Why venues matter
Wednesday, May 13, 2020
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the dire situation facing our music venues. To recap: Due to COVID-19 shutdown orders, every music venue across the nation is currently shuttered. While that is true of many businesses in many industries, music venues are in a precarious position in terms of weathering this pandemic storm because of a couple of compounding factors. First, their operating revenue comes from gathering as many people as possible into a four-walled, finite area, a phenomenon that will not resume even long after life has returned to whatever normal looks like post-pandemic. Second, the forms of aid being offered by the federal government are a poor fit for the music-venue business and staffing model. In short, there’s a crack a mile wide and several miles deep, and it’s threatening to suck every independent music venue in America into it.
It’s an existential crisis the likes of which our venues have never before faced, and iconic spots are already beginning to fall. Famed Los Angeles venue the Troubadour is in trouble. Boston’s Great Scott has closed permanently, so has Live @ Jack’s in Denver. New York’s Saint Vitus is alive—barely—thanks to a crowdfunding campaign. Threadgill’s in Austin is gone after a run that spanned nearly a century. In a harbinger of things to come closer to home, Seattle’s Re-bar, a much-beloved home of queer culture and underground music, announced it would not reopen in its current location.
When we think of our favorite places for live music and what they offer, we tend to place their benefits into two distinct boxes: entertainment value and overall contributions to culture. The truth is, when we view venues through those dual lenses, we sell them short.
For instance, in terms of raw dollars, music venues are powerful, economically speaking. According to a report by the Mayor’s Office of Film + Music, Seattle’s music scene generates $1.2 billion in sales and $487 million in earnings annually—and that’s in 2008 dollars, the last time an economic impact study was commissioned there. Independent venues also act as strong economic multipliers for local economies, with a recent Chicago study estimating that for every dollar spent at a venue, $12 more are spent at surrounding businesses, including restaurants, bars and other retail shops. Not to mention the amount of money spent locally on auxiliary operations like maintenance, promotion, etc. Framed in economic terms, our venues contribute far more than mere entertainment.
A related issue is that venues are also good for the safety of both public and property. Sure, there’s a tradeoff in terms of an uptick in nuisance noise and the potential for public intoxication, but that’s a relatively small price to pay for the benefits that come from having a lively, vibrant downtown core after dark. In towns like Bellingham with strong music communities, our streets are safer due to the late-night hours kept by venues staffed with people trained in public safety measures.
And, of course, indie bars, clubs and other spots for live music acts as the critical linkage supporting another facet of the entertainment industry: touring. Without places to play, bands can’t tour. While there’s little doubt that large corporate entities such as AEG and Live Nation will endure post-pandemic, it takes a whole lot of shows at small and mid-sized venues before a band makes it to a Live Nation stage, if they ever do. Independent venues act not only as proving grounds for bands, but also as a crucial foundational element that enables the Live Nations of the world to bring fresh talent to the masses. The 1,000-2,500-capacity spots that comprise the House of Blues network might be fine places to see live music, but they’re not exactly incubating the talent of unknown acts.
Now that we know the situation facing venues and that we stand to lose more than simply entertainment without them, it’s time to roll up our sleeves and try to save them. Tune into our next print issue for some suggestions.
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