Independent concert venues centralize as NIVA, lobby for federal COVID-19 support

Great American Music Hall, NIVA, GAMH

The Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. Courtesy.

More than 800 concert venues nationwide, including 25 in the Bay Area, have joined forces under the umbrella of the National Independent Venue Association, and are lobbying Congress for financial assistance in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

NIVA, based in New York, was officially founded last week to advocate for concert venues and festivals. The organization sent a letter to Congressional leaders outlining their members’ needs during the crisis and ways in which the current small business aid falls short of their unique needs. Some of its requests include continuance of unemployment insurance for contract workers and artists, rent and mortgage forbearance, debt deferral, and the ability to write off refunded tickets as distressed inventory, a change to tax rules that would provide future tax relief.

“Our businesses were among the first to close as COVID-19 spread across the country, and unfortunately, are also likely to be among the last to open,” the organization wrote. “The current [Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) relief for small business] programs are designed for businesses that will potentially be able to return to normal business operations in the coming weeks and months. They fail to sustain an industry like ours.”

In the Bay Area, NIVA is represented by August Hall, Another Planet Entertainment (which operates The Independent, The Fox in Oakland and several other venues), Bimbo’s 365 Club, Bottom of the Hill, Cornerstone Berkeley, DNA Lounge, Great American Music Hall, the Ivy Room in Albany, The UC Theatre, The Chapel, Rickshaw Stop, Noise Pop, Neck of the Woods and numerous others.

“This music industry, to a large degree, is a sort of a left-behind one,” Noise Pop President Kevin Arnold said. “The show staff and workers are out of business. From an art standpoint, music has always been, ‘Is it art, or is it commerce?’ We’re outside of the cool club of the visual arts and all the support they get.”

To date, venues have been resorting to crowdfunding platforms like GoFundMe to pay their rent, insurance and their employees during the statewide shelter-in-place orders. Fred Barnes, general manager of The Chapel in San Francisco, helped organize several Bay Area venues to run a joint fundraising effort as the Independent Venue Alliance before joining forces with NIVA.

The sheer volume of needy small businesses and individuals is stretching attention and donors’ finances thin, however, so that’s often not enough by itself. To that end, the Independent Venue Alliance is putting on a “Jerry Lewis-style telethon mixed with Live Aid,” as Barnes describes it, for Bay Area venues for May 2. It will feature live streams from Bay Area artists.

“We found we need to fundraise on a bigger scale,” Barnes said. “All the venues we’re working with in the Bay Area; last I spoke to them, nobody had received anything. Not locally or from the stimulus. Nobody’s got any help.”

The federal $3-trillion CARES Act included the paycheck protection provision for small businesses, but in addition to the difficulty Barnes and other are facing many venue owners agree that also won’t work for their industry, which was among the first types of businesses to be shuttered in March and will be among the last to be able to reopen. That’s because even when they have the go-ahead to open their doors, it will take weeks, if not months, for artists to reschedule their tours.

“I’m really hoping to see a lot of the CARES Act legislation be adapted to for the unique model of music venues,” said Blayne Tucker, who owns or co-owns four venues in San Antonio, including the historic Floore’s Country Store, which has hosted Elvis, and which Willie Nelson called home.

“For the smaller clubs, it’s not as big of a deal because we can moonlight as bars [once the shutdown is over],” but the larger clubs will take longer. “They’re big spaces with a lot of overhead. They don’t have an opening outlook for anytime in the foreseeable future.”

That makes their future very tenuous. As Barnes explains, music venues bring people into neighborhoods in large numbers, which has a benefit to other small businesses in the area like restaurants and stores.

“Venues provide a very important role in the economic ecosystem. Other businesses in the Mission constantly come to me and tell me how much they love the Chapel,” Barnes said. “There’s 500 people coming there most nights and all those people are going around to other businesses. It feeds the whole area. But it doesn’t really work the other way, people rarely go out to dinner and decide to see a concert.”

NIVA originated from the Independent Venue Week, an annual celebration of sorts for the people who run concert halls nationwide.

“The restaurants industry is doing this, but there’s never been anything like it for independent venues,” Noise Pop’s Arnold said. “There’s not a national venue association, much less a local venue association.”

Within days of the nation’s music halls being shuttered, IVW was hosting daily town hall meetings. From those meetings, a committee came together, a board was nominated and ratified, and NIVA was born—all within the last 20 days, said NIVA Board President Dayna Frank, CEO of the historic First Avenue club in Minneapolis (the home of Prince), and several other venues.

“It was so amazing to talk to other people who were going through the same thing that we were going through,” she said.

First Avenue was shuttered on March 13—Frank remembers that Friday the 13th—and, like many venues, has had to furlough its show staff. The uncertainty of not knowing when she can reopen is also difficult, as is the lack of information about at what capacity the club will have to open when it does. Some venue operators expect restrictions on large gatherings to last beyond when many other businesses are allowed to reopen in a reduced capacity, compounding the impact on the music industry even beyond the point that other segments of the economy begin to recover.

“There’s no sugarcoating it. It’s emotionally devastating to not have our community, our employees, our artists, our concertgoers—the loss of that is felt every day,” Frank said.

The sentiment is shared at concert halls from San Francisco to Washington, D.C.’s famed 9:30 Club.

“It is a very difficult thing when everything you are built for, and your employees want to do, is to put on shows, and we can’t do it,” said Audrey Fix Schaefer, communications director for that club as well as several others like The Anthem and Merriweather Post Pavilion. Additionally, Schaefer said, the loss of venues will be felt through communities nationwide: a devastating ripple effect that spreads to hotels, restaurants and retail.

“What we’re hoping by working with NIVA and getting our message to Capitol Hill is for them to understand the impact we have on our communities,” she said. She pointed to a study that showed that every $1 taken by a music venue leads to $12 of spending at nearby businesses.

“We’ve never asked for a handout, but this is an investment in a community and a town,” Schaefer said.

Blayne Tucker, who is also an attorney and used to be an artist manager for the likes of Gary Clark Jr., wants the federal government to figure out more cohesive ways to help music venues, through loans, grants, and tax incentives. Guidance about how clubs can eventually safely reopen is another request, Schaefer added.

NIVA members have started talking about what the organization can accomplish in the future, Frank said, but the immediate focus is surviving the current emergency at hand.

“We’re fighting for our collective survival as an industry,” she said.

Tucker was even more blunt.

“If we don’t get what’s in front of us done, then it won’t matter what great ideas we have about coalescing on the back side of it,” he said.

Bay Area NIVA members

  • Amado’s – San Francisco
  • August Hall – San Francisco
  • Bill Graham Civic Auditorium/Another Planet Entertainment – San Francisco
  • Bimbo’s 365 Club – San Francisco
  • Bottom of the Hill – San Francisco
  • Club Fox – Redwood City
  • Cornerstone – Berkeley
  • DNA Lounge – San Francisco
  • El Rio – San Francisco
  • Elbo Room Jack London – Oakland
  • Fox Theater – Oakland
  • Great American Music Hall – San Francisco
  • Ineffable Music – Oakland
  • Ivy Room – Albany
  • Marc Ribak – Oakland
  • Mystic Theatre – Petaluma
  • Neck of the Woods – San Francisco
  • Noise Pop Industries – San Francisco
  • Public Works – San Francisco
  • Rickshaw Stop – San Francisco
  • Starline Social Club – Oakland
  • Stern Grove Festival – San Francisco
  • Sweetwater Music Hall – Mill Valley
  • Talent Moat – San Francisco
  • The Chapel – San Francisco
  • The Independent – San Francisco
  • The Makeout Room – San Francisco
  • The UC Theatre – Berkeley

Editor Roman Gokhman contributed to this story. Follow editor Daniel J. Willis at

(3) Comments

  1. Dennis SF

    Your main picture is of The Great American Music Hall which is not an independent venue, it is run by AEG having been bought out two years ago. (This received plenty of press). Also August Hall is not an independent venue by any means, it is operated by Live Nation, the literal opposite of what an independent venue stands for. That would be like listing McDonalds as an independent SF restaurant. Seeing as Live Nation just accepted $500M from the Saudi Government in a widely publicized purchase, which has been widely condemned across many industries, and similarly AEG has a well reported terrible history, please remove them from this story and do not give them this good press as supposedly "independent" venues, when they categorically are not, they are the polar opposite. Please remove August Hall and the Great American Music Hall from this list as they are not independent music venues.

    1. Roman Gokhman

      Two great points! I can respond to one. The GAMH has outsourced its booking to AEG but is independently owned and operated. August Hall is less clear, as Live Nation has not responded to any of our phone calls or emails. Nonetheless, it is a member of NIVA.

  2. Dennis SF It's not a secret - it's definitely a Live Nation venue. Is there a place we can contact NIVA to let them know? Thank you - no offence to article - great article.

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