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Will Philly’s indie venues have to give up their independence to survive?

Marc Geiger, co-founder of the Lollapalooza festival in the 1990s, has formed SaveLive, a venture that he has called a “bailout solution” to the national indie venue crisis. But it comes with strings.

Chris Perella, talent buyer and operating partner at Ardmore Music Hall.
Chris Perella, talent buyer and operating partner at Ardmore Music Hall.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

This summer, the live-music business advocacy group NIVA, the National Independent Venue Association, sounded an alarm: Without financial assistance from the government, 90% of the nation’s independent venues that had shuttered during the pandemic would close permanently by the end of the year.

Time is running out, and the money has yet to appear. Sean Agnew, who co-owns and books busy Philly indie rock rooms Union Transfer and Boot & Saddle, said in a NIVA statement recently that his venues are “not months, but weeks away” from going under.

But suddenly, a lifeline is being thrown. Marc Geiger, a well respected music business mahoff who was a cofounder of the Lollapalooza festival in the 1990s and until June head of powerhouse music talent agency WME, has formed SaveLive, a venture that he has called a “bailout solution” to the indie venue crisis.

With $75 million in initial investment from financial backers, Geiger plans to buy up 51% interest in dozens of endangered clubs around the country, ensuring the continued existence of the small venues that are the lifeblood of the concert industry.

“The hope,” Geiger told the New York Times, “is to create a network effect. To be a longterm backer, helper, grower of these businesses and enjoy the wins.”

With revenues dried up since March — “We’re losing tens of thousands of dollars every month,” says Ardmore Music Hall partner and talent buyer Chris Perella — many venues around the country will find Geiger’s offer tantalizing.

“People are going to take Marc up on it,” says Dave Brooks, who covers the concert business for Billboard. Brooks estimates that with $75 million, Geiger could buy anywhere from 40 to 80 distressed venues across the United States, with that number going higher if SaveLive is only acquiring the businesses themselves, and not any underlying real estate.

But Perella and other key players on Philly’s club scene are skeptical. They’re not keen to exchange their independence for assurances of financial security — unless they are ultimately left with no alternative.

In a business where profit margins are thin when times are good, “we’ve got venues closing every day around the country,” says the World Cafe Live’s Hal Real, who’s a cofounder of NIVA, which has more than 2,800 members in the U.S.

Real has no intention whatsoever of giving up World Cafe Live’s independence. Still, he feels for other club owners who might need to buy in. “Everyone has to make their own choice” he says. “You can fall on your sword about being independent and be out of business, or you can look at this as a lifeline. It’s a Sophie’s Choice.”

» READ MORE: Coronavirus has put Philly indie music venues at risk. What will the future look like?

Being “independent” is generally understood to refer to clubs and promoters that are not part of the network of Live Nation or AEG, the dominant companies in the concert business.

“Once you become part of a chain,” says Real, “and become part of 10 or 20 venues, decision making is not going to be local. It’s going to be centralized. And you’re not a local independent venue at that point.”

Ardmore’s Perella says he gets the appeal of a model like SaveLive for those in dire straits.

“The choice of giving up a big chunk of your freedom and knowing you have a future and your staff has a job to come back to, I can’t fault anybody for looking at that as a real opportunity," he says. "But as somebody who’s worked really hard to build something myself, the idea of giving up 51% to what is basically a miniature Live Nation model, it makes my skin crawl.”

SaveLive is said to be in negotiations with dozens of venues around the country, but none of the Philly-area venues interviewed for this story had been in contact with them.

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“I haven’t heard or seen any of the details of Marc’s plan,” said Agnew via email. “But the colleagues I have spoken to are very skeptical. It may be an option if an owner has NO OTHER choices, but turning over total control of your indie music venue to an investment fund is certainly not going to be appealing to most small business people.”

Still hanging in there

At NIVA’s virtual Save Our Stages fund-raising festival last month, Neil Young narrated a video in which the names of scores of closed venues scrolled on the screen, including the Rex Theater in Pittsburgh and Chameleon Club in Lancaster.

Philly venues have largely avoided going under, hanging on while holding out hope that proposed Save Our Stages legislation will come through nationally and at the state level.

The $10 billion federal bill, designed to provide performing arts venues with six months of operating expenses, has passed in the House of Representatives and has broad bipartisan support in the U.S. Senate. With Election Day behind us, “there’s going to be another small-business relief package,” says Real, and Save Our Stages will be included.

In Pennsylvania, Rep. Jake Wheatley, a Democrat from Pittsburgh, has introduced a Save Our Stages bill that would provide $200 million in grants.

As a nonprofit, World Cafe Live is well positioned to resist a SaveLive bailout offer because it’s eligible for charitable donations.

The same goes for the Mann Center, which anticipates Save Our Stages assistance. “We’re hurting,” says Catherine M. Cahill, CEO and president of the Mann. “Like everybody else, we’re in dire need of help.” The venue is also working toward raising $2.5 million in a Let the Music Play resiliency fund. “And we will get to that $2.5 million, come hell or high water.”

The Ardmore Music Hall is holding its own because Perella co-owns the Lancaster Avenue building and is also partners in the Ripplewood restaurant and 118 North in Wayne, which has been staging outdoor shows under a tent this fall. AMH is also growing its livestreaming business and undergoing renovations it hopes will allow for reduced-capacity shows this winter, COVID-19-capacity regulations permitting.

Wincing at 51%

When William Reed, who co-owns Johnny Brenda’s with his partner Paul Kimport, first learned of SaveLive, what made him wince was “51%.”

“You can’t put it out there as altruistic if you’re taking 51%,” says Reed. “You would give up all control.”

Like other Philly venues, “we value our independence so much,” says Reed. Johnny Brenda’s is a bar and restaurant as well as music room, and Kimport and Reed’s properties include nearby Standard Tap and the International.

Food and beverage revenue from takeout and outdoor dining should help them save JB’s music venue for when shows do come back, Reed says. This summer, he invested in not one but three frozen-drink machines when to-go cocktails were a principal earner.

“Music is so much a part of the soul of the place,” Reed says. “We’ve made the choice to remain independent, and it’s not an easy choice in the best of times.

“So when it comes to this idea of saving venues by buying them out, I guess that would be preferable to people to seeing the venues turned into a CVS … [but] it’s not something we would entertain. We’ll do whatever it takes to remain independent.”