Features, Print June 3, 2020

Band Together: National Independent Venue Association Saves Our Stages

by Dan England

There once was a time — say, six weeks ago — when music venue owners were comfortable working on their own. Then the coronavirus became a hit, so to speak, the level of which has not been seen since Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”

“We began right after the first week of March, at a weekly virtual town hall for venues to talk to each other,” said Stephen Chilton, who owns the venue Rebel Lounge in Phoenix and works as a promoter as well, “and it immediately became clear we were in a deep crisis.”

Chilton now spends a lot of his time as the Vice President and co-founder of the National Independent Venues Association. He brought venue owners together after the first round of government relief went to corporations and restaurants (among other businesses) instead of venues.

“There was no one to speak for us,” Chilton said. “Everyone was talking about the big events and festivals, and no one was talking about the mid-size venues and clubs.”

Venues are in a unique situation, Chilton said, with a need for specific help. Restaurant associations, with thousands of members, were already in DC working on a plan when the first wave, which included payment protection loans, came out. But what they wanted doesn’t work for venues.

Stephen Chilton (aka Psyko Steve) is the owner and talent buyer at The Rebel Lounge, but has since become vie president of NIVA, fighting for the survival of small venues in the US. Photo by Justin Yee

“What is the most unsafe thing right now? It’s mass gatherings,” Chilton said, “and we produce mass gatherings. A lot of restaurants never touch their capacity. We hope for sold-out crowds. We have a lot of bodies together.”

Venues also rely on each other to book artists who can string together enough dates to make a tour worthwhile. When the virus hit and artists canceled shows, they canceled shows across the country.

“We need months of lead time,” Chilton said. “We need artists willing to go on the road. A pizza shop can open in Denver with no concern about what’s going on in L.A. Artists need to book dates to make it work.”

Federal assistance needs to be amended, he said, to offer long-term relief, including longer-term loans and loans that are forgivable with easier standards. 

“The programs were specifically designed to get you through April and May,” Chilton said. “We won’t be open in June.”

What’s worse is venues take up space, and they have to pay for that space up front in rent, with high insurance rates and other costs that, say, hair salons don’t have, he said. 

“We are asking for money to be set aside so that only we can access it, and we can take it for as long as we need to be closed,” he said. “We are closed to protect the public good, and we need the public to protect us for that.”

Pledge your support to help #SaveOurStages at www.nivassoc.org

In two months time, more than 1,600 have joined, and while that number makes Chilton happy, it still pales in comparison to the thousands in the restaurant industry. Chilton doesn’t begrudge restaurants, but he wishes venues got more credit for how they support restaurants and other businesses.

“We are huge economic multipliers,” he said. “But we get the smallest piece of that pie with the smallest margins.”

Without Federal help, more than 90 percent of members said they could not last another six months, Chilton said. Venues may have to be closed, with high overheads and zero revenue, for twelve. 

The response from Washington was good, but whether he’s hopeful or not, “that changes every hour,” he said. Still, it does please him to see venue owners banding together as they never have before. 

“I do think if we don’t get help, it’s because it wasn’t possible,” Chilton said. “We’ve done everything we can do.”

For more information and to tell your legislation to save independent music venues, go to saveourstages.com or nivassoc.org