On Monday, David Byrne appeared on NBC‘s TODAY show to talk about the importance of saving independent venues across the country. The former Talking Heads frontman is just one of hundreds of musicians who signed a letter to congress seeking financial aid on behalf of the National Independent Venues Association (NIVA) in June.
NIVA is a coalition of over 800 independent venues and promoters who have been lobbying the federal government for significant financial aid since April, as the shutdown of live music stretches on into yet another month.
The segment with Byrne begins by tracing Talking Heads’ roots through the burgeoning New York underground scene in the late 1970’s. With regular appearances at CBGB, the new wave band was able to hone their craft in an independent environment that allowed them to find their now-iconic voice. Byrne says that small venues like CBGB, which closed in 2006, are paramount to the formation of new artists and the live music industry as a whole.
“I see these smaller venues as essential in that chain of venues that keeps the whole system healthy,” Byrne said. He expanded on this food chain theory in an essay published Wednesday by Pollstar,
As time passed I’ve played a wide variety of venues, and I came to realize that there’s a kind of ecosystem at work – the little clubs nurture the acts that will eventually play the 800-capacity clubs and those in turn feed acts into the 1,500-capacity small theaters and ballrooms. Those venues support acts that will eventually play 2,500-seat theaters and carry their own crews and support. Each level feeds into the next. Musicians need each rung on this ladder to be in place in order to be able to reach the next one. When there are gaps in the chain, when there are rungs missing in the ladder, then musicians’ struggle to leap to a higher level – one that might be just beyond their reach.
While Byrne and hundreds of others signed the NIVA letter back in June, and the organization has been lobbying since April, independent venues across the country have seen little in the way of federal aid. A survey of NIVA members notes that 90 percent of independent venues say they will be forced to permanently close without significant government assistance.
Many businesses across the country, including bars and restaurants, received some sort of stimulus from the government at the initial onset of quarantine. Unfortunately those relief packages were tied to company payroll, meaning that if there isn’t any work then venues cannot claim that money, leaving many to feel like they have fallen through the cracks.
TODAY highlights The Bitter End in Greenwich Village in New York in particular. At the iconic club, posters for March concerts still hang ominously in the window as owner Paul Rizzo tries to plot the path forward.
“We’ve been here for 60 years. We went through 9/11, and we went through disco,” Rizzo said. “This is everywhere, it’s a global thing.”
Rizzo also notes that his closure not only hurts himself, his staff, and the performers, but also has a residual effect on the neighborhood. NIVA founder and owner of First Avenue in Minneapolis, MN Dayna Frank has cited a study that shows for every $1 spent on concert tickets, $12 goes toward the local economy by way of hotels, restaurants, cabs, and more.
“For the 75 people who show up to my show at 7 o’ clock let’s say, by 8:30 or 9 o’ clock they’re filtering out and they’re going to the restaurant across the street or the pizza place on the way home,” Rizzo said. “So they’re feeding the local economy.”
For now, Rizzo is attempting to make do with social distancing regulations and holding seated concerts of 65 people, compared to his normal capacity of 230. While these shows may be alluring to concert-hungry fans, the financial realities for club owners, as well as artists, simply aren’t sustainable. A pilot concert in England last month featuring singer-songwriter Frank Turner performing at a 20 percent capacity Clapham Grand did not bring in enough money to cover the venue’s operating cost, let alone the artist’s fee, the club’s owner said.
“We need to have the energy and innovation flowing from the smaller places and it filters up,” Byrne said. “If you don’t have that then eventually there’s gonna be nothing at the top.”
Watch the full TODAY interview featuring David Byrne here.