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Music Venues Hang On With Slender Hopes As A Devastating 2020 Comes To A Close


David Byrne once wrote that music’s evolution is shaped by the spaces it occupies, filling rooms and halls the way water takes the shape of its vessel. Artists, he observed, “work backward, either consciously or unconsciously, creating work that fits the venue available to us.” And what if no venues were available? He doesn’t say, because before the horrible, terrible, never-to-be-forgotten year of 2020, it would have seemed like a preposterous thought.

The shutdown of performances in America has devastated the music business, threatened its infrastructure long-term, and unnerved its professionals across all sectors. The crisis began in March, when the scale and severity of the global Covid-19 pandemic became clear. In a vertigo-inducing week, the entire live entertainment industry - from megatours to Broadway to coffee houses - went dark. The fate of mid-sized independent venues is particuarly precarious, because they represent the rungs on the ladder every artist must climb as they build an audience, as well as being anchors of developing neighborhoods and tourist economies like Nashville's.

Nine months later, an undetermined number of venues have shuttered for good, including Douglas Corner in Nashville, with the rest hanging on precariously (a running list can be found at Billboard.com). Thousands of musicians, tech crew and service staff are without work in Music City. Venues have pursued a variety of survival strategies, sometimes in conflict, increasingly in solidarity. Several local initiatives have provided survival funding to the independent venues in Music City. But now it’s winter, bringing the worst surge of Covid yet and desperately needed targeted federal aid is mired in a political crisis on Capitol Hill. It’s a deeply perilous time.

“They’re closing weekly at this point,” Chris Cobb, owner of Nashville’s Exit/In, tells WMOT about the venue situation nationally. Cobb, who’s been a leading advocate for venue interests locally, is part of conference calls with NIVA, the National Independent Venue Association, which launched in April to represent this previously unorganized sector on Capitol Hill. Cobb says those meetings now often include debriefs from devastated owners who’ve been forced to pull the plug. “There’s tears as you can imagine. It’s just so moving,” he said. “It’s a chilling and sad yet bittersweet reminder (of) how much love and care a lot of these people give. They make our cities and towns and world such a better and more vibrant place.”

What NIVA is doing at the federal level, MVAN set out to do locally. The Music Venue Alliance Nashville brought together 15 music rooms in late spring and has become a critical advocacy, resource-sharing and fund-raising operation. First, it pulled together an economic case for the city’s stake in their survival, noting that its members paid out $5.2 million to 46,000 local and touring performers across 5,600 shows in 2019, not to mention almost $2 million to the city in liquor and sales tax in 2019 alone. The venues were able to take advantage of the first wave of federal relief through forgivable Payroll Protection Act loans, but those funds dried up by late summer.

Then in late August, the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corporation spearheaded a six-week string of livestream shows from the indie venues in a web-based fundraiser called Music City Bandwidth. Between mid-September and October 31, the program rented all MVAN venues at least twice rooms and paid staff and artists while canvassing for donations. The CVC says it hasn’t totaled up its full financial impact (and the fund drive is ongoing) but that it delivered tens of thousands of dollars plus promotional support to the music rooms. “It was a must have at that point,” Cobb said. “Many of us were weeks away from being completely out of cash. The timing was critical.”

Then in early September, Nashville's Metro Council directed $2 million of its discretionary federal CARES Act funds to venues. That money took a while to get in the pipeline, but grants hit the banks in early November and then again on December 3. Another privately organized initiative has been Drive The Music, an donations campaign sponsored and marketed by Two Rivers Ford.

All this “bought everybody a few months,” Cobb says. “That’s kind of what we’ve been seeing. We’ve been able to piece a handful of initiatives together. And each one has given us a little more runway – a month or six weeks or eight weeks. We’ve been piecemealing these together.”

All the while, individual venues have adjusted with the tools and limits available to them. 3rd & Lindsley, for example, has been staging shows with less than half capacity and strict rules about entry and exit, masking and staff conduct. City Winery tried shows in its big room but found more success by erecting a ventilated tent in its parking lot. Some, like Rudy’s Jazz Room and the historic Bluebird Cafe are so small that in-person shows of any size have been impossible, though the Bluebird has reached the world with some limited online shows and partnership Bluebird At Third shows at 3rd & Lindsley.

The Station Inn found its survival strategy relatively early, firing up its existing Station Inn TV streaming subscription service for nightly gigs webcast around the world in a mix of paid and tips-only shows. Marketing manager Jeff Brown told WMOT that even though most shows have only 10 to 20 people in the room, thousands of fans of bluegrass and the club have watched on line and been generous to artist and venue alike. “Those things really created some excellent traction for us to be able to both support musicians and also ensure that we’re going to be all right in the near and hopefully far future as well,” he said.

Running alongside venue-specific efforts, Nashville’s chapter of the Artist Rights Alliancehas been looking out for the songwriters and performers themselves. While a $1 million program of small grants to artists and live music crew foundered in late November, they’re pressing forward for support from the state. Nashville-based ARA Grassroots and Education Co-Director Chelsea Crowell said that obviously artists have a massive stake in the survival of the venues.

“When it’s time to go back to work, if musicians don’t have a place of work, that’s a crisis,” she said. “I also have a fear issue – the fact that when touring starts back up it’s going to be a competitive thing. If the independent venues are diminished, there’s going to be greater competition for touring, in an industry that was already incredibly competitive in the first place.”

Crowell’s co-director Erin McAnally told WMOT that “everyone’s struggling to survive right now. Long term, the artists and the stagehands and the bartenders – nobody survives in the fields they’re in, if the venues don’t survive. We’re very concerned.”

Another of those affected artists, Elizabeth Elkins, is half of the duo Granville Automatic and an informed observer of the venue dynamic as president of the preservationist non-profit Historic Nashville. She’s trying to see over the horizon to renewed prospects for federal help and arrival of Covid-19 vaccines, which began shipping to states this week. “With this tiny little light at the end of the tunnel, I think people have a bit more of a timeline in their head,” she says. “Like if (they) can get through April, things are going to be really different. I’m hopeful that gives Washington a bit more of a guide so there can be relief for venues.”

The federal picture is complex, but venue owners are optimistic because the $10 billion Save Our Stages Acthas been endorsed by leaders from both political parties and has been included in virtually every proposal bouncing back and forth between Democratic and Republican negotiators in the agonizingly slow movement toward a new omnibus aid package. NIVA members will be participating in a hearing on the live entertainment industry Tuesday morning at 9 am CT in the Senate Commerce Committee. “Optimism about a deal getting hammered out to provide some emergency economic relief has risen on Capitol Hill,” the Washington Post reported on Monday.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org