Save Our Stages: A movement striving to keep music venues open

COVID-19's harsh toll on music clubs prompted the National Independent Venues Association (NIVA) to take action

David Moroney; photo by Mary Papenhausen.

By Tom Reardon

COVID-19 has changed the landscape of the music industry in many ways, but for many of us, it has also changed the way we live and breathe artistically and financially.

If we consider the financial stress and strain put on artists, technicians, promoters, and club owners by the pandemic, what we are really talking about here is a massive shift in how music fans can and will interact with their favorite artists and bands moving forward as many of the venues around the nation fall to the economic pressure put on by not being able (or allowed) to have concerts.

There is a movement known as Save Our Stages which was started by the National Independent Venues Association, that is attempting to create awareness around the plight of not only all of the clubs that are in danger of being closed or swallowed up by large corporations looking to take advantage of cash strapped owners, but also the thousands of sound engineers, technicians, bar staff, and security staff who are also left without a proverbial pot to piss in right now. For many of these people, the prospect of changing careers is difficult, to say the least, but nearly impossible as the world shifts to figuring out how to exist more online than in person.

For many of us, live music is akin to a lifeline. As a longtime musician, this is the longest I have gone without playing music for an audience since 1992. When I let that sink in, it stings. Truly, it stings like a motherfucker, but I also feel like the responsible thing for me to do as an artist is to hold off and wait until it is safer to actually invite people to see my band play. For some, though, that idea is a luxury they cannot afford.

I spoke to several people from the Phoenix music community about how COVID-19 has impacted their lives. This is what they had to say:

With as much detail as you can share, please tell me about the impact COVID-19 has had on you and your business.

Paul Benson – Club Red/Red Owl Burgers: I have had to let a majority of my employees go from the company. I do retain a very small staff for cleaning and planning purposes, but what we had all hoped would be a few months has turned into most of the year. With local government restrictions, companies like mine cannot even be open to serve food, as our liquor license is specific to bar activities. During the short time we were allowed to be open, we hosted a few Taco Tuesday nights with lots of precautions.

Stephen Chilton – Rebel Lounge/Psyko Steve Presents: We have been completely shut since March 15th. Passing five months with virtually zero revenue. We did a fundraiser for our staff, that just went to the employees not the business. We have done a few streams, but there just isn’t any money for the venues in these streams. We simply do them to help the artist. We have postponed or cancelled hundreds of shows. Last year we produced over 600 shows, this year we will likely do less than 75.

David Moroney – Stateside Presents/Crescent Ballroom/Valley Bar: COVID-19 closed the venues that i work at pretty much overnight on March 15. Luckily, I received my paycheck for a few months following the shut-down, but all of the gigs that supplemented a third of my income vanished. I’ve been keeping busy throughout helping curate social media content for the venues, supporting and propping up our community.

Danielle Mora – Lighting Designer/Production/Artist Transportation: Let me count the ways …

I am 100% employed by the live music and event industry. I am a multifaceted gig worker as well as a regular W2 employee. My two main venues have shut down and won’t be having shows for the foreseeable future. All of my summer and winter festival and sporting event work is canceled as well. I have been in this industry in one form or another for 19 years. I have a degree in audio production. I am a professional lighting designer/production manager. I also work in artist transportation for festivals and the Super Bowl. For the City of Mesa, I have done tech work, artist hospitality, and currently, box office. In addition to that, I have side gig work in merchandising, touring, and occasional corporate event production. I have cultivated these skills, to be wide-reaching. As of March 1, I could have gone anywhere and worked in almost any job in the live events industry music or otherwise. As of March 18th, my entire industry no longer exists. I can’t take my job skills in another direction. Nothing I know how to do doesn’t involve mass gatherings. 

Since the shutdown, I have left my condo and gone to Colorado to help out with the family farm. That’s right, this punk rock-and-roller is getting grain to goats and irrigating alfalfa fields. It was supposed to be for a few months while it was hot in AZ and there was extra work for my family to do at home as they are *ahem* upper middle-aged women and seniors. The family time is nice, but that doesn’t mean my house payments or car payments stopped or were being taken care of by someone else. I have sold my 2nd vehicle and gotten a roommate. I have finally been on unemployment insurance (UI) for about two months now. That UI is now reduced to $210/week because congress could give a shit about us. I, like many in our industry, are not insured and cannot afford to go to the doctor. I am dwindling my savings, selling belongings, and canceling everything I can get away with. Professionally, I know that when things open up again, I will have work. My standing is strong in the community and my resumé is long. But who knows which venues will survive this? Who knows what types of events will be able to come back? And who knows when they will or if they would be safe enough to actually want to work when they do? I have had bartending offers in AZ this summer that I turned down because I don’t believe we have any business being open. That said, I am horrified at what’s happening to those small businesses.

How has the city, state, and federal government helped and where have they fallen short? Why?

Paul Benson – Club Red: As of right now, COVID numbers are finally declining in our area. It took the government a little too long to make any executive decisions about how to handle the situation. The governor himself did not want to take any responsibility in how the situation was managed and instead left it to the mayors to make decisions. After the first closure spanning from mid-March through a chunk of May, we had tried to re-open using our food truck and set the rooms up for dining service. With the large number of speculators and misinformation going around, it took less than a month for the government to enact a second closure. While this was the right decision, the fact that no enforcement of protocol for local bars quickly made the situation for everyone much worse. There are bars here locally that have not shut down once during the time of enforcement, which makes it harder for a business like mine to open back up legitimately. We have been closed since March 16th of this year, with very little business to help keep us afloat.

Stephen Chilton – Rebel Lounge/Psyko Steve Presents:

 We got some aide from PPP. That was a disaster for a lot of reasons. And it was far too little to save these venues. Arizona has been far worse than most states at helping small businesses. 

Stephen Chilton; photo by Justin Yee.

David Moroney – Stateside Presents/Crescent Ballroom/Valley Bar: It all obviously started with a failed response from the federal government, as a pandemic of this magnitude requires a top-down strategy to help the country govern and to implement federal resources. State government in Arizona failed in terms of how they spent their relief money, as well for doubling down on the inconsistent, non-scientific approach coming from the fed. Doug Ducey could have created a unique strategy for the state, but instead decided to govern in favor of the overzealous fed and the people demanding we reopen in mid-May. Big mistakes that have cost thousands of people their lives and/or livelihoods.

Mora: In the beginning, gig workers in the music industry were s.o.l. (Shit out of luck).  I started writing to my state representatives at the end of March about it. They had no idea we were falling between the cracks or that we were such a large demographic. I received a response from AZ democrat, Senator  Kristen Sinema’s camp. They actually asked for input and info but weren’t able to do much in practicality. In July, I got a response from Trumpster Martha McSally whose office let me know about the PPP and PUA  benefits coming up. She did not care for a response or questions.

This may be too anecdotal for you, but I’ll include it to be thorough. I work part-time for a city arts facility as one of my jobs. It obviously shut down but they kept us on and made up busy work for us rather than lay us off because they didn’t want to pay the UI benefits. When I applied for them, the director, a musician in a local (Phoenix) Afrobeat (Orchestra) band, no less, denied my benefits. They then laid us off with just a few weeks of the fed’s $600 bonus left. I was making $800/ instead of the $3000-3500 I would have been and was denied benefits. It was obvious to everyone including the City of Mesa that we would not be having shows until at least the fall, likely January, but the city chose to give us a few hours of “bonus pay” rather than lay off its employees. It was honestly the biggest financial problem I’ve had so far, completely unnecessary and beyond insulting for a company and City I’ve worked for nine years. I was also not paid out any of my holiday or sick leave time but that’s no surprise. Random side note, I did receive a $1000 grant from Live Nations fund.

What resources are you using to get accurate (as much as possible) information about the guidelines that have been shared by the state regarding opening and closing of businesses like yours? 

Benson: I stay up to date on CDC (and other legitimate health organizations) guidelines and regulations. I am watching every single event that I can from around the world, seeing what other promoters/venues are doing and trying to implement as much of it as possible. There are some simple things that can be done to help stop the spread, and then you see someone do something amazing and my first thought is, welp, I’m stealing that idea.

Chilton: I have not been following the guidelines too closely. They are a joke and radically inadequate. They have not been helpful. The Governor’s office clearly doesn’t want to do the hard work of thinking this problem through. We know concerts will be the last things to come back. We never had to shut down again because we had never reopened again. We are a post-vaccine industry. There is just no way to have concerts and follow social distancing. Defeats the whole point if you can’t socialize or sing along with your friends or dance with the person next to you. 

What precautions will your club(s) be taking when things are clear to open again?

Paul Benson/Club Red: We have never once failed a health inspection either inside the building, or on the food truck. At the end of February, we began implementing a large number of procedures in the venue to enhance cleanliness all around. These included but have not been limited to: requiring all employees to wear masks and gloves, wash their hands regularly throughout the shift, and start of shift temperature checks. The main area of concern is the front security checkpoint, as there are no sinks outside, but we do have a large amount of hand sanitizer. We have set up hand sanitizing stations throughout the venue, changed all of our AC filters to medical grade, placed ionizers around the building to clean the air, set up acrylic barriers at the bar stations for further distancing, and limited our capacity massively. The slowest part of this process has been changing out all of the faucets, toilet flushers, and paper towel dispensers to automatic. This is mainly due to lack of product on the market. Of our 2 rooms, we are only using the larger room and encouraging social distancing.  We will also require patrons to wear masks inside the building when not eating or directly drinking. No mask, no entry, and if you forgot your mask, we have them at the door.

David Moroney/Stateside Presents/Crescent Ballroom/Valley Bar: The venues will not open until it’s safe for our staff, patrons, and artists – according to the CDC and Phoenix city policy.

Paul, I think you had a few shows, maybe even the MetalHeads things a few months ago. Were there any complications? Were people social distancing at all?

Paul Benson/Club Red: We had a few shows between March 16th and the end of June. I would guess probably 4 total. They went surprisingly well. Most people were socially distancing themselves and wearing masks. The combination of a vigilant staff and people in general sticking to themselves made those events a success.

What are you hearing from the other stakeholders in this situation, such as musicians, booking agents, technical folks (engineers, road managers, etc), and how this situation is impacting them?

Paul Benson/Club Red: A lot of us are really antsy and excited to get back to work, but we want things done the right way so everyone is safe. I have heard many different ideas on how to run events with little to no customers in the building, but it takes away from the entire experience. There is also a certain amount of lack of communication going around. When a promoter asks for a date a few months away, it’s all hurry up and wait until we actually know what can and can’t happen.  Then it falls on everyone to properly communicate, from the promoter, to the agent, to management, to the band themselves. These can sometimes take days or weeks to send things up the ladder. I have even seen some shows cancel online, and the band or manager has not conveyed this to the rest of us waiting to work. I think again, everyone wants to get back to work, but it has to be done in the safest manner possible. Many people in the live music industry have had to seek jobs in other industries, completely uprooting their entire lives.

Stephen Chilton/Rebel Lounge/Psyko Steve Presents: This is just horrible for so many crew and workers and small artists. The Government is just failing them. So many of them are 1099 / “Gig Workers” who don’t have a quote “full time employer.” Getting unemployment has been hard for a lot of them. Just remember this industry is where the word “Gig Worker” came from. You just can’t employ stage crew when there are no shows on those stages. It is hard to watch politicians and TV talking heads call these people “lazy” because if you have ever watched stage hands clear a stage at the end of the night after everyone else has gone home you know that is the last thing these people are.

For artists there are two camps. For the largest artists they are used to taking long times off between tours. They will work on records and new music and be fine. Then there’s everyone else, the working musicians. Some artists make between 75%-95% of their income from touring and performances. For so many artists this is just devastating. I think fans would be surprised how many of their favorite artists still fall in this group.

David Moroney/Stateside Presents/Crescent Ballroom/Valley Bar: All the same across the board in terms of re-opening. For artists and event/production staff, people are trying to find safe gigs in the meantime. Most seem to be at a standstill for now… everyone is patient for the most part. This impacted everyone in such a  devastating way. Taking away one’s livelihood is one thing, taking away one’s sense of purpose is indeed a significant loss in life.

Mora: Shit’s fucked. Everyone is scraping everything they can right now. It’s a hard hustle for most and a sad unfolding for many. I know venue managers, audio guys, touring musicians, etc., who are delivering food or selling weed. The $600 was good when it was around, but it started late for us, didn’t cover everyone and is now over. Venues are either closing down or selling to buyers who don’t intend to reinstate its former glory. Many owners are fighting for their building and staff with loans and charity drives and the Save Our Stages movement.  A couple people are doing ok as they are both industrious (reckless?) about how to sell to-go items or have deep enough pockets to sustain. 

In other sides of events/production, we have theater, corporate, TV/movies, and sports. We all knew sports would figure it out first and then TV/movies. That’s where the big bucks and the lobbyist are. Corporate will come back for smaller production staff as well sooner than live music. I don’t see widespread mass gathering events becoming regular until 2022. Some will start to trickle in maybe by next spring but not groups over 150. I have no idea how long it will take for an independent band to be able to hop in a van and tour again. 

The bright side is that while everyone is completely fucked and will still be for a long time to come, we all are what we are. Most didn’t choose this industry to get rich and most find out very quickly it’s not nearly as glamorous as people think if you’re not Kanye West. We do it because we love it. We do it because we have to for our souls. So, artists are still making new music. They’re still recording. They’re still making little Instagram and Facebook videos and releasing their music for free. They’re doing fundraisers for their crews and local indie venues. People are figuring out creative and stripped down ways of keeping music alive. We might all lose our apartments and some may have to start over in new jobs or ones they did when they were 16, but music is not dying. 

How will this impact your staff moving forward and how has it impacted them so far? For example, have you had people find new jobs that will probably make it so they will not be back to work for you?

Paul Benson/Club Red: I am very fortunate to have a hard working and loyal staff. Many of them already had second jobs that were less impacted by COVID 19, and I am extremely grateful for them to have been in that situation. Several have now found full time opportunities outside of the venue. I am unsure of how many of them will have the ability to come back due to other opportunities. I don’t know if some of them may be too worried to work in this type of environment as we slowly open back up, or if they will be like myself and want to jump in head first to get back to doing what we all love, working with music.

Stephen Chilton/Rebel Lounge/Psyko Steve Presents: This is hard on everyone. For a lot of venue staff this is their second job, their few nights a week side gig. Some of them are lucky and have a day job to fall back on. For others, their other jobs are in similar situations and they are screwed on both sides. It will be sad to see any of them not come back if they find a new job while we are closed. But I will be happy for any of them who find something new. They need to do whatever is best for them and I would support any of them in that. 

David Moroney/Stateside Presents/Crescent Ballroom/Valley Bar: People have definitely gone out to find new employment, temporary or otherwise. Due to the extra UI assistance, a lot of our employees were able to stay safe and continue on during quarantine, but now without that I’m really not sure what will happen. I’m wholly in favor of the federal government passing the Heroes Act as well as the Save Our Stages Act. In one action, congress can ensure the continued safety of citizens, artists, government agencies and resources, USPS, and more.

What do you think the average music fan should know about how this pandemic is changing the landscape of the live music world? Especially if there are things you think they wouldn’t typically realize…

Mora: They should know it’s not coming back soon and when it does, it’s not going to look the same. They should know that without them, their favorite artists and the people behind them are starving. On a practical level, event prices will have to go up once people start trying to tour again. Capacities in venues will be way, way down for a long time and it’s going to cost more to tour as well keeping safety in mind. Festivals are going to be drastically different. They won’t have the budgets for the insane line ups and production.

Capacity, there will be less, too, and likely with physical boundaries for people which will bum out the vibe for all those EDM hippy lovers and smelly punk moshers. Many of their favorite venues won’t make it. The ones which do, will be bought by the bigger fish in their area and will have a more corporate feel. Huge artists aren’t going to be touring even longer because they have the money to sit tight. Upstart artists may not be able to afford it at all either. Less music will be pushed by labels because they won’t have the budgets for distro and marketing for all their bands. Far more will be online. Most of all, they should know that not being responsible with masks, distancing, etc., is the number one reason it will take longer than it should to go back to shows. 

What would you like to see happen next? This could be a big or small picture view. 

Mora: The biggest thing I would like to see is the expansion of unemployment qualifications and extension of the Covid relief bonus money. In the beginning only W2 employees qualified. A huge percentage of the music industry is 1099. Those 1099 people couldn’t get any help. Then the PUA came in to help them. But this did not include anyone who is both. So much of the industry is gig work and most people have both W2 and 1099 work.

As it stands currently, if you have any W2 work currently, even if it is massively reduced due to Covid, you do not qualify for that PUA. And your company could opt to refuse your benefits because you are a part time employee. So I would like to see the PUA portion opened up to include all types of gig workers and for them to be able to get back payments on that. I would also like people temporarily unemployed or underemployed in any field due to Covid right now be allowed into Medicaid because people should not be too poor to see a doctor right now. But that’s a whole bigger topic. 

Small picture, I would like venues to stick together and not act irresponsibly. Every tiny dive throwing shows where they don’t enforce a mask rule is drawing this out longer and longer for all of us. 

What else do you want to add? I’m happy to share any and all pertinent information.

Paul Benson/Club Red: There is a group of local bands and artists that recently put together a fundraiser to help support Club Red in this time of need. One of the main organizers that I have been in contact with is Stephen Poff. He reached out to local bands and a print company to put together a way to help pay the bills of keeping a venue alive. The bands involved and contributing have played at Club Red on local and national shows, and have always worked hard to push their brand as well as ours. You can find more info about this amazing project #ClubRedAlive at https://inktopress.com/collections/club-red-alive. This shows how much the local scene cares about the live concert environment and how much we all want to make sure we can remain open in this time of uncertainty. Other businesses, (not as readily thought of) that have also been impacted by COVID-19 closures include rehearsal spaces for bands (hourly or monthly) and freelance engineers.

Stephen Chilton/Rebel Lounge/Psyko Steve Presents: This problem is gigantic. It cannot be over hyped how bad the live events industry is in. It is why #SaveOurStages is so important. We are closed to protect the public, and now we need the public to protect us if we are to survive. The Federal Government has to step up or we are just going to see small businesses devastated. If we don’t see action soon it might be too late. It will take years to recover to where we were.

David Moroney/Stateside Presents/Crescent Ballroom/Valley Bar: I’m currently also working on the new Phoenix Afrobeat Orchestra record with the band, as well as other creative projects that keep my mind sane and my patience intact.

Mora: In my opinion,  we have to rethink a lot of things about how we can monetize and keep people safe. I think local shows are going to be far more important than they have been in a long time because touring will be so hard for so long and for so many reasons. Also, the kids already do everything online. Adults are going to have to get on board with that or get used to one shitty local show with 12 people outside and a bar they don’t know a couple of times/year. I honestly don’t know how things will shake out. I think a lot of office and production people are going to have to find other types of work. Artists will too but they can still make music and get it online. I can’t go put on a light show to an MP3 for no one in a venue that’s shut down.