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Small clubs are where rock history is made. How many will survive?
Dayna Frank, the owner of First Avenue in Minneapolis, at the music venue on May 3, 2020. With concerts on hold during the pandemic, independent venues are struggling to hang on and fighting for government aid. Jenn Ackerman/The New York Times.

by Ben Sisario

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- In March, as the coronavirus pandemic brought the concert world to a halt, Robert Gomez shut down his two clubs in Chicago, Subterranean and Beat Kitchen, without knowing when they would reopen. Speaking in the steady, gravelly tone of a hardened nightlife proprietor, he described divvying up leftovers for employees and boarding up the windows “so people don’t feel the temptation to go inside and grab a bottle.”

“And then,” Gomez added, “I wept.”

With touring suspended, artists have taken to livestreaming apps to reach their fans, and corporate giants like Live Nation and AEG have had to contend with the knotty cash-flow problem of billions of dollars in potential ticket refunds.

Yet the shutdown has also highlighted the struggle of independent venues — the network of thousands of clubs and theaters that dot the national concert map. While operating well below the level of superstar arena tours, they are a vital stratum of the industry and, after putting on shows nightly for decades, represent part of music’s collective memory.

As mom-and-pop shops with often shallow resources, however, they are especially vulnerable in a starvation economy, and some have already surrendered. Last week Great Scott, a 44-year-old rock club in Boston, announced that it would not return.

“This is an existential crisis,” said Dayna Frank, the owner of First Avenue in Minneapolis, a regular spot for Prince, the Replacements and Hüsker Dü that opened in 1970. “Independent venues have no financial backstop. We do not have corporate parents. There are no financial resources we can turn to.”

The loss of small concert spaces would be devastating to musicians, said Wesley Schultz of the alt-folk group the Lumineers.

“These clubs are where you cut your teeth and really develop who you are as an artist,” said Schultz, who readily recounts his band’s artistic baptism in small clubs in Denver and pass-the-hat rooms in New York. “If you took those away,” he added, “there’s no bridge between starting off and ending up somewhere else.”

To save their businesses, more than 1,200 venues and promoters have formed an advocacy group, the National Independent Venue Association, with Frank as its board president.

Like other small companies, the venue operators say that Congress’ initial relief bills, like the $2 trillion CARES Act, were ill-suited to their business. Three-quarters of loan funds, for example, must go to payroll expenses within two months — though many promoters have had to furlough their employees, and worry it may be half a year before they have another show to staff. The new trade group has retained Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, the powerhouse lobbying firm, and its requests for lawmakers include tax relief and more flexible loan programs.

Back home, though, most are nervously watching the calendar and patching together support for furloughed employees through T-shirt sales and GoFundMe campaigns.

In interviews with 11 independent proprietors, most said they felt crippled by uncertainty about what lies ahead. Without some form of government aid, many said, they would go out of business in six months to a year.

Even with support, the industry overall has little idea what a post-COVID-19 concert world would entail — and whether fans would ever feel comfortable standing shoulder-to-shoulder again.

“We’re just walking in a dark tunnel — we don’t know where this is going to end,” said Chad Rodgers, whose family owns Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which has hosted concerts since the early 1930s ranging from Bob Wills, the king of Western swing, to the Sex Pistols.

The musical legacy of the nation’s oldest clubs may be as immense as that of any arena or opera house. But that does not protect them from losses when their rooms are dark.

“Will we be open in a month? Six months?” asked Christine Karayan of the Troubadour in West Hollywood, which opened in 1957 and was pivotal to the California singer-songwriter scene of the 1970s.

“Will the Troubadour be just a footnote to history?” Karayan added. “I don’t want to it to go down on my watch, but seemingly that might be the case.”

Frank recounted crying through an artist’s sound check at First Avenue on March 12, “knowing this was going to be the last show for a very long time.”

The pinch is felt at outdoor venues, too. Shahida Mausi, whose company, the Right Productions, runs the 6,000-seat Aretha Franklin Amphitheater in Detroit, said that deposits have already been paid to many artists for the summer season, and that her company has already sold tickets to 16 shows — which may well have to be refunded.

To stay afloat, and distract from gloom, operators have gotten scrappily creative. In Wichita, Kansas, Adam Hartke turned his club Wave into an ad hoc food-delivery hub for local farms.

Will Eastman, the owner of U Street Music Hall, a dance club in Washington, started selling T-shirts, which became an unexpected hit — the 700 sold in the past two weeks has provided enough cash to extend the club’s life a month longer than he’d estimated.

“Every time we get an order,” Eastman said, “it’s like someone tapping on your shoulder, saying, ‘We remember you guys, and at the other end of this we’re going to be there for a show.’

Gomez, Subterranean’s owner, said he was recently accepted for a loan through the $660 billion Paycheck Protection Program. But he has concerns about that program’s complicated terms, and said he had continued to mine his network for other contributions.

“I feel like that guy on the end of the ramp with the sign,” Gomez said. “I’ve been here for 25 years, giving nonprofits the room for free to support their cause. Now I’m on the other side, where I’m emailing nonprofits — anybody — saying, ‘Can you help?’ ”

The question of when — and how — to reopen is tormenting the entire concert business. The wider entertainment world, which includes Broadway theaters as well as rock clubs, is usually in the last phase of any official reopening plan, including the one for New York announced by Gov. Andrew Cuomo this week.

Club owners have floated plans for privacy shields and more open table configurations. Michael Dorf of City Winery, which has 10 locations around the country, expects that room capacities will be reduced, but mused on whether there could be ways to squeeze a few more people in the door.

“Maybe there’s going to be the antibody section,” Dorf said, “where people are closer together than they are in the rest of the room.”

Hartke, in Wichita, pointed out that the touring network is so interconnected that a venue in one city could not realistically operate if other parts of the country remained closed. “If there’s a hot spot in Denver or Dallas or Kansas City,” he said, “then we’re not going to be able to route a tour through Wichita.”

And the signals from audiences are not promising so far. A recent poll by Reuters/Ipsos found that only about 40% of Americans would be willing to attend sports or entertainment events before a vaccine was available.

What kind of pull small venues will have in Washington is an open question. So far the trade group is being funded entirely by contributions from three small ticketing firms.

Meanwhile, a group of major live-entertainment companies — including Live Nation, AEG, the Broadway League and Feld Entertainment, which puts on family events like “Disney on Ice” and “Sesame Street Live!” — have circulated their own letter on Capitol Hill seeking aid for the industry.

On a local level, though, many venues said they had developed deep connections in business and among political leaders, and trumpet their role as economic multipliers. Still, they sometimes have to contend with stereotypes about running rock ’n’ roll businesses, said Barrie Buck, the owner of the 40 Watt Club in Athens, Georgia, which has nurtured classic bands like R.E.M. and the B-52’s.

“Every once in a while,” Buck said, “I have to say to the powers that be, ‘Listen, I’m not trying to get college kids drunk. We’re trying to put on excellent shows here, as are all of our friends and neighbors.’ They get it when you explain to them the economic engine that the music scene in our town is a part of.”

Frank, of First Avenue, said the indies had “never tried to sell our industry before,” but was optimistic that Washington would recognize their cultural and economic significance — and then that the music would return.

“All I can hope for,” she said, “is when this nightmare is to be over, to be hanging out at a show.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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