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Independent Music in Peril

Issue 258

Non-corporate venues are fighting for survival while artists have nowhere to perform.

Olivia Riggio Oct 8

For Bronx-based rapper and multimedia artist Dominic “DOMO SXCRAZY” Queen, creation and performance are a means of therapy. He had plans throughout the spring and summer to play shows around the city and even festivals throughout the country, but after the second week of March hit, every performance was swiftly cancelled.

“Pretty much, in an instant, all of it stopped,” he says. “All of it was taken away from me in an instant, and that really messed me up.”

Queen frequented independent venues like the Starr Bar in Brooklyn and played shows booked by Brooklyn Wildlife, an independent arts curation organization. But coronavirus shutdowns have caused the live music industry to go on an indefinite hiatus. Indie venues have been forced to close their doors, often with negative revenue after refunding ticket sales.

The prognosis is bleak. Ninety percent of independent venues across the United States say they’ll have to permanently close their doors if they don’t receive aid in the next few months. Many already have, according to the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA), a coalition of indie venues across the country formed as a response to the virus’s devastating impact on these cultural hubs.

Its members and allies are demanding Congress pass two pieces of legislation — the RESTART Act and the Save Our Stages Act to ensure their survival.

Rev. Moose, executive director of NIVA and managing partner and co-founder of Marauder, an independent booking firm, began hosting weekly virtual town hall- style meetings with independent venues and promoters at the beginning of the pandemic.

“We were like, ‘Hey, I think we’re all screwed. We have got to take this to D.C. Who is fighting for us in D.C.?’” says Moose, recalling NIVA’s formation. “We realized there was no one. So, you have to do it yourself when there aren’t other options.”

The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) failed to meet the needs of independent venues, Moose said, because the lion’s share of the expenses venues face concern rents, mortgages, insurance, overhead and carrying costs — not payroll.

The two pieces of legislation the group is pushing for are similar, but differ in specificity to the music industry. The RESTART Act, introduced by Todd Young (R- IN) and Michael Bennet (D-CO) in the Senate and Jared Golden (D-ME) and Mike Kelly (R-PA) in the House, would expand the PPP and allow small businesses to take out forgivable loans to help them stay afloat.

The Save Our Stages Act, introduced by Senators John Cornyn (R-TX) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), is a $10 billion grant program to aid venues, promoters, producers, managers and booking agents whose businesses were decimated by the pandemic. Both pieces of legislation have bipartisan support. They also have the backing of more than 600 artists, including the likes of Billie Eilish, Lady Gaga, The Black Keys, John Mayer, Dave Grohl and Neil Young. Together they’ve signaled their support for the legislation in a letter NIVA sent to Congress.

“These are not politically motivated” bills, says Moose. “This is economically motivated and culturally motivated. These are the venues in these local communities that host fundraisers and charity events. They’re rented out for birthday parties and weddings. They’re the ones that international artists come and play through. They host everyone from young upstarts to global phenomenons, and I think that every single member of Congress has been to a live event at some point or another, which has made it a lot easier to get their support. But without a vote, we have nothing.”

Independent venues are also incredibly important to local economies. Arts and culture contributed $877.8 billion — 4.5 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product — in 2017, according to the National Endowment for the Arts. The financial value arts and culture adds to the U.S. economy is about five times greater than that of the agricultural sector. While much of that revenue stems from big stadium performances, smaller clubs around the country make up a significant portion as well, bolstering local tourism and economies.

“Next to each independent venue that I had either booked a show at or had one of my friends play at, there’s a pizza shop, or there’s a hamburger or donut shop that everyone goes to and gives business to when the show closes,” says Yacine Niang, booking manager at Starr Bar. “It’s not just about the venue. It’s about art and culture and localized economies.”

Independent venues allow people like Niang to cut their teeth in the industry and practice their skills in a supportive and collaborative environment. They also create space for queer artists, femme artists and artists of color to share their art in a way the commercial music industry often restricts or rejects.

For Queen, independent spaces allowed him to leave the microcosm of Bronx hip-hop, share his art with diverse groups and listen to other genres of performance he may not have otherwise discovered.

“They kind of gave me a platform,” he says. “First, they showed me that it was okay to be yourself and brought different people together. But also, it was like, ‘It’s okay to be who you are, and enjoy other things outside of your realm.’”

Venues like Starr Bar also approach art from a social justice lens. The Bushwick venue opened in 2017, and its first event was a benefit for the Standing Rock Sioux #NoDAPL movement.

Yacine Niang (left), booking manager of Starr Bar, and Starr Bar co-proprietor McNair Scott are experimenting with new ways to safely stage performances at their Bushwick-based venue.
Photo: Sue Brisk

WHAT VENUES HAVE FACED

Caroline Olbert works doing live sound for ShapeShifter Lab, a music venue in Brooklyn. She moved across the country from California about a year ago to work in music and found herself jobless among millions of others this spring. She’s been relying on a combination of her savings, her family’s support, stimulus and unemployment checks and some freelance audio editing work.

“It felt like March came, and then after that first week, everything just hit,” Olbert says. “We had a couple of events at the end of the first week and into the second week and every single one of them cancelled, everybody went into quarantine, and my boss had to email everyone on staff and just be like, ‘Yeah, we’re not coming back next week. It’s indefinitely off.’”

ShapeShifter began hosting virtual shows this summer, which Olbert now sound-engineers, but occasionally bands have been forced to cancel their performances for various virus and non-virus-related reasons.

Starr Bar has also been hosting a series of virtual interviews in a series called Quarantine TV. The series focuses on various social justice and public health topics. Rev. Moose spoke with Niang during one episode about NIVA.

Remaining a social justice-based venue on a solely virtual platform has been a shift from the lively concerts and benefits of the past, says McNair Scott, co-proprietor of Starr Bar.

In the past, he says, visitors came to Starr Bar to “get together and network and celebrate. Every week, probably, if not more, we would have fundraisers. People would use the space to raise money for the things they were working on.” Recreating that atmosphere has proved tricky.

“We’ve put a lot of thought into how we’d do it and social media is sort of the best way we can replicate that now.”

With lockdown restrictions easing in New York City this summer, the Starr Bar team has been serving drinks and food to go, and the venue now occasionally holds outdoor dining events where bands and DJs play to a small crowd. Now, the issue of not attracting too many people is a cumbersome balancing act.

“People are trying a bunch of different things,” says Scott. “It’s just less vibrant.”

ARTISTS GRAPPLING MENTALLY & FINANCIALLY

With spaces to perform and network being forced to close their doors, artists’ careers are also a fraction of what they once were. Queen said that in the beginning of the shutdown, he struggled to create. The isolation and anxiety brought on by the crisis, the trauma from racial tensions across the country and the unfortunate timing of his laptop breaking plunged him into depression.

“I couldn’t DJ,” he says. “I couldn’t do nothing. My spirit was so low.”

Luckily, music was not Queen’s main source of income. For Mike Frazier, a Brooklyn drummer and dad, it was.

A few years ago, Frazier left the restaurant industry he had worked in for 23 years to pursue music full time. His wife, Nataliya is a music teacher. Frazier said he’s maintained a side hustle throughout the pandemic, but also found himself depressed after dealing with the death of his industry and the struggles his two young sons faced with remote learning.

“If there’s one word to describe how I’ve felt during this whole pandemic, it’s stranded. I’ve been stranded,” he says.

The family took advantage of the stimulus check, which, in reality, didn’t amount to much: “For a household of my size, it was literally one month of rent … It was less than my monthly expenses.”

One day over the summer, Frazier took his drums to the Parade Grounds near Prospect Park to practice. It felt good to play again and soon Frazier found himself calling friends to join him, which eventually led to him curating an outdoor concert series. As of September, it has taken place four days a week for 11 weeks. At first, Frazier was paying the patchwork of musicians he assembled out of pocket, but the buskers have since begun making enough money in tips.

Frazier is currently working through plans to apply for permits in order to continue the series next summer.

“In my heart, I’m satisfied and I feel really good,” he says. “And, weather permitting, for how long I can continue doing it, whenever it stops, I feel like we did something special and necessary for what’s happening.”

THE FUTURE OF INDEPENDENT EVENTS

Outdoor events, along with virtual events, may be the new normal for the foreseeable future. Both have pros and cons. Outdoor busking makes performances accessible to wide audiences, but artists may struggle with making profits in the form of voluntary tips.

When it comes to virtual events, Olbert says she sometimes finds it disheartening to be engineering a band in the empty venue and hearing the quality of the live sound, versus the way the band sounds through simple computer speakers. But it also allows venues to draw populations it may not have otherwise been able to draw, like those who live too far away to attend shows.

There’s also the benefit of accessibility for those with disabilities. Those who face limitations that previously prevented them from attending live shows can now enjoy live music from their homes.

Live virtual events, however, can’t continue without investments in the venues that host them. Balancing public health with artists’, bookers’ and venues’ need to maintain their livelihoods requires increased federal aid.

“We’re not saying that we have to be open,” says Moose. “What we’re saying is that we were forced closed and if we’re forced closed — and we’re going to continue to be closed as long as it makes sense because that’s for the good of our community — we just want the support to be able to do what’s right for our community.”

There’s also the fear that as these independent venues lose money, they will get bought out by large corporations like Live Nation and AEG Worldwide, dissolving local control of these spaces. Katherine “K.P.” Powell ran an independent venue in Asheville, N.C., and has managed independent bands on the road. She said she is not sure what the world of independent music will look like after the pandemic, but that a possibility could be corporate control of the once independent realm.

“We’ve seen them kind of come from the top and trickle down into much more pervasive control. I think there is a valid fear in the idea that with this economic collapse in small to mid-sized venues that a larger corporation with the funds could come up and buy them out and have much larger control of the industry than they already have,” she said.

It has happened already in regards to booking. In 2017, the corporate entity Goldenvoice (owned by AEG Worldwide) took over booking of the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, leading to layoffs of many of the historically independent venue’s employees. On the East Coast, AEG operates under monikers including The Bowery Presents, which books at Brooklyn Steel, Music Hall of Williamsburg, Rough Trade NYC and other venues that are owned independently.

Corporate control of booking independent venues may prevent scenes from developing organically, Powell said.

“In a scene that’s not dominated by this corporate curation, what’s worth investing in happens organically and happens based on what’s appealing to audiences and what’s appealing to the culture and what’s appealing to people on a local level,” she said.

Overall, Moose said, when venues are locally owned and operated, community members have more of a say in what artists come through, how much tickets and parking cost and even what food and drinks are served.

As protests against systemic racism continue, it is also important to remember these venues are community spaces to share art, culture and ideas. They help nurture the talent and bolster the voices of diverse groups of people in ways corporate, commercial venues and bookers do not.

“This is a conversation that’s intersectional,” Niang says.“As we talk about independent venues, it’s important to remember that many of them are locally owned. A lot of the venue owners are reflective of the communities they come from. And if we want Black artists, if we want queer artists, if we want women artists to be invested in and to be booked, we have to save independent venues.”

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