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Federal Help For Indie Music Venues Nears A Red Line Amid Congressional Deadlock

Photo illustration of The Station Inn by Paul Schatzkin

When Congressional negotiations broke down last week on a new round of economic aid and stimulus to a Covid-ravaged nation, America’s theaters, clubs and bars saw their hopes for survival dim a bit. Yet the recently formed National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) continues to press its case for two bipartisan bills its says could buy their members badly needed time and credit.

“It’s not too late. We’re not done,” NIVA spokesperson Audrey Fix Schaefer told WMOT on Monday. “All of NIVA is still engaged. Artists should know to send their fans to SaveOurStages.com now.” There, individuals can generate emails to their members of Congress on behalf of the measures aimed at saving the precarious performing arts infrastructure. Without this aid, NIVA’s survey of its 2,500 members suggests that without help after six months of shutdown, 90% of all indie venues would be forced to shutter permanently.

A bill co-sponsored by conservative Texas Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) and liberal Democrat Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) carries the name Save Our Stages Act. Its $10 billion grant program would specifically aid venue operators, promoters, producers and talent agents. Recipients would have to show they’re small businesses, addressing concerns that prior aid packages ostensibly for mom and pops went to aid large corporations. Complimenting that is the RESTART Act, also with bi-partisan sponsors, is a program of flexible loans for business that have no revenue, fixed overhead and large numbers of part-time employees, such as seasonal amphitheaters. Schaefer says NIVA, working with a leading Washington lobby firm and allied industry groups such as the Recording Industry Association of America, is expecting those to ride along with whatever major relief package Congress works out.

“We don’t have stockholders to rely on and we don’t have enormous lines of credit,” said Schaefer, who in regular times is communications director for several venues in Washington, DC, including the famed 9:30 Club. “We are the small mom and pop businesses that take the risk on ourselves and have been able to do that very well over the years. We have withstood economic downturns and 9/11 and mass shootings, the gas crisis and mortgage crisis and changes in taste in music. We’ve been able to recalibrate and bounce back. But there’s absolutely no bouncing back from this on our own.”

Artists, including many in Music City, have stepped up on this issue perhaps above all others, because Covid is an existential threat to the lifeblood of music culture and their performing careers. More than 600 artists, including Kacey Musgraves, Miranda Lambert and Chris Stapleton, signed a letter in June imploring Congress for immediate aid. “Independent venues give artists their start, often as the first stage most of us have played on,” it says, “These venues were the first to close and will be the last to reopen.”

NIVA, which was formed in March, and an equally young counterpart, the National Independent Talent Organization, have been activating artists to speak directly to their fans via email lists and social media to support their efforts with grassroots lobbying. “It’s really time to call your congressman or woman,” said bluegrass Americana star Tim O’Brien via Facebook late last week. “Urge them to pass the RESTART Act. All those businesses, the clubs, the booking agents, the musicians themselves, all need some help during this time. If any one of them crashes, then the whole thing comes down.”