring out: How do we survive? How does the business survive?”
She says I.M.P.’s first set of concerns was about their employees. Her team established the I.M.P. Family Fund to raise money and give grants to employees who were furloughed.
“Unfortunately, like every other music venue in the U.S., we had to furlough about 95% of our employees. We’re not allowed to bring people in for work. There really wasn’t a choice.”
In addition to the family fund, I.M.P. employees have been able to benefit from Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), but Fix Schaefer says the key move her team made was becoming a charter member of the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) to help try to lobby Congress for emergency relief.
“It’s been a driving force since the second week of April when it was formed.”
The Driving Force
Fix Schaefer received a text this spring from Dayna Frank, owner of renowned Minneapolis nightclub First Avenue and current president of the board at NIVA. She needed help finding a federal lobbyist to fight for independent music venues around the country in need of financial support during Covid and was relying on her connections in the nation’s capital. Fix Schaefer joined a committee who selected lobbying firm Akin Gump, who she describes as phenomenal and unreal, and then the real work began.
NIVA put out a call for membership and within a week, they’d reached 500 members. Today, the association is at 3,000 members from every single state in the U.S.
As the head of communications at NIVA, Fix Schaefer has been instrumental in the development of its Save Our Stages campaign, a national movement encouraging legislators to help keep independent venues from closing permanently via the Save Our Stages Act.
“We went from not existing to having legislation on the floor that’s already passed [in] the House of Representatives,” she says. “The Save Our Stages Act is in proposals in both houses [and] both parties. I don’t know what else has got that kind of bipartisan agreement, and it’s something we worked really hard for because nobody on Capitol Hill understood our business because we never bothered to explain it to them. Why should we? We’ve always just been able to do it ourselves.”
The NIVA team has worked tirelessly to inform legislators about why they should care about the music industry surviving.
“We are a magnet for economic activity for our communities across the country,” Fix Schaefer explains. “There was a study out of Chicago last year that showed for every dollar spent at a small music venue, $12 of economic activity was realized for area businesses.”
She says this resonated with legislators on both sides of the aisle, because they understood that if venues can survive the pandemic and fully reopen when possible, then they will be part of economic renewal.
“When that time comes, that’s not a red issue or a blue issue – it’s a green issue.”
U.S. Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and John Cornyn (R-TX) co-authored and introduced the Save Our Stages Act on July 22 as a relief bill that would provide six months’ worth of Small Business Administration grants to independent music venues. Cornyn’s Texas roots were the impetus for his involvement, given his investment in Austin as the live music capital of the world. And Klobuchar hails from Minnesota, home to the aforementioned First Avenue where Prince famously got his start.
“Both of them quickly [realized] this was very important to their constituents. There’s enormous pride for these venues, and they also understood the economic realities and the impact that it could have if things go south. They have been fighting for this.”
The Waiting Game
More than 2 million emails have been sent to Congress by music lovers around the country in support of the Save Our Stages Act, and NIVA now has 220 cosponsors for this piece of legislation.
Fix Schaefer says NIVA is also pushing Congress to step up and extend PUA as part of the next Covid relief package. At the beginning of December, two proposals were released that she says are very reassuring because financial aid for independent music venues was included in both.
“One was from the Problem Solvers Caucus, which is a group of senators that’s bipartisan, and before that, the Dems had a proposal that was $2 trillion. The Senate Republicans put out a bill [on December 1] that we’re mentioned in as well. We are top of mind in Congress and on all sides of [this issue].”
As of the writing of this article, lawmakers passed a one-week government funding extension through December 18 until the next deadline for the continuing resolution to keep the government operating. While Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pushed back on the bipartisan Covid relief bill on December 10, Fix Schaefer, along with the rest of the country, is anxiously awaiting to see if both parties will reach an agreement on a pandemic rescue package and spending plan by the holidays.
In the meantime, she says NIVA is continuing to support venues through fundraising efforts like their three-day Save Our Stages virtual music festival in October, which raised $1.8 million. They also established the NIVA Emergency Relief Fund, a program where independent venues on the verge of going under can apply for a grant that will act as a bridge until federal funding comes through.
Fix Schaefer says it’s hard to predict what the future holds beyond federal assistance because so much is incumbent upon the vaccine being available to the masses and bands deciding when they are ready to get out on the road again. There has to be some type of uniformity and consistency across the nation with how venues are being reopened, and partial openings don’t help.
“The only thing worse than being fully shuttered as a venue is to be partially open, because then you end up losing money. In some parts of the country, [venues can be at] 25% capacity. Well, your mortgage doesn’t go [down] to 25% and neither do your utilities and taxes and all of that. The other thing is, you can’t charge the customer four times as much and bands aren’t going to tour for 25% as much because it’s too expensive for them.”
She anticipates at least three to four months will be needed to get the music industry back up and running because of the sheer amount of logistics and planning that goes into scheduling tours, booking venues and marketing shows.
“It’s not like a restaurant that can just order the eggs and spinach and bacon and toast, and be able to serve you breakfast tomorrow morning. This is going to be much longer.”
This was another crucial element that NIVA had to explain to Congress about the difference between the music industry and the hospitality industry. Fix Schaefer says restaurants can do takeout and delivery or be at partial capacity, but you can’t do that with the live concert experience. She also notes the amount of time, money and training that will need to go into establishing CDC-compliant guidelines and protocols for reopening.
The Local Impact
While hopeful, the gravity of the situation is at the forefront of Fix Schaefer’s mind. She notes the hundreds of venues across the country that have permanently closed, and the five D.C. institutions we’ve lost thus far including U Street Music Hall, Twins Jazz and Eighteenth Street Lounge.
Farid Nouri closed Eighteenth Street Lounge in June after deciding he couldn’t justify the exorbitant cost of renting the 10,000-square-foot space in Dupont Circle while it stood empty. He was also in the process of negotiating a lease renewal with his landlord, so the timing to ditch the brick-and-mortar and hit pause on his 25-year-old nightlife spot made sense. And most importantly, he didn’t want to create unnecessary risk for locals.
“I didn’t want to be the owner that would have had to open in order to make ends meet while the pandemic was still ongoing,” he says. “I hate to say it, but this wild surge we’re currently dealing with has its roots in restaurants, bars and other social gatherings. I totally understand the struggle though, hence the immediate need for federal government assistance.”
Nouri was moved by the D.C. community’s overwhelming response to the lounge’s closure and has continued to stay connected to them with virtual DJ sets. As for what the future holds, he says he wants to wait a bit and see how the next year plays out. He may even consider reopening in a new space in 2022, when businesses are back to some semblance of normalcy.
Black Cat co-owners Dante and Catherine Ferrando are in the opposite boat, riding out the storm at their 14th Street location and losing money in the interim. Catherine says they did receive $17,000 total in small, local grants as well as some PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) funding. They also held a fundraiser at the start of Covid specifically to support their employees, raising $30,000 total.
Similar to Nouri, Catherine isn’t comfortable with opening Black Cat’s doors to audiences in the short-term.
“We’re waiting for it to be both legal and safe to have at least a couple hundred people [in the venue],” she says. “I honestly think that’s going to be post-vaccine because I just don’t see it being safe, and we don’t want to pose any risk to the public [or] put our staff at risk.”
She encourages locals to keep their eyes peeled for virtual events, like Black Cat’s annual Rock-n-Shop holiday event this month, and to stay connected to the music community via recordings of past shows on their website.
Union Stage and Jammin Java co-owner Daniel Brindley has navigated Covid restrictions a bit differently. Union Stage at The Wharf was one of a select few D.C. venues approved for the mayor’s Phase Two Live Entertainment Pilot in October, which approved up to 50 audience members for shows. He says after extending the pilot through the end of the year, city officials reversed the extension a week later after he’d booked five concerts that of course then needed to be canceled.
“The other major frustration is the guidelines [the District has] put out are honestly nonsensical, and in my opinion, sort of irrational,” Brindley says. “The worst one is that the first row of people needs to be 30 feet from the stage. That makes absolutely no sense. I don’t know why having a performer onstage standing there singing necessitates being 30 feet away. And mind you, they’re actually deep into the stage when they’re singing. Shit, we would’ve put them at the back of the stage if it would have helped. [City officials] don’t get it, so that’s a problem.”
He’s also frustrated by what he views as the city’s lack of understanding that not all music venues involve uncontrollable, rowdy crowds. Both Union Stage and Jammin Java offer restaurant experiences with live music, and therefore might have succeeded under the city’s guidelines for the hospitality industry. Still, he says he thinks the city is trying.
Across the river, Jammin Java in Vienna, Virginia is currently open at a 55-person capacity, but some shows are canceling based on the latest headlines surrounding Covid spikes in the DMV. Brindley is in the process of setting up GoFundMe campaigns for his venues and seems resolved to dig his heels in and wait it out like so many of his peers.
Whether it’s writing a note to your elected officials in support of the Save Our Stages Act or buying merch from your favorite D.C. area venue, Fix Schaefer says there’s still much to be done to help our music venues. She’s been particularly heartened to see high engagement from the I.M.P. newsletter’s readership.
“It’s good because it tells us that when we are able to open up, people are going to want to come back. There’s going to be this pent-up desire to get back amongst other brethren who adore music and have that sense of community, and that sanctuary with that escape.”
She speaks affectionately of the District’s “crazy great music community,” and the city’s strong history of underground go-go, punk and indie music.
“9:30 Club is the number one most-attended club of its size in the world, and it’s been like that for probably nearly two decades. [The District] has been one of the most sophisticated music towns for so long. People in D.C. have always found a way to have their ear to the ground and know about things before everybody else does. Because we’re like that, we’ve been able to bring acts here that get nurtured, really take off and grow into bigger acts.”
Artist loyalty is high on her list as well: More than 1,000 artists have signed a letter to Congress, posted about Save Our Stages to their social media accounts or held fundraisers to support independent music venues since April.
“It means a lot to us. We’re part of an ecosystem. They need us. We need them. We’re part of what has helped nurture their career. They understand that for artists who want to continue to break out and emerge, they’re going to need places to be. But we get huge artists playing smaller venues, too, because they love to come and do an underplay.”
Support the Save Our Stages Act by writing to legislators at www.saveourstages.com and donate to NIVA at www.nivassoc.org. Go to www.930.com to donate to the I.M.P. Family Fund. Follow NIVA on Instagram @nivassoc and I.M.P. venues at @930club, @theanthemdc, @merriweatherpp and @thelincolndc. Follow Audrey Fix Schaefer on Twitter @audreyschaefer. Support Black Cat, Jammin Java and Union Stage at www.blackcatdc.com, www.jamminjava.com and www.unionstage.com.
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