The economy is crumbling, entire sectors of the economy have become fragile and are teetering on total collapse. We often think primarily about our food and financial sector, we worry about our kids falling behind in school, the extreme profit motives of the healthcare industry are on full display–both in regards to the cost of COVID treatment and the elective surgeries business that keeps the hospitals operating. We think about where our money is being spent and who is raking it in during these times, but we often overlook our creatives and the establishments that provide a place for them to show their talents. We think of music and the arts as a luxury that doesn’t matter in times of desperation. We couldn’t be more wrong.
Trump and our Congress has been incapable of getting the funding needed to small businesses all over the country and there’s concern that over 40% of small businesses could close permanently over the next six months due to the global pandemic. Not that there has been a problem getting billions in bailouts to fortune 500 companies and our financial institutions; “trickle-down” is still the preferred method of approach for our governing leaders when doling out relief funds. This is a strategy that’s been implemented time and time again during economic fallout and every time ends in making matters worse (see President Hoover’s approach to the Great Depression and Bush approach to Wall Street Bailout of 2008) it’s the move preferred by the banks and corporate elites that have bought our politicians. If you think Jamie Dimon (JP Morgan Chase) and Lloyd Blankfein (Goldman Sachs) among others give a flying fuck about some independent music promotors or 500 capacity local music venue you’re delusional. Trump could give a shit about touring rap acts that have lost 100% of their income because they can’t tour for their new album.
Truth is though, arts and cultural events have a massive impact on the national economy. Between 2015-2017 the arts and culture industry grew at nearly 4.45% annually which is more than double the rate of the US economy. The industry itself contributes more to the US economy than our agricultural sector (fucking insane) and more than our construction, transportation, and warehousing industries combined as well. The industry in 2017 employed over 5 million Americans and exported $30 billion more than the US imported in arts/cultural goods and services. Titans of industry!
The statistics on the importance of the arts and cultural industry can’t be ignored, however perhaps even more vital is the influence the arts and culture have on our sanity and well-being as Americans. We’ve created the most influential music and art in the world for a hundred years, yet you hear little from lawmakers about how they intend to provide relief to those that create and entertain for a living. What’s more is what will this leave us with in the end? We see what Amazon and Walmart have done with retail prior to the pandemic and how they’re capturing an even greater share of retail consumption since lockdown. The live music industry could see the same devastating effect.
“We need to organize ourselves so we can have a loud enough place that we can actually, you know, get some relief. Because if not, this whole thing is over. We’re all out of business. We’re all done, and it’s gonna be a Live Nation world,” said Steve Sternschein, founder of Heard Presents, the local company that runs downtown Austin music venues Empire and the Parish.
Personally, fuck Live Nation. They’ve been culture vultures since the beginning and if you hate how much your favorite pop artist tickets cost, blame Live Nation. They’ve been gobbling up the industry for years prior to COVID-19 and just like Amazon and Walmart you know they’re looking at this moment as an opportunity to eat up all the “little guys” and complete their monopolistic plan for the industry.
Like so many sectors of the economy, a chaotic event such as COVID-19 has workers locking arms in solidarity to get through the situation. The music venues around the country are no different, the National Independent Venue Association has formed through the collaboration of over 1,300 charter members across 50 states to lobby for expanded relief during this economic collapse. NIVA, in their Letter to Congress, explained that according to a Chicago study, every $1 spent on a ticket to a show creates $12 of economic activity. NIVA takes it’s time to lay out precisely how damaging it will be to the economy and society as a whole if independent music venues aren’t preserved through a myriad of potential relief opportunities that they list in their letter to Congress.
Venues were some of the first businesses to close as COVID reached the US and states began their shutdown orders and NIVA predicts they’ll be the last to reopen (many venues believe they won’t reopen until 2021). They can’t simply open the doors and be back to making money after a couple weeks or a month, they have to book events, promote the event and fill out the lineup for the show, all this takes months to do adequately. If we hope to have live music in the future, we will have to subsidize their operating costs in one way or the other until venues can be back to 100% occupancy. Most venues can’t cover their rent at 25% or 50% occupancy. The actual margins for profit when it comes to running a venue, like so many vital things in our society, are razor thin and undervalued.
A recent article in the Chicago Reader with Billy Helmkamp the owner of several venues in Chicago talks about NIVA and how things are looking for the future of live music, “…when we’re allowed to reopen, we’re gonna be doing so at a very diminished capacity. The writing’s on the wall—a lot of venues aren’t gonna make it through this,” Billy explained.
The impact goes far beyond the economic and job loss factor, this issue cuts to the core of our cultural impact in the world. The US is known the world over as the place where the greatest artists create and push the boundaries, if a city like Austin loses it’s music scene, then the world loses the world’s capital for live music. Fuckin’ Stevie Ray Vaughn man, you can’t let that happen. What will happen to Nashville? New Orleans? Chicago? Portland? New York? LA? If something isn’t done, we could see a tragedy greater than the pandemic as a result of nowhere for punk kids to slam into each other.
“What we know for sure is that if we don’t get enough disaster relief funding, there will be no music economy in Austin.”-Rebecca Reynolds, director of the Music Venue Alliance of Austin in an article from Austin 360.
Rebecca also explained how simple the situation really is when it comes down to it, “It’s really not complicated,” she said. “I keep beating a dead horse. We need money. We need disaster relief funding. We don’t need a program to apply for. We don’t need to talk about return on investment. That’s not what disaster relief is supposed to be predicated on.”
Notice when it comes to the airline industry, oil industry, big pharma, or just about any other industry that has power in Washington, they don’t have to jump through hoops to get money, and forget whether they even need the bailout money to begin with. Hopefully the establishment of NIVA will influence other venues to join together and demand the relief that’s desperately needed.
As someone who’s worked many years in a music venue and the music industry at large, I can’t begin to explain how imperative it is that we save these small to midsize venues from collapse. It’s where all the great artists of your childhood and present day come from. These places are the watering hole for creativity and networking as well as a source of income for millions and millions of Americans. You hear stories about uncles who saw The Stones play at a dive bar in their hometown, or how Jack White got his start in such and such bar in Detroit. Those stories need to continue, young and old need to be able to see the next great rap group perform at their local haunt. If we place all our focus on simply supporting the major financial sectors and leave the arts and cultural aspects of our society to fend for themselves we’ll be building a dystopian future that no one is going to want to be a part of. It’s as simple as that.