Over a year after the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, independent music venues are still struggling to reopen. I’ve spent the last two decades involved in the New York nightlife scene, first working for a concert producer and then on my own as an independent local promoter. My partner and I built a dedicated community in the New York area through music festivals and eclectic concert series we produced in partnership with organizations like SummerStage, Lincoln Center and the Town Hall. During the early days of Drom, we were not exactly starting from scratch, but now that we had a permanent address, we knew we had to approach it differently.
The period we are living through today reminds me of that time over a decade ago when we had grand ambitions before opening our independent space but had no idea how the local community would respond to our programs. We did it before. But can we do it again? In order to find a path forward from the havoc caused by the pandemic, I went back to past touchstones to chart a course for what lies ahead.
Approach the Problem as a Community
Independent music venues, cabaret clubs and underground DIY spaces far from touristy areas are often venues with no corporate backing, little cash and no public funding. They’re small businesses with niche-specific cultural programming. Last year there were rays of light, however small, when many states allowed venues to reopen with very limited capacity for a brief period of time. However, due to Covid-19 spikes, those same venues closed rather quickly. There was no national touring in sight, and venues relied on local talent for their programs. Convincing musicians to perform at that time was difficult. I was reminded, once again, that we are a community.
Unless all members of the independent music community — from artists to fans, venue staff and promoters — are on board, none of us can truly come back.
Unlike major or independent record labels and publishers, the live music industry was never great at voicing its needs. The pandemic changed that. Groups like the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) and the National Independent Talent Organization (NITO) all formed in the aftermath of the pandemic. Even major promoters and agencies formed a coalition, Save Live Events Now. Now that these exist, I expect we will not go back. These collective groups helped smaller businesses navigate red tape, created resources and opened communication lines with city and state officials. The effects were felt immediately with the passage of the SOS Act in the second stimulus bill last year. More than anything, it united us.
It showed we are in this together, and we can use our collective voice and efforts as an industry to advocate and evoke change. We should continue to support our community through partnerships, coalitions and groups, which can provide valuable support and resources.
Open (Safely) and They Will Come
No business can survive with little to zero income for over a year with mounting expenses. Cash flow has always been a challenge for independent proprietors. This pandemic only reinforced that. Many venue owners are considering applying to the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant (SVOG), which opened on April 8, 2021. Already, many venues will open deep in the red. Many of us tried livestreams, makeshift outdoor cafes, dine-in bubbles and other creative ideas, but nothing could replace the real value of concerts — the communal experience of seeing and hearing live music.
The susceptibility of live shows to unexpected events like a pandemic should not be forgotten. Current and future proprietors need to diversify and find new ways of attracting customers, recalibrating events for seated/standing shows, creating outdoor spaces and finding more channels to monetize their venue operations through digital means. The pandemic will pass. To adapt an adage to our times, open safely and they will come.
Recognize the Shared Passion
Many independent venues and promoters went into the concert business for one simple reason: It is a passion. The pandemic taught us valuable lessons about the culture of our community. We need to recognize this shared passion, which is what makes independent venues unique. Naturally, there is a lot of uncertainty ahead of us. We cannot wait to play host to artists performing their craft again and share it with the public.
People have congregated in groups to enjoy music for centuries: in outdoor amphitheaters in ancient Greece, in churches and courts during the Renaissance, in ballrooms and theaters in the Jazz age, and in clubs, arenas and open-air festivals in the new millennium. Live music defined itself in the context of physical environments before. We can all collectively and individually shape the future of our culture and define again the new normal — our normal.