Setting the Stage: Indie Venues Look Ahead to Next Year Amid Pandemic Struggles

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Owners of independent music venues across the United States have been waiting since July to see if long-delayed federal coronavirus relief funding might include support for their struggling businesses. After Congress’ attempts to pass a second round of COVID-19 stimulus have repeatedly stalled, leaders at the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) are exploring how to leverage its 3,000 members for an advantage once concerts resume.

NIVA has already taught some small promoters the value of collaboration with organized campaigns to raise awareness for the Save Our Stages Act, which would establish a $10 billion federal grant program to support indie venues, promoters and booking agencies. A May survey found nine out of 10 indie venues faced permanent closure by year’s end without federal support, but so far, the worst hasn’t happened: Fewer than 90 venues have shut down, according to Billboard figures. How others have managed to stay afloat could set a framework for NIVA’s future initiatives.

While some owners have kept their businesses operating by cutting costs — renegotiating leases, deferring mortgage payments or furloughing/laying off employees — others have tapped new revenue streams. New York’s Bowery Electric created a livestream series with the platform VEEPS where artists perform professionally mixed and engineered sets from the venue, splitting profits evenly. (“Every band that has performed has walked out with money,” says talent buyer Stephanie Boriskin.) Chain Reaction in Anaheim, Calif., licensed its name for limited-edition merchandise deals with bands like Stick to Your Guns and local brands like Violent Gentlemen to cover its monthly $7,000 rent.

Other venues are striking deals with third parties interested in buying the exclusive rights to branding, sponsorship and livestreaming, says Steve Sternschein, owner of Heard Presents in Austin and NIVA treasurer, who negotiated NIVA’s agreement with YouTube to host the three-day Save Our Stages virtual festival in October. Theoretically, NIVA could handle these arrangements, leveraging its membership to help smaller venues find partners and others get better deals.

While NIVA’s main focus is still lobbying for a federal relief bill, Sternschein is leading an effort to explore whether a for-profit collective approach to licensing, livestreaming and booking — modeled after indie-label rights management group Merlin, a nonprofit that negotiates licensing deals on behalf of its members — would help NIVA members secure more revenue.

There are legal restrictions on what NIVA can do collectively — member companies can’t collude to set prices or limit competition — but it can negotiate with brands like YouTube and share information internally. If they don’t work together, venues risk losing ground to new competitors like SaveLive, former WME co-head of music Marc Geiger’s initiative to buy up controlling interests of distressed venues to create a new dominant player in indie music, or companies like Big Neon, which wants to bundle venues’ advertising rights with proprietary ticketing technology.

“We have an opportunity to direct the evolution of our streaming and licensing rights in a way that prioritizes venues first,” says Sternschein. “We can create a network of independent venues rather than having one person or company take control.”

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 19, 2020, issue of Billboard.

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