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Inside the Fight to #SaveOurStages: Independent Venues Struggle to Survive the Pandemic Year

The entrance to ONCE, which is now closed.
Anne M. Foley

The entrance to ONCE, which is now closed.

{shortcode-e249720cff1341cb76dc4bd9426fa60aa9b67a4b}efore the pandemic, ONCE in Somerville was known for its wild rock shows. One of its final concerts even saw the lead singer of a band then-called PowerSlut “jump off the stage and crowd surf into a rainbow unicorn inflatable kiddie pool,” says JJ Gonson, the venue’s owner.

Gonson loved to host events like this at her venue every week; however as a result of the pandemic, ONCE was forced to permanently close its doors. Having lost the lease for her space, Gonson doesn’t know when she’ll be able to get back to hosting bands like PowerSlut again, if ever.

As vaccination rates continue to rise, the prospect of live concerts returning within the year, or even this summer, is trending more realistic than optimistic each day. Exciting as this may be, it will have to happen without ONCE and the hundreds of other independent venues across the country who were unable to make it to the finish line — and many more may still join them.

Over the past year, independent venues have faced unique challenges in surviving the pandemic, and until recently, the federal government has done little to support them. The venues that have survived are hanging by a thread, held on the other end by the support of their communities and the tenacity of their owners. One light at the end of a long tunnel, however, has been the #SaveOurStages movement, which successfully advocated for a law which allocates $16.25 billion of government funds from the most recent stimulus bill for direct support to independent venues.

‘Where Careers Are Born’

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Remember your last live concert? No, not when you saw Maroon 5 for a national arena tour. I mean the last packed-crowd, jumping-up-and-down, sticky-floor, eardrum-blowing concert. These are the specialty of the independent venue, live event spaces not owned by corporations — the places that cater to local artists rather than national tours. Every world-famous band has to start somewhere, right?

Emily K. Ruddock is the executive director at MASSCreative, a statewide arts and cultural advocacy organization. From her years of experience working to ensure the health of Massachusetts’ cultural sector, Ruddock recognizes the unique importance of independent music venues.

“Independent live music venues are the places where careers are born. They are the places that are deeply embedded in their communities. They know the artists, they are champions of the artists...You don’t have musicians that have long careers without these folks. And it’s small, it’s super scrappy, but it matters. It matters,” she said.

One such venue is Wally’s Cafe Jazz Club in Boston, managed by Frank F. Poindexter. Wally’s has been family-owned and operated since 1947, when it was founded by Poindexter’s grandfather, Joseph L. Walcott, after he immigrated from Barbados. Wally’s was Boston’s first integrated jazz club and since its inception has helped countless aspiring jazz musicians get their start.

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“What he [Walcott] decided to do was go to the colleges that had music students studying jazz and match them with seasoned professionals who were already in here,” Poindexter said. “From the 60s until now, Wally’s has basically been known as the training ground for jazz music because of this incredible ecosystem of music education in Boston — you got Berklee College of Music, you got New England Conservatory, Boston Conservatory, Harvard has a great music program, Boston University has a great program, and a lot of number of the other institutions in the area. With that ecosystem, Wally’s is a venue where these musicians can practice to perfect their craft.”

The college students who perfected their craft at Wally’s over the years have gone on to play in big bands, win Grammys, and play late night shows like The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. Wally’s even gave rise to producers like Jeff Bhasker (Kanye West, Lady Gaga) and Neil Jacobson (Billie Eilish).

“It’s just a part of all the talent that comes to Wally’s...We do live music seven days a week, three bands a day. A large number of musicians who have been educated in this area have used the stage to create their career networks,” Poindexter said.

The Comedy Studio, a comedy club owned by Rick J. Jenkins, tries to provide a similar space for aspiring comedians to hone their craft. The Comedy Studio hosted shows up to six days a week in the space above Hong Kong in Cambridge for nearly 25 years, featuring the likes of then-Harvard students Colin Jost ’04, B. J. Novak ’01, and Dan Mintz ’02.

{shortcode-56d6755abbffd483132006aba8165b8447b474cf}After opening a larger dedicated space in Union Square two years ago, the Comedy Studio has tried to branch out into hosting comedy classes and workshops, alongside an open mic that aimed at giving up-and-coming comedians an opportunity to test new material and develop an audience, according to Jenkins.

“We're really trying to be more of a center for a comedy community… Independent venues are really the first stepping stone. Without the independent venue, there is no feeder system for entertainment as an industry,” Jenkins said.

‘A Sudden Loss of Community’

Those who operate independent venues are deeply invested in their local communities, hosting events that feature local talent and cater to local tastes.

Before the pandemic, Gonson enjoyed hosting a wide variety of community events at ONCE — from performances by local bands to a full production of Hair, the Boston Rock Opera, wrestling matches, and the Rock and Roll Rumble, a nine-night competition of local music.

Sam J. Epstein, the owner of another Somerville venue, The Jungle, looks forward to restartarting its Wednesday night open-mic tradition:

“So it’s kind of just a night for the musicians. We would see the same musicians coming back every Wednesday night, and that was the coolest thing for me because they weren’t booked to play, they were just a community of local musicians who heard about us, came by, and liked it… the music is always so reliable and such a great experience. And so that’s cool for me to see musicians performing one after another just all night long,” Epstein said.

Until the pandemic, the Regent Theatre in Arlington was in continuous operation for over a century. Its current owner, Leland D. Stein, emphasized its goal of bringing people together through music, theater, and film.

“When we were suddenly shut down last March, the financial devastation was real, but really what affected me personally more was the sudden loss of community,” he said.

Beyond conventional entertainment, the Regent has also been known to host baptisms, engagements, weddings, and even a sold-out Harvard symposium on “the revived interest in the use of psychedelic mushrooms and micro doses in psychotherapy,” including a feature film and panel discussion. Anything the community is interested in, the Regent is eager to support, Stein said.

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On the other hand, venues owned by corporations with shareholders and management bureaucracy have much less flexibility on the types of events they can host, tending to gravitate towards booking artists that are much more established. They’re unlikely to know about niche community interest or local artists who are up-and-coming, much less take a chance on them and book them to perform.

“The people who book our clubs know the local tastes...They can predict if this artist would be a good fit here to help develop. You have to know your audience, and you can’t know your audience by phoning it in or looking at a spreadsheet,” said Audrey Fix Schaefer, director of communications at the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA), a nonprofit coalition of independent venue owners that was formed at the start of the pandemic.

Although venues like House of Blues in Boston (owned by Live Nation, which is headquartered in California), or The Sinclair in Cambridge (owned by The Bowery Presents, headquartered in New York), might come to mind when one thinks of a “local concert venue” in the greater Boston area, they play a markedly different role in the music industry ecosystem than do independent venues like ONCE, albeit an equally important one.

“[Corporate venues] serve a very specific purpose, which is to bring touring acts to a certain level. There’s a lot of a lot of handshaking going on — I’ll book your band this time, but the next time this guy comes through, they come to me — It’s a whole thing. And it’s done with those people at a national level, as opposed to locally,” Gonson said. “An independent venue is sort of feeling through the market a little more on the ground, or maybe is actually headquartered in the place that it’s operated in.”

Unable to curate live events amidst the pandemic, many venue owners have turned to streaming shows to keep their communities together. Even without a physical space, ONCE has produced virtual programming on its YouTube channel, which has streamed over 100 shows with local artists.

“The whole motivation when we started this was really about not losing track of our community and making sure that artists were able to make art, and that we could support local music and all those things that we care about, because they are what keep us alive spiritually. And it actually really has helped a lot I think, personally. It helps a lot socially for us to feel like we can see each other and be together,” Gonson said.

Gonson has also worked to keep her community alive by helping to start Save MA Stages, the Massachusetts chapter of NIVA. The organization has disseminated information from NIVA, making sure as many venues as possible are able to take advantage of opportunities for support, and served as a meeting place for venue owners to collaborate and amplify their collective voice.

Falling Through the Cracks

Although independent venues play such an important role in local communities and the entertainment industry at large by giving local artists their start, they have struggled to stay afloat through the challenges of the pandemic.

Live entertainment venues were among the first businesses to shut down at the onset of the pandemic and will be the last to reopen. And, unlike restaurants or retail businesses, it’s virtually impossible for independent venues to make any income in the meantime. You certainly can’t call up a venue and order a live concert for curbside pickup.

“If there was no emergency relief from the federal government, 90 percent of NIVA venues expected that they would go under. Hundreds did — and hundreds did because the relief didn’t come fast enough,” said Fix Schaefer. Since March 2020, the arts and culture sector has reported over $15 billion in lost revenue nationally according to Americans for the Arts.

These staggering statistics are due in part to the nature of the live entertainment industry, which operates on incredibly thin margins and is highly competitive. Overwhelmingly, those who work in live entertainment take their profits in the shared appreciation of music, art, and cultural community, not cash. Breaking even is considered a success.

Even within the live entertainment industry, independent venues also face unique challenges compared to their corporate-owned counterparts. As Fix Schaefer explained, “Independent venues don’t have the financial backstops of publicly traded companies that have shareholders. Multinationals certainly have access to Wall Street credit lines that independent venues don’t.”

In the greater Boston area, venues have felt these challenges firsthand. According to Ruddock, alarm bells were already being wrung about the lack of creative space, with venues like The Middle East in Central Square going on sale.

“We’re seeing other venues that had been stalwarts of the independent music scene disappearing. I think the real tragedy of this moment is we saw an acceleration of that,” Ruddock said. Venues in Massachusetts reported $483 million in pandemic-related losses between March and November according to the Mass Cultural Council.

While these losses are significant in and of themselves, they multiply further considering the impact venues have on nearby restaurants, hotels, and stores, among other businesses. A 2019 economic impact study in Chicago showed that every dollar spent at a small music venues generated $12 of economic activity for area businesses.

“That’s an ‘oh wow’ kind of a statistic which tells elected officials that by giving support to a venue that’s been shuttered you are not just allowing it to hold on until it’s safe to reopen — you are protecting the economic engine that will drive renewal for your communities,” said Fix Schaefer.

This economic effect is not just about incentivizing locals to spend more money — it also comes from people traveling from out of town, out of state even, to attend an event. Restaurants and retail can’t drive tourism by themselves in the same way.

The erosion of small businesses as a result of the pandemic was not ignored by the federal government, but little attention was paid into how independent venues fit into the picture of general economic relief.

The $2 trillion CARES Act introduced the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), which provides forgivable loans from the government that businesses can use to stay afloat as their revenue takes a significant hit as a result of the pandemic. However, what poses an existential challenge for the live events industry is that independent venues are essentially ineligible to use these loans in their intended way.

Sixty percent of PPP loans must be used for payroll, and businesses have to either keep on their employees or rehire them at the end of their 24-week loan period in order to have the loan forgiven. For independent venues who have had no idea when they will be able to reopen and whose businesses have been illegal to operate in the interim, taking a PPP loan would likely do more harm than good. Such was the case for Wally’s, Poindexter said.

“At the time that opportunity was offered to us, the rules were still in fluctuation. So, for a small business owner, we would have had to take on possibly even more debt. And we would not have known what our obligation would be when the term of that loan became due,” he said.

In addition to direct federal aid, state governments also bear the responsibility of providing the necessary support to its businesses. However, State Sen. Ed Kennedy, a Democrat who co-chairs the Tourism, Arts, and Cultural Development Joint Committee of the Massachusetts State Legislature, explained that independent venues have had to compete with a wide array of interested parties for state funding.

“We’ve got the vaccine issue going on. Unemployment benefits are a big issue. And so there are other needs for public funds besides entertainment venues, so it will just be a matter of convincing everybody that these venues are important and that they should get some public funding,” he said.

Mercedes S. Roman-Manson, communications and marketing manager at the Massachusetts Live Events Coalition, also emphasized that beyond the businesses themselves, venues employ a large and diverse network of workers.

“There are technical staff, bussers, food and beverage staff, people that park cars, people that work the front of the house, merch people...wedding planners, event planners, rental companies, lighting companies, sound companies, it’s just a huge amount of people,” she said.

Compounding the danger to independent venues is the fact that many of their employees are contract workers who work on a 1099 tax basis rather than a W2, making it even more difficult to get pandemic unemployment assistance.

Fighting for Survival

In light of these unprecedented challenges, venue owners have had to become fierce advocates for their own businesses’ welfare.

This began last March, when a coalition of venue owners came together to form NIVA which has worked tirelessly to advocate for public support tailored to the needs of its now more than 3,000 independent venue members nationwide.

NIVA quickly launched the #SaveOurStages initiative, which sought to pressure Congress to enact tailored pandemic relief specific to independent entertainment venues. According to Fix Schaefer, NIVA worked with lobbying firm Akin Gump to inform its political strategy, and, through grassroots organizing and social media campaigns, was able to encourage over 2.1 million people to send emails for its cause. Yet, despite this early momentum, NIVA was unable to get legislation to the floor before Congress’s July 4 recess last year.

“We were just absolutely devastated. But we knew ‘Okay, they’ll come back, we’ll come back, and we’re gonna keep fighting for this,’ because we have no other choice,” Fix Schaefer said.

As the fight for the relief legislation, which came to be known as the Save Our Stages Act, was ongoing, NIVA also organized Save Our Stages Fest, a three-day virtual music festival that took place in October. This benefit event kickstarted a donation campaign for the NIVA Emergency Relief Fund, which has since raised over $3 million and offered grants to 153 venues.

Save Our Stages Fest was streamed simultaneously from more than 25 different independent venues across the country, each hosting artists like Miley Cyrus, Dave Matthews Band, and Demi Lovato, among others — many of whom had history at the venues at which they performed.

‘A Treasure We Can’t Lose’

Ted M. Kartzman, who works as Independent Music Partnerships Manager at YouTube (owned by Google), helped organize Save Our Stages Fest by sourcing equipment for all of the participating venues. The event was streamed using cameras donated by Google and supplied by Big Room TV, a company which has engineered artificial intelligence software that is able to autonomously operate several recording cameras, alternating different shooting angles and producing the final stream without any human intervention.

This technology helped to make the event safer for the performers by requiring less crew on hand. As an added benefit, venues who received this equipment were able to keep it permanently, enabling them to pursue their own streaming shows in a safe and cost effective manner and bring in revenue for the remainder of the pandemic.

Kartzman also facilitated equipment donations to Wally’s even though it was undergoing renovations at the time of Save Our Stages Fest because he had an experience there he’ll never forget.

“In the-mid 90s I was there, and I saw this incredible jazz meets funk night and just will never forget the venue. And that, to me, is the independent venue. They’ve been around for generations, and so many people have had these experiences. That’s a treasure that we can’t lose,” he said.

The Big Room TV equipment has enabled Wally’s to pursue streaming shows to make extra revenue while it remains closed.

“They’ve given us tremendous information on assisting us pivoting to a streaming service, and how to leverage the YouTube platform in order to present content to a wider audience, which could lead to merchandising opportunities,” Poindexter said.

Despite this generous donation from Google organized by Kartzman, Wally’s has survived primarily only through the tenacity of Poindexter’s family, who applied for small grants and debt funding to cover operational costs, and support from the local community, which recognized Wally’s irreplaceable cultural value by donating through GoFundMe.

Kennedy, the state senator, has also been working to help Massachusetts’ treasured independent venues by considering subsidies for reduced capacity operations for the summer.

“I’’ve been in touch with other senators in the Massachusetts Senate about seeing what venues are doing and what kind of money is going to be needed in order for them to be successful, or at least to stay in the black this year should they choose to operate,” he said.

Subsidizing reduced capacity events would enable venues to begin to rebuild their cultural community without having to toe the precarious line between safety and profitability. As Kennedy seeks support for this funding, venues can also apply for grants from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and Massachusetts Growth Capital Corporation.

‘Look Tough on Corona’

Although the Massachusetts state legislature and Mass Cultural Council has worked to make funding available for its arts and culture sectors, not all local governments have been as sympathetic. For Alexis Richardson, a musician and Somerville resident, not knowing when she will be able to perform again has taken a significant toll on her livelihood.

“We kind of feel like we’re not really being looked after and we’re not really being taken seriously,” she said.

According to the Mass Cultural Council, individual creative workers in Massachusetts have reported more than $20 million in lost income between March and November 2020. Artists like Richardson facing this challenge thought they could rely on the local government to consider their needs but for months, she said, the city of Somerville worked against her.

As Massachusetts entered Phase III, Step 1 of reopening at the end of July, activities such as indoor swimming pools, indoor hockey, and sporting events became permissible with certain restrictions, as well as live music events at social distanced capacity, including at restaurants.

However, despite entering this step and permitting all of the former sporting events to take place, the city of Somerville placed a specific ordinance outlawing outdoor music performance of any kind at restaurants and venues, even though they were deemed to be equal risk by the state.

Richardson frequently plays at Epstein’s venue, The Jungle; however, despite Epstein’s efforts to create a safe socially-distanced area for musicians to perform on his venue-turned-restaurant’s outdoor patio, Richardson was not able to perform there.

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“Somerville is the only city in the state that put an extra rule in place and said there can be no radio, no live music, no music performance at all whatsoever. And it was really just to look tough on corona,” Epstein said.

Epstein and Richardson teamed up with Somerville city councilor Wilfred Mbah, who helped them draft and present an order in December which pledged to musicians and venues that the city would have greater transparency and consistency on its Covid-19 regulations. “It was passed unanimously. Every city councilor voted yes, that this was an overstep and it was basically just scapegoating musicians without protecting public health,” Epstein said.

A Light at the End of the Tunnel

Fortunately for venues that have managed to survive the pandemic year without effective public support, help is finally on the way. Despite failing to pass the Save Our Stages Act by its initial goal last summer, NIVA did not stop pushing.

The Save Our Stages Act, which was initially sponsored by Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas), eventually amassed 220 co-sponsors. The bill had bipartisan support in both chambers of Congress, which Schaefer remarks is “wildly unusual.” Over 1,000 artists signed letters to members of Congress to support the bill, as well. After months of growing public sentiment and political momentum, the Save Our Stages Act passed on Dec. 21, 2020.

The original law appropriated $15 billion from the most recent Covid-19 relief bill to be specifically earmarked for independent entertainment venues. But the amount was extended by $1.25 billion through an amendment spearheaded by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). In addition to extra funding, the amendment addressed some shortcomings of the original legislation.

First, the amendment earmarked $840,000 for the Small Business Administration, which is tasked with distributing the funds, to help make the application process as accessible as possible. Second, it eliminated an earlier provision barring venues from accepting a second-round PPP loan, the funding for which was made available much earlier than the new funding would arrive.

Instead of having to choose between a sooner payout and the chance at a larger one — which Ruddock indicated was a real concern for venues in Massachusetts — venues can now take a PPP2 loan and then apply for the new program and have the prior PPP2 money deducted from their new award.

Now-totaling $16.25 billion, the funds available through the Save Our Stages Act will be distributed in the form of Shuttered Venue Operator Grants, which will offer a single sum up to 45 percent of venues’ 2019 revenue, capped at $10 million. The grants will go out first to venues who have lost over 90 percent of their revenue in the pandemic, with eligibility increasing every two weeks to venues that took less of a financial hit.

In order to be eligible, venues must meet a long list of specific criteria, including being privately owned, having less than 500 employees, and operating in less than 10 states, among other restrictions. Two billion of the total appropriations are also set aside specifically for venues with less than 50 employees.

The SBA began accepting applications for these grants on April 8. For the venue operators who have held on this long, the promise of recouping nearly half of lost revenues gives them a lot of hope.

Stein noted that the grant will allow him to “take a breath” and hold over his business until it can resume normal operations, which he tentatively targets for the fall. Jenkins highlighted his gratitude that his business was included in the SVOG program as a comedy club. “A little lifeline could go a long way,” he said.

Epstein expressed gratitude to have received such overwhelming support from community donations to government grants. “We really need it all,” he said.

In addition to the federal SVOG program, forthcoming aid on the state level might be able to provide even more support to independent venues — and other cultural institutions like museums, which were not prioritized in the Save Our Stages Act. Kennedy sponsored a bill (SD.2105) in the Massachusetts state legislature called An Act to Rebuild the Commonwealth’s Cultural Future, which would create a $200 million fund for many kinds of cultural businesses and organizations. Whether it will pass in the state legislature remains to be seen.

While many venues are enthusiastic about these upcoming opportunities for aid, for those that have already lost their spaces or closed their businesses entirely, this relief might be coming too late.

“I do know that the ones that are open are very excited about this, and it’ll make a huge difference. But, I don’t know what’s gonna happen with us [ONCE], because we closed,” Gonson said. “We’re trying to find a new space, but we don't have one yet.”

Though independent venues have demonstrated incredible resilience, public support still remains vital. To join the fight to keep these businesses alive, you can fill out this support form for the Act to Rebuild the Commonwealth’s Cultural Future, donate to the NIVA Emergency Relief Fund which continues to provide grants to venues in need, or simply purchase merchandise or attend a streaming show of a venue in your local area. If the past year has taught us anything, hopefully it’s not to underestimate how much independent venues need us — and more importantly, how much we need them.

— You can reach Sam D. Cohen at sam.cohen@thecrimson.com, or on Twitter @Sam_Cohen17.

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