Local, independent music venues help lobby Congress, join national movement to survive

Small, independent music venues, including several from Louisville, have banded together to avoid a mass extinction of live performance spaces during the pandemic. The recently formed National Independent Venue Association, or NIVA, which has been lobbying Congress, is made up of more than 1,000 businesses, including local ones such as Headliners Music Hall, Art Sanctuary, Kentucky Performing Arts Center, Mag Bar, Nachbar, Odeon, Jimmy Can’t Dance, Third Street Dive and Zanzabar.

“Ninety percent of us have already gone on record to say that we won’t make it through the year — we will not be here next year, wiped off the map,” said NIVA’s Kentucky Precinct Capt. Billy Hardison of Production Simple, a company that primarily runs Headliners and Old Forester’s Paristown Hall.

NIVA was recently able to secure some money from ticketing companies, which the group used to hire a Washington, D.C. lobbying firm to help get these concerns in front of the country’s most powerful politicians. They’re hoping to be included in the second wave of stimulus relief money, if there is one. Because concert venues are completely shut down, with no work for virtually anyone, the Paycheck Protection Program, which requires companies to keep employees on the books in order to be totally forgiven, didn’t fit the needs of the venues, Hardison said.

One of NIVA’s goals is to have the PPP modified to fit their businesses, which have no timetable to return to hosting concerts. Currently, 75% of the PPP loans have to be used on payroll to become forgivable, which is difficult for businesses that don’t have work for their bartenders, sound techs and security staff because they can’t host events. They also hope to receive tax credits for refunded tickets.

On Tuesday, LEO obtained a letter circulating to Congress members and addressed to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy that opens with: “We write to bring your attention to challenges facing the live entertainment industry and to ask for targeted legislative action as Congress works on additional economic relief legislation in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The letter, sponsored by two members of the House and two members of the Senate — a Republican and Democrat from each chamber — has received more than 20 co-sponsors so far, including U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth (LEO’s founder).

U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell did not return a request for comment.

Yarmuth said: “From large music halls to basement blues clubs, independent music venues are not just part of Louisville’s culture, they are a valuable element of our local economy. That is why I have joined with my colleagues in calling on House Leadership to address the specific financial needs of independent venues. It’s vital that the programs we create have flexibility to respond to the unique challenges facing entertainment venues and other businesses that are likely to be the last to reopen and require mass gatherings in order to be profitable.”

A healthy music scene requires venues of all sizes and price levels. Tiny rooms such as Kaiju give a stage to local bands and smaller touring acts just looking to put gas in their van and maybe get their foot in the door to a new market, and fans usually get in for a couple of bucks. Slightly larger venues, including Zanzabar and Headliners, attract all kinds of mid-sized bands for between $10 and $30 a ticket. And larger venues such as The Louisville Palace and the KFC Yum! Center bring in stars. They’re all important, impacting the livelihoods of numerous people, and the system of venues also acts as a ladder, allowing smaller bands to attempt to gain an audience and progress. Without the small venues, it’s certainly going to be harder to launch a new band.

“It’s the magic that’s going to be missing that will cripple the growth of tomorrow’s favorite artists,” Hardison said.