As I type this I’m watching the Save Our Stages Fest (#SOSFest) on Oct. 21, a few weeks before the election. Indie phenom Phoebe Bridgers and her band are dressed in skeleton costumes playing alone in the West Hollywood bar where Elton John, Joni Mitchell and Linda Ronstadt paid their dues.
Singer/songwriter pals Conor Oberst and Christian Lee Hutson joined in the streamed event. A little over halfway through the set between songs about death and loneliness Phoebe turned to the camera and said, “Click the donate button because….” After a long pause Conor chimed in: “Because we need a place to play.“
That was the reason for SOS Fest. The three-day virtual festival featured 35 artists performing at 25 venues beamed directly to your computer or phone screen, with proceeds benefiting independent music venues impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
As you read this, the election is (hopefully) over. No matter who won, there’s still a shit-ton of problems to solve thanks to COVID-19. Somewhere on that long list after “figure out a way to keep people from dying (or at the very least from catching the disease)” is “figure out a way to reopen the rest of the country for business.”
While 90 percent of U.S. businesses have reopened, the first businesses to shut down — the bars and music venues — are still closed. And many could stay that way for a very long time.
Beginning in April, the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) — a group of more than 2,900 independent music venues and promoters — has lobbied Congress to pass legislation that provides recovery funds and tax credits to help venues survive during the pandemic. First it was the Save Our Stages Act, which passed in the House; and now the HEROES Small Business Lifeline Act is being considered in the Senate as part of the CARES Act.
NIVA asked music fans to write their lawmakers urging them to support the bills, and they have to the tune of nearly 2 million emails. (And more letters are needed. You can write your representative from this handy page on the NIVA website. It only takes 30 seconds!).
But here we are on Oct. 21 and Congress has yet to pass anything, while the future of the live music industry grows bleaker and bleaker. According to a survey of NIVA members, 90 percent of independent venues will close permanently without federal aid in the coming months.
We’re already seeing it here. The Lookout Lounge on 72nd Street closed permanently earlier this summer, and The Barley Street Tavern in Benson gave up the ghost in September. What role COVID-19 played in those closings is uncertain, though it no doubt helped rush some decisions. Now I’m told a third well known club is on the verge of shutting down.
And while two of the best stages in Omaha — The Waiting Room and Reverb Lounge — have reopened, they’re only booking comedy acts and cover bands at very limited capacity shows. Downtown showcase The Slowdown held an outdoor festival in its parking lot featuring local acts just to remind people it was still there, though its doors remain locked.
With stages dark, musicians also toil in darkness. According to Business Insider, with the decline in album sales, live events provide 75 percent of all artists’ income. Strangely, thankfully, a ton of new music has been released during the lock down (including albums by Bright Eyes and Phoebe Bridgers) despite the fact that no one is touring.
One: Legislation will pass. It has to. It may not be ’til after a new Congress is in place (or heck, it may happen before this column sees print), but it will happen. Too many people have been without for too long. The assistance needed for bars and venues to survive that’s outlined in SOS and HEROES acts will be among the law’s provisions. But it won’t be near enough.
Two: We will climb this mountain of a pandemic and come out on the other side. But it’ll take more than a vaccine. It’ll take a concerted effort by everyone, regardless of political leaning, to do what scientists say we need to do.
And three: Venues will reopen at full capacity, and bands will begin playing and touring again. But, god help us, it may not be until this time next year, or even later. And when the smoke clears, the venue landscape will look very different.
Once people feel safe again, fans will flock to clubs like they never have before thanks to a hunger for live entertainment. But you’ll be surprised how quickly people forget what they’ve been through.
The sad fact is we’ve always taken live music for granted. While ticket prices for arena shows have gone up around 30 percent over the past five years, according to Fast Company those increases haven’t kept up with prices for other forms of entertainment.
It’s the same story for small touring bands that, prior to the pandemic, were lucky to get home from tours with anything in their pockets. Ticket prices for touring indie shows have risen only gradually over the past five years, always being outpaced by the costs required to tour.
And then there are local shows.
I’ve covered live music for more than 30 years. When I started, the cover charge to see live, original bands was $5. Thirty years later, the cover at small clubs is still $5 for local shows, while some larger venues have pumped it up to a whopping $7 or $8. Try splitting that between three bands and a sound guy.
Why are we willing to spend up to $15 to see a movie, but won’t spend $15 to see a live local band, to hear music performed in front of our eyes by living, breathing musicians who put themselves out there for our amusement and/or enlightenment? At the end of a typical night at a rock club, too many local bands go home with nothing except an empty wallet and a hangover.
And yet, I’ve never talked to a band that didn’t want to keep doing it. For them, it’s all about the music. It’s certainly not about the money. Why can’t they have both?
Over The Edge is a monthly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, music, the media and the arts. Email Tim at firstname.lastname@example.org.