At NIVA Conference, Venue Owners Celebrate Live Music’s Comeback but Cite Challenges: ‘I Thought We’d Be Hitting the Roaring ’20s by Now’

When the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) scheduled its first annual conference in Cleveland, Ohio, for July 11-12, it set a modest attendance goal of around 350 people. The two-day event exceeded expectations: Nearly 600 people registered for a gathering that included solutions-driven panel discussions, robust networking and packed concerts at various Cleveland independent venues.

The mood was indeed upbeat at a Monday night happy-hour mixer and awards ceremony at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Attendees shared drinks on the museum’s plaza in balmy (if windy) summer weather and then headed into the building for the lively Independent AF Awards, which honored innovators (and innovations) within the event and touring space.

NIVA’s pause for reflection and celebration was well-deserved. Formed in April 2020, the non-profit trade organization was integral in ensuring Congress passed the Save Our Stages Act in late 2020. The bill authorized what became the Shuttered Venues Operators Grant Program, through which the SBA distributed $16 billion to venues affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. At the conference, SVOG program director Matt Stevens reported that as of July 5, a total of $14.57 billion had been given out to a little over 13,000 grantees, with $9.26 billion alone awarded to businesses with less than 50 employees.

In conversations with Variety, NIVA Conference attendees expressed excitement about meeting in person after so many months of virtual conversations. They also praised the collaborative spirit of the community and the support system that’s developed in response to the collective challenges related to the last few years.

“Before NIVA existed, we were all our own little satellites, just out there trying to do what we could in our neighborhoods to survive,” says Tobi Parks, owner of xBk Live in Des Moines, Iowa. “And suddenly now there’s a network of 1,500 of us who are all going through the same experience and can talk about what we can do to make change.”

Parks also praised NIVA’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, both in its conference programming and everyday actions —including, for example, that the conference offered financial assistance to offset costs of travel and waived registration fees for some. “This really is about trying to make this ecosystem better,” Parks says, “and include as many people in it as we can.”

However, on the business front, attendees also stressed that recovery from the past few years is very much an ongoing process. “I really thought that we’d be hitting the roaring ’20s by now,” says Dayna Frank, who is NIVA’s board president as well as president of Minneapolis’ First Avenue Productions. “And it is anything but. It is daily, constant, demanding, punishing challenges.”

While Sean Watterson — co-owner of Cleveland’s Happy Dog and NIVA Precinct Captain — notes he’s over the moon with how the conference turned out, he acknowledges that venues are still facing financial challenges and obstacles. “We’re still losing money,” Watterson says. “Thank God for the Shuttered Venues Operators Grant funds, because it’s allowing us breathing room. Even in pre-COVID times, you had very little breathing room. The reality of being in this industry is you’re typically almost always in survival mode. And we’re still in survival mode.”

Multiple people told Variety COVID-19 is a continued major obstacle, with positive cases causing shows to be canceled at the last minute. Staffing-related issues were also a hot topic. Venues discussed the challenges of hiring and retaining employees — and how staff testing positive for COVID-19 can exacerbate existing scheduling challenges — while the crowded touring season means artists are having issues finding transportation and hiring crew members like tour managers or sound engineers. Frank adds that rising costs as a result of inflation are also a pain point for artists on the road, as well as promoters and venues, while mental health struggles due to the high-stress, ever-changing work environment are also a concern.

At the same time, concert ticket sales and show attendance are also still in the process of bouncing back, with drop counts — or the actual number of people who show up — being top of mind. “When you’ve got a show that’s been rescheduled three or four times, it’s tough for the artists to come into a room and not have it be the show they expected it to be,” Ashley Ryan, VP of marketing at Minneapolis venue First Avenue, said during an afternoon panel. “It’s tough for the staff to prepare for a show like that. It’s tough for the fan experience. We’re all still going, ‘OK, the doors are open and we’re back. But how back are we?’”

Grace Blake, a NIVA board member and programming director for City Winery’s New York City and Hudson Valley locations, echoes the attendance concern. “One of the biggest challenges is gaining consumer confidence to come back into the rooms,” she says. “I’m not quite sure what it is, whether the market is so saturated with a lot of music right now, and people are able to pick and choose what they want to see. It’s waiting for that surge of people to come back and support live music. I know they’re there.”

Overall, however, Blake sees venue bounce-back as more of a long-term proposition. “You want to hope that in five years we’re going to be at a place where we can breathe again, and then build towards, ‘What is your venue looking like for the future?’ But this is a long recovery.”

With all that being said, the mood during the conference panels was anything but doom and gloom. The perseverance, tenacity, DIY attitude and nimble attitude that’s kept independents going in the last few years dominated the atmosphere of panel discussions. Attendees and speakers alike focused on providing solutions and practical advice for ongoing obstacles.

In a conversation with Rock & Roll Hall of Fame vice president and chief curator Nwaka Onwusa, Meshell Ndegeocello noted that she called a new venue local to her, the Atlantic BKLN, to have a roster of local musicians on hand they can call to play if COVID-19 causes show cancellations. “Give people opportunities,” Ndegeocello said.

On a panel, Parks discussed co-founding the D Tour, a network of independent venues and promoters teaming up to offer national touring artists concert opportunities across multiple cities. Other panels featured professionals giving advice about venue management style and tips for retaining talent, stressing the importance of venue accessibility and sharing tips on how to market shows in this new reality.

The conference also made it clear that NIVA’s work to support the independent music ecosystem is continuing to evolve and respond to shifting priorities. Frank notes NIVA spent its first year “advocating, lobbying and really pounding the pavement to get our message across,” and then the next year helping members apply for and access the funds disbursed by SVOG. “Now we’re entering the third stage,” she says, “and that’s going to be about real tangible benefits, making NIVA pivotal and imperative to operating a business, and helping people stay independent.”

In practice, this work includes expanding NIVA’s membership offerings, including a health insurance and benefits program. On a broader level, this work involves tackling issues related to the secondary ticketing market (including deceptive ticketing and speculative tickets) and antitrust concerns, as well as advocacy around implementing more equitable practices on the artist side, in public performance rights and performing rights organizations.

“It’s trying to change processes and systems to get more money into the pockets of our artists,” Frank says. “But it’s also imperative to our businesses and keeping our doors open. Our artists need money to live, they need to be able to make a living as artists, so that they can play shows and stay on the road, and be able to make a living touring. It’s a very symbiotic relationship.”

Watterson, who also works with an economic development organization in Cleveland on hospitality workforce issues, sees local advocacy and grassroots actions as crucial going forward. He noted that’s why NIVA programming included panels on the importance of economic impact studies and the role federal land trusts and community benefit agreements can play in ensuring music venue survival amid rising real estate prices.

Citing the recent appointment of club owner Howie Kaplan to the Mayor’s Office of Nighttime Economy in New Orleans, Watterson also stresses the importance of local community and partnerships. “I think a lot of the people who got involved in NIVA are going to be pushing for these offices, whether it’s nighttime economy, social economy, or music and film economy, in local government,” he says. “We’re pulling together groups like hospitality alliances at a local level. All of these businesses — not just the music venues, but the bars and the restaurants and theaters — mean a lot to our cities and our communities. And we need to come together to support each other, but also to act like an industry.”

City Winery’s Blake also emphasizes the value of community, especially since venue recovery timelines are different. “Community is very important,” she says. “And you’re helping the one behind you. Your venue may have gotten the grants and SVOG and been able to pick up the pieces; that’s still a long recovery. But there’s others that are still fighting to stay open. I think we as a community have to remember that.” However, she is heartened by the enduring changes she’s seen. “You would think that after such a catastrophic event, and a world-changing event, that people would go back to their old ways of doing things. And we haven’t. We still are rallying together to make sure that we have changes in this.”

Rev. Moose, NIVA’s co-founder and outgoing executive director, shared that there was going to be a conference next year. Despite the many successes achieved so far, there’s no laurels-resting for NIVA going forward.

“From this point forward, it is the scrappy nature and the entrepreneurial nature [of people] and the fact that we are able to work together and exchange ideas and share what’s working and avoid similar pitfalls,” he says. “All of those things are really a strength. When you see people here [in Cleveland] together celebrating, they’re celebrating the strength. Maybe not necessarily the success, because success comes on a sliding scale. But the opportunity and the potential to be able to turn the strength into a success is greater while we all work together.”

Parks echoes this optimism. “What’s so hopeful is we’re all in this situation where our businesses aren’t back to normal yet, but we can come here and think about the positive things that we’re gonna continue to do. That’s so incredibly hopeful and optimistic to be around a group of people that are like, ‘You know what, we’re hurting now. But we’re going to do what we can to make this business better. And we’re going to collaborate and work together.’”

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