Independent music venues across the country have turned their SOS signal up to 11 asking fans and patrons to call, write and email members of Congress to encourage the passage of legislation that will help them survive the indefinite pandemic shutdown.
Katie Tuten is a founding member of the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) – an organization formed to preserve and nurture the ecosystem of independent live music venues and promoters throughout the United States – as well as a co-owner of Chicago’s beloved venue the Hideout and the founder of the Chicago Independent Venue League (CIVL) along with her husband, Tim. Those roles put her at the forefront of NIVA’s Save Our Stages campaign in Chicago.
“Independent venues are the first to close and the last to open,” said Tuten. “Many of us are what we would call super distressed industries that will not be able to open until Phase 5.”
This month, NIVA is asking supporters to reach out to their representatives to ask them to support S. 3814/H.R. 7481, the RESTART Act, which is intended to help independent venues survive the pandemic shutdown.
Tuten explained that the current Payroll Protection Program is based on payroll rather than revenue, which makes it difficult for venues to utilize. Venue owners are also asking Congress to extend loans for a longer period of time.
NIVA has provided supporters with an easy to submit letter to legislators that reads in part, “The PPP and other programs do not work for venues, which are completely shuttered small businesses in need of long-term support that provides flexibility for the use of funds due to high overhead costs. Venues are experiencing upwards of 90% revenue loss and will be closed well into 2021 due to safety concerns posed by large gatherings. Without support from Congress, 90% of NIVA’s independent venues across America say they will be forced to close their doors forever.”
In Chicago, independent venue owners have experience fighting a mighty opponent. In 2018, they formed CIVL after Sterling Bay development company and Live Nation announced a massive entertainment complex – including multiple live music venues – within the proposed Lincoln Yards development. Owners of Subterranean, Metro, Empty Bottle, Schubas Tavern, Thalia Hall, Sleeping Village, the Hideout and more are among the founding members of CIVL, so when the COVID-19 crisis struck, a rallying call went out for these artistic Avengers to assemble to determine how to best navigate the unprecedented times ahead.
“What’s really cool is, because we all came together a couple years ago to fight the Live Nation takeover, we all knew each other by the time COVID hit,” said Tuten. “We had a great advantage to other cities because we were organized. We had each other’s cellphone numbers. When we were all in a state of shock and panic thinking, ‘What do we do next?’ We had each other.”
Tuten added that each venue owner took on one of the many overwhelming tasks – navigating property tax concerns, researching how to apply for loans, compiling lists of legislators to contact, etc. – and shared the information with the rest of the group.
Even as concerns continue to emerge for individual venues, the organization does whatever it can to support each other. CIVL rallied behind Rosa’s Lounge to compel the governor’s office to change language in the first shutdown order to allow streaming from within a crowd-free venue so Rosa’s old-school blues musicians could take advantage of modern technology, continue to perform and earn income.
“For the rest of us, it wasn’t that big of a deal, but because it was a big deal for Rosa’s, we all got behind them and we all supported them. When we went to the governor’s office, it wasn’t just Rosa’s, it was all of us collectively,” said Tuten noting that the adjustment was made, and Rosa’s musicians were allowed to stream from the lounge.
There is power in numbers. That’s why it’s so important for fans of live music, comedy, dance and all performance to contact legislators in support of NIVA and its Save Our Stages campaign.
“As of today, we’ve had one million calls to Congress. And very proudly, Illinois has the second most calls. California always beats us because there are so many people in California, but we beat New York. I think the reason is because we’re so independent and people know us. We’re interwoven in our community,” said Tuten.
While the Hideout is shutdown – and its team is advocating for Save Our Stages and calling for the extension of crucial unemployment benefits for furloughed staff – the venue is still providing a virtual space for the community to come together to enjoy entertainment, games and non-COVID conversations with Hideout Online.
“We wanted Hideout Online to be a community space. A perfect example of it is our Veggie Bingo,” said Tuten, explaining that every Wednesday night folks meet via Zoom to play Bingo while supporting community gardens across the city.
“It’s great because you can see the people that are playing Bingo are oftentimes people that are alone in a house or there are families playing. COVID is never mentioned. It’s this beautiful relief. I can’t wait until we reopen and see all the people who’ve been playing Bingo together,” she said.
Robbie Fulks, Helltrap Nightmare, Megan Stalter, and Cosmic Country are among the many shows and artists also entertaining Hideout patrons via livestreams.
“So many people are putting so much of their creative energy into presenting something that’s unique, different and engaging. I’m so blown away because I know it probably took them 40 hours to produce something that lasts 45 minutes, but they can’t stop themselves because they’re creative by nature,” said Tuten. “It feeds their souls, which in turn feeds ours.”
Independent venues are special. They nurture emerging artists as they discover their voices, create communities, and provide people with a home away from home. Tuten encourages anyone who has ever been to an independent venue – AKA everyone – to go to Nivassoc.org to write to Congress in support of Save Our Stages. More ways to support local venues include buying merch, contributing to GoFundMe campaigns for staff, staying engaged and, of course, wearing a mask, which will help the country get on track for a full opening.
“Thank you to the citizens of Chicago and Illinois for all your support. We can feel the love,” said Tuten. “We miss everyone so much. We’re all social people – that’s why you bartend – so this is especially hard for our staff and performers.”