October 27, 2020

Peace Talks with NIVA - Time Is Running Out to #SaveOurStages

Peace Talks with NIVA - Time Is Running Out to #SaveOurStages

On Friday Sept 26th we caught up with the Reverend Moose, co-founder of the National Independent Venue Association to talk about independent venues and current legislation intended to help them through the pandemic. Independent venues are the hardest hit businesses - first to close and last to open. We talked about how this ecosystem of venues and artists is uniquely challenged, why it's so valuable, what's before congress, and, how we can all help. Please go to SaveOurStages and complete the email form to contact your member of Congress. Your voice matters. 

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Jay:

I'm Jay Clark, founder of EarPeace. Thanks very much for being with us. I'm joined today by the Reverend Moose. He's the co founder and executive director of the national independent venue association, which is quite literally saving our performance stages. The association was set up shortly after the pandemic started to advocate for the independent venues that are the cradle for so many of the upcoming artists that we love and their music. 

We met each other several years ago when he brought national independent venue week to the United States from the UK. Now, moose is in the thick of advocating for multiple bills before Congress to fund and save independent venues that cannot make it without assistance. This is a big deal for anyone that loves live music and their local venue. It's a big deal for anyone that loves Broadway. This is a really big deal for the shops and the restaurants and the neighborhoods that surround these venues. It's a big ecosystem that is under threat.

Moose. Thank you very much for speaking with us today about what's going on.

Moose:

Thank you, Jay. Thanks for having me really appreciate it.

Jay:

Delighted man. So I'd like to take a little bit of a step back, before the dark times. Let’s start off with a quote from James Murphy from, from LCD sound system describing the network of independent venues in the United States as a “coral reef”, which I thought was just fantastic. An independent living system. Help us understand the importance of these independent venues to the artist, community, and the cities where they operate. How are they all connected?

Moose:

Yeah. You know, the coral reef really is a great metaphor for this because coral reefs, they kind of find their own roots. You know it takes a long time for them to actually develop. They grow, and then they attract a lot of tourists. It's easy to damage them it without necessarily even the intent. There's a lot of man made outside forces that impact the reef system without even necessarily directly being in that place. 

I think venues are very much the same in their own communities. They end up in economically deprived neighborhoods. And this attracts a special early adapter, right, the ones that go out to shows before other people have heard of the bands, they're used to going to that cool new club, that's in the middle of some industrial area, parking on the street and everything else that goes with it. And then three, four, 10 years later, you're paying 25 bucks for parking. 

These venues are often the first tenant in a neighborhood that would be followed by more high paying tenants. And with that comes the stress of increased rent, increased taxes, increased bills and insurance. Everything is expensive. But the venues are there now and they're the ones that have driven that culture and that community to grow around it, That's locally.  

On a national basis. Every single venue is dependent upon what is happening in the town or the city or the state next door. When you're talking about a local bar with with a microphone stand, that's different You grab your guitar case, you go down to the pub, you play a couple songs. You go back home at the end of the night.

Well, if you're on tour, you have to sync this up across the entire country and be able to say, okay, if I'm going to be doing Indianapolis tonight, I have to be able to do Chicago on either side of that. And then I have to figure out how to get to Oklahoma city. Then I have to figure out how to get from there to Portland. How do you fill those those dates? It’s a giant network of relationships and locations.

And what's really at risk right now, as all of these venues have had essentially no income whatsoever. And they still maintain the high taxes, the mortgages, the rent, the bills, the insurance. Those that could have maintained some semblance of payroll, all of these things. And there's an end point to that without federal relief, without some type of congressional or governmental support, we're going to see more and more of these ecosystems just disappear. 

And like the coral reef, they're not just going to magically come back. They have to have that foundation. They have to develop, it takes resources, it takes focus. It takes people specifically caring for that growth and development. It’s tough to do if you're six months in arrears, and that is an addition to an already being a low margin business to begin with.

Jay:

I think what a lot of people probably don't understand, speaking exactly to is, these independent venues have a very unique business model that is particularly challenged by the pandemic. For many of them a staged reopening, starting at 25% of people or 50% of people, just isn't possible. Tours can't operate that way either. Right? Can you help us understand the special challenges that venues face to reopen? What are the dynamics of the business that make it so challenging? And what are the decisions that these venue, what are, what are the decisions these venue owners are making right now? 

Moose:

On a practical level there going to have different PPE cleaning protocols, et cetera. It would be great to have more direction as to what that specifically means from a governmental level - it hasn't existed. We had to create our own resource guide that cobbled together all these different assets that some cities or municipalities are putting together and obviously make our own suggestions too. So at least venues had a starting point. When people think about what it takes to be able to go and experience live music again - that’s the most obvious part.

What most people are not thinking about is what it takes to actually power on the space. You have a staff that has been almost universally furloughed across the country. You have to rehire your staff. Many of whom, especially those that might have been living in city centers, have dispersed through different parts of the country. Moving back home or to places with cheaper rent or whatever the case might be. 

Then of course you have the training systems. You have to make sure that you have the right people in place for the right jobs. There are new jobs that are going to exist to manage different PPE protocols, for example. And of course you have to figure out how to book talent in this new environment. You have to get the talent in the system. So if this artist is able to play on the first, who's going play on the second, who's going to play on the third, where are they going to be the night before and the night after?

This is not an easy plug and play, open the doors and the businesses turns type of a situation. This is a three to six month ramp up period. When we say that that independent venues are the first to close and they will be the last to open that is literal. in the very early days of this, when people were talking about the four phases of reopening, we were at the tail end of phase four. Right now in the US it's something like 90% of businesses are open to some capacity. 0% of small venues are open for regular shows.

And even those venues have some type of ability to open their doors, maybe at limited capacity where they have a restaurant that's added on it is a fraction of sustainable business. There's no business in the world that can survive being told you're no longer allowed to operate and you can't make any money for 6, 9, 12 or 18 months. You still have to pay back the debt that doesn't go away, right? All of these programs, these eviction moratoriums, the government loans, etc. it's all coming due at some point. 

So you have to not only run a business, you have to run a successful business and pay back the last six months of business costs. The venues did what they were told to do and there's no reason that the government shouldn't be able to help. And if they are able to mandate that the rooms stay closed, they should be able to pay so that those rooms can exist when it's safe to reopen.

Jay:

Yes. Can you speak a little bit to how these venues are funded? I think nearly everyone is familiar with the big arenas, companies like Live Nation or AEG, that are public or have really deep pockets. What does it mean to be your average venue owner?

Moose:

You know Jay, I don't know if everybody is familiar with how the bigger venues operate either, right? I don't know if we spend a lot of time thinking about this outside of the industry - you buy your ticket, you go to your show, you pay for your drink, you pay for parking. At some point you buy a tee shirt. And there are not a lot of shows. In a lot of circumstances it’s just a formula. I think that the difference between an independent in a multinational or a publicly traded company is you have more choices with the independents. The independents themselves have more choices. They get to choose who the ticketing company is. They get to choose which artists they're booking. They get to choose the price points for their tickets. What type of music is being performed. Who's going to open, etc.

All of these things get to be chosen locally, and they're largely locally owned. Sometimes family run businesses, sometimes they're owned by local communities, or the state or municipality. But, they're run and booked locally. So they have the ability to cater to their own community’s needs. They have the ability to factor that into their programming, into their staffing, into what type of pricing they're going to charge to be able to make their own. And when there is no business to be had - these independently operated businesses don't have shareholders that can reinvest or access to the same wall street banks that the large multinational companies do.

Most of our members do not own their own venues. Right. So maybe you have the ability to mortgage in your home, maybe you're putting your children's college funds on the line. Maybe you're pulling your kids out of college. All of these things that we as individuals have to deal with when we're balancing our own checkbooks. Many of these venue owners are floating their entire business out of personal funds because there is no government support. 

If you're launching a business, you've done the calculation. This is what I'm going to invest. This is when, and what I plan on getting back. If you're running a business, you're constantly figuring out what your buffer is, what you have access to. How long can any business, especially an independently owned business be expected to operate with no visibility and no income.

Jay:

Right. And that is the existential crisis where we are. So I feel like this a great point for you to bring us into the National Independent Venue Association. Tell us how it happened. We're in mid-March and everything is starting to shut down. I think we all kind of remember our last shows. How did you bring everything together and how did you get to where we are now?

Moose:

Through Marauders work with Independent Venue Week, my company, we created a national network of independent venues that we would celebrate every, every summer. Somewhat like record store day, but for venues. Right after SXSW was announced closed we realized that there was a lot of uncertainty. We set up a national call, we invited all of our members, our stakeholders, people that have a vested interest in the future of independent venues, to a massive town hall style call that we still continue to do every single week. And it was pretty clear very early on that we needed a team to go to DC and lobby.

There was never been a trade organization for independent venues and promoters. A group of us collectively built a board and launched NIVA. The National Independent Venue Association hired a lobbyist, got support from a couple of commercial partners, See Tickets and Etix and Prism have all been very supportive and gave us the financial security to be able to retain the lobbyist. Everything else has been volunteers. We've been an army of people fighting for our own.

And we also have a lot of support, right? We have thousands of artists that have shown support. We had 600 file an official letter to Congress early on Lady Gaga and Jerry Seinfeld, Mavis Staples, and Wyclef John, et cetera. It really shows the value in what way it is we're fighting for, because without this, the future of independent live events, comedy clubs, and Broadway and music shows could literally cease. Right? The reality is these venues may close en masse, and I don't want to sound hyperbolic, but that is a very, very real possibility. We are coming closer and closer to that precipice every single day. We're getting notes of more venues closing for good every day.

You won't lose live music or comedy if these small independent venues close. You will lose the option of choice. You will loose the choice of where your money's going, who is benefiting from that, who is making the decisions - you will lose those things. And that's a different argument, different landscape altogether.

Jay:

What are the two big bills that you all have gotten to the floor at this point?

Moose:

We have the Save Our Stages act. We launched a hashtag early on. The Save Our Stages act is a $10 billion grant program. It is intended to support small businesses, not publicly traded companies and has bipartisan support. It helps venues, Broadway, talent agents, et cetera, et cetera. We're also supporting the RESTART Act which is a loan program. It's not specific to our industry, but it is catered towards those that have zero revenue and higher overhead and no clear timeline for reopening. So in an ideal scenario, we would have both RESTART giving people the option for a loan, and we would have Save Our Stages as a straight compensation grant. These businesses have been shuttered and can’t make it without significant assistance.

Jay:

Yes, at this point it’s common math. How and when are we in getting, Save Our Stages and RESTART through Congress?

Moose:

We have bipartisan support on both bills in both the House and the Senate and they're both been co-sponsored from the beginning. What we need now is for Congress to pass a Covid relief program and  include these bills. You know, maybe Jay, by the time this actually gets uploaded and I don't know if that's within the hour, within the week or whatever it might be, but by the time this gets uploaded, maybe what we're saying is out of date. I would love for that to be the case. 

But right now we've been fighting since March saying, “Hey, look, these programs that you have, they don't include us.” PPP does fit with the business model. We thought we would have resolution by May. We thought we'd have our resolution by July. August was recess and now we're in September. If Congress goes on recess without passing legislation that is going to save our stages, we will see a fall off a cliff.

Jay:

Moose what can people do right now to help them?

Moose:

The most actionable thing that can be done is go to SaveOurStages.com and to reach out to your Congressperson and let them know how important live, independent venues are. There's a simple form on the website - we have tried to make it as easy as absolute possible. That's it. So far we generated two million letters to Congress in support of Saving Our Stages. We have advocates like Senator Schumer and other huge champions trying to make this happen, but for this to actually pass, we're going to need Congress to pass legislation for a Covid package.

Jay:

Yes, fingers crossed by the time this gets uploaded we have passed a bill. In the meantime is there anything that is centralized or what is the best way for people to help their local venues?

Moose:

There’s a number of different venues that are doing their own events, in some way or another, a lot of live streams. Buy tickets to those streaming events. A lot of them are doing merch like golden tickets that can be redeemed at some point in the future, fundraisers for their staff, etc. All of those would be the best way to be able to donate and fund the local venues. NIVA started an emergency relief fund, which is intended to help the venues that are in the most dire need. There's a link from our website, from the support page where you can make a donation directly to the emergency relief fund. There's also a link where you can donate directly to NIVA. We’ve also launched several different wearable items. I believe the kids call it merchandise. [Moose starts to pull up merchandise] Oh, let's see. Hold on one second. Let me see what we got here. We got t-shirts, we have face masks and we have tote bags and, and let's just brag for a second here. These might look familiar to you, Jay…

Jay:

Small brag…

Moose:

And we have branded NIVA EarPeace as well. You know this, but I've been using EarPeace for years, so that's my own endorsement right there

Jay:

Thank you so much, man. I've been saying since we started having this conversation earlier this year, that we survive when everybody else survives. We are also a part of this ecosystem.

Jay:

So a little personal question and let’s leave on a high note. I am very hopeful that we will have a bill in the near future. I know that there are a lot of people doing a lot of work - I just saw Schumer up in New York wearing a Save Our Stages mask. I know that there's a lot of energy. So when we get back into action and the venues are open again…

Moose:

Are you going to ask me where the party is? Cause I'll tell you the party is going to be everywhere.

Jay:

Yes! Do you have a specific venue? One that is at the top of your list to go back to?

Moose:

I do. I've got plenty of them through working with independent venues and running independent venue week for the last several years. I've worked in the emerging music industry for my entire career. I've spent most of my nights out at live shows. I'm very fortunate. I've traveled the world going to some amazing rooms. We now have an organization that has about 3000 members that I'm talking to on a daily basis. What's come out of this is a community of support and comradery and solidarity.

Our celebration tour will be nonstop. All we need is for the venues to be able to make it through to the end of this and we're going to do a giant caravan and hit every single venue. And I guess we're going to have to bring some bands around. And then of course, it'll be great if the fans could come. So we should probably sell tickets to this. So you see where this is going. We WILL power on the lights, set up the stages and the touring will begin again. Let's just go! Let's get this going.

Jay:

Well, I will be there next to you. I'm really looking forward to that happening.

Moose:

I think you and I should start at different coasts and somehow find a way to meet in the middle, or maybe start on the North and we'll do it. We should map this out.

Jay:

I love it. We will get, we will absolutely get a map up. And I just to recap, the number one thing that you can do is to go to save our stages.com, um, and email your member of Congress - your representative and your Senator. You can donate through the website. There is an emergency fund through NIVA, and there's also a load of great merchandise that goes towards helping us out. So Moose, I really appreciate your time. Thank you so much. Keep the faith, keep working at this.

Moose:

Thank you, Jay. I'm excited about this. Thanks man. Take care.

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