Hal Real was on his way out the door of the World Cafe Live on March 13 when he paused to listen to guitarist Trace Bundy and ponder an uncertain future.
“I choked up for a second,” said Real, who founded the University City venue in 2004. “I thought, ‘Wow, am I not going to hear live music in this building for a while?’ But if you told me then, ‘Yeah, at least not until the end of this year,’ I would have laughed at you.”
Nobody’s laughing now. The coronavirus pandemic’s devastating impact on the concert business continues with no end in sight. After nearly six months without shows, independent venues in Philadelphia and around the country are on the edge of extinction.
How bad is it?
The National Independent Venue Association (NIVA), cofounded by Real this spring as the pandemic approached, has grown to include over 2,600 venues and promoters, including Philly-area clubs like Union Transfer, City Winery, South Jazz Kitchen, MilkBoy Philly, the Fire, and Ardmore Music Hall.
When polled, 90% said they would have to close permanently by the end of 2020 if COVID-19 prevented them from reopening and they didn’t receive assistance from the federal government.
Most clubs in Philadelphia have so far avoided shutting down permanently by negotiating rent reprieves, cutting costs dramatically, or, in cases like Fishtown’s Johnny Brenda’s, relying on food and beverage sales.
Christianna LaBuz, who booked acts at City Winery before she was furloughed in July after postponing and rescheduling hundreds of shows — “some like five or six times” — said the staff there had been cut from 130 to zero.
This week, Warmdaddy’s, the Pennsport blues club owned by brothers Robert Bynum and Benjamin Bynum Jr., closed after 25 years. The club is searching for a new location to open in Center City in the fall, a spokesperson said. South Jazz Kitchen, the Bynums’ North Broad Street venue and restaurant, is open for takeout food only.
“We’re in grave danger,” says Dayna Frank, NIVA president and owner of First Avenue, the Minneapolis venue closely associated with Prince. “We’re trying to preserve the ecosystem of independent venues, promoters, and live music.”
The havoc wrought by COVID-19 “is an existential threat to the entire music industry, but especially the independents,” says Frank. Across the concert business, she says, revenue is down 96% compared to last year.
In the live music business, “independent” generally refers to small to medium-size entities that are not Live Nation or AEG, the two dominant promoters that present the lion’s share of big shows in arenas and amphitheaters, both locally and nationally.
“We don’t have corporate parents, we don’t have ancillary companies,” says Frank, and the clubs run on small profit margins in the best of times.
She calls the concert business “a post-vaccine industry” that will return to normalcy only when safety is assured for bands and fans. And until then, indie venues need help.
“Could it be worse?” asks Dave Brooks, who covers the concert industry for Billboard. “I don’t know. Probably things could always be worse. But there’s just no certainty in the industry about the virus right now.”
He expects Live Nation and AEG Live will survive, “though lots of people at those companies will lose their jobs.” He’s less sure independents will make it.
The relief that venues need to survive could come through three bills that have been introduced in Congress with bipartisan support.
Most prominent is the Save Our Stages act, a $10 billion grant program that would provide up to 45% of a business’ operating budget from the previous year. NIVA also supports the small-business loan ReStart Act and the Encores Act, which would help venues recoup lost ticket sales.
Save Our Stages was introduced in the Senate in July by Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D., Minn.) and John Cornyn (R., Texas). Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer touted it on The Late Late Show with James Corden. Of the bill’s 28 Senate cosponsors to date, only Delaware’s Sen. Chris Coons is from this region, according to Congress.gov. The House of Representatives’ version has 90 cosponsors, including Dwight Evans and Brendan Boyle (both D., Phila.) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R., Bucks and Montgomery).
Lady Gaga, Diplo, David Byrne, Trombone Shorty, Billie Eilish, and Mavis Staples have voiced solidarity with NIVA, which is represented in Washington by powerhouse lobbying firm Akin Gump.
In Philadelphia, venues formerly in hot competition have bonded over their shared peril.
“Prior to this there was no sort of coalition of independent venues,” says R5 Productions founder Sean Agnew, who is part owner of Union Transfer and Boot & Saddle. “It’s the one positive that’s come out of the smoldering ashes of all these canceled shows.”
“Now there’s a unified voice,” says Jesse Lundy of Point Entertainment, which books the Locks At Sona in Manayunk and the ongoing drive-in concert series (through October) at People’s Light in Malvern.
NIVA has also spurred the creation of a locals-only organization to work on behalf of indie interests: PIVOT, for Philadelphia Independent Venues Organizing Together.
“We’ve had initial discussions with David Oh’s office and he’s been very helpful so far,” says Kerri Park, who’s general manager of World Cafe Live and a driving force in PIVOT. (Philly Councilmember-at-large Oh was also the founder of the Philadelphia Music Task Force, created in 2017 to help drive this segment of the creative economy.)
“Right now, we’re in complete survival mode,” Park says. “But we’re also telling the story about the economic impact of independent venues in the city and how that makes Philadelphia a music city.”
Last week, Mayor Jim Kenney announced that performance venues would be allowed to open on Sept. 8 with a maximum of 25 people in the audience and no food or drink served.
The announcement came as a surprise. “It’s a nice little step in the right direction,” says Agnew. “But the numbers don’t add up.” No one The Inquirer has talked to is even thinking of reopening under these restrictions.
Agnew estimates that Union Transfer, which holds 1,000, would need to be at half capacity to make a show worthwhile, particularly with the extra costs for new safety measures.
“It’s not financially viable,” says Park. ”Until you can walk up to the bar and get a beer and feel safe, it doesn’t make sense to open. What we need is support so we can hold out until then.”
At Union Transfer, Agnew thinks the earliest show that might have a chance of happening is L.A. band STRFKR on Jan. 30. Other industry observers don’t expect any semblance of normalcy until at least next spring, with lots of local and regional acts headlining as business ramps up.
Then there’s the concern that when shows do come back, they’ll never be the same. “Our lives are going to be segmented into pre-COVID and post-COVID,” says LaBuz. “I feel sorry for my nieces and nephews. Will they ever be able to go to a sweaty rock show, where people are body to body, and feel that energy?”
The hope is that Save Our Stages can help preserve the places where those shows have happened.
“We are certainly fighting toward that solution,” says Rev. Moose of the New York marketing firm Marauder, who’s NIVA’s executive director. “I’m just praying that Congress will pass the Save Our Stages act.”