Arts Commentary: Endangered Species — Independent, Small Venues
By JJ Gonson
What’s happening right now, this is a bloodbath. It is full on slaughter of small businesses. They lie in the streets gasping for breath.
Independent, small venues. We talk a lot about them in the Boston music scene, and about how few of them there are. Not enough to support all of the local and small touring bands who want to play. We lament the closing of long loved venues. The loss of those rooms that we hold so dear, even though reality is this is normal life in business.
Businesses close. What it costs to operate a live music venue boggles the mind.
There are things that you can see when you walk in the door. There’s the people getting paid (which is a good thing!), there’s the lights that are on and the PA burning electricity. There’s the cost of booze. There’s rent, obviously, and we all know how high rent is in Massachusetts and especially in the Boston area. Then there’s the things you can’t see. Insurance, licensing fees, repairs when things break, like ice machines and toilets.
People know that it’s expensive to run an independent venue, but they don’t really know what that means. They don’t know how close to the bone small business owners, including venue owners, are running all the time. Every day. No margin for error, no cushion.
Now isn’t a normal reality of a business closing. What’s happening right now, this is a bloodbath. It is full on slaughter of small businesses. They lie in the streets gasping for breath.
There is fear, and there is anger! Righteous indignation! My business! My life! How can this be happening? And it’s happening to everyone! Help!!
It’s happening to all of the venues. The small venues, the medium size venues, and yes, the big venues, too. The difference is that small venues, most of them, are also independent, small businesses, and things are not looking good for small businesses right now.
When one business goes under it’s easy to pay attention, maybe even to fundraise, but when they all go under a cacophony of asking follows. So, when every business matters, every single solitary business, and every single one of them is failing, why am I here to tell you why a small venue matters?
Short answer, it’s because art matters and performance is a powerful form of art.
If you don’t believe me, look at what’s been going on all around us since the pandemic started. People are sewing and cooking for solace and to support each other. They are making videos and sharing them with their friends. They are making music. They are painting and showing other people how to do it in Zoom. The other thing that performance provides is social gathering. The being together. We are seeking that in whatever ways we can. Those Zoom classes are a way of being together. Being together is so important! We cannot live happy lives without it, and this is where the venues come in.
Art nurtures the soul, the body, the mind, and the spirit. And together, all together in one space, listening to music or watching someone speak or jumping up and down to punk rock aerobics, together we find a way of being whole. And isn’t that what we want to be? Together and feeling that warm bond? That has never been so poignant as it is now that it’s been suddenly removed.
Small venues. Independent venues. These are the places where you can go to have a party with five Honk bands and people walking around on stilts and spinning electric hula hoops. Heavy metal bands and punk bands, often gazed at askance by corporate rooms, find their homes here. Frequently these are also the places where people gather for important life events like weddings and anniversary parties. We have hosted so many beautiful weddings at ONCE. It is our joy to create the perfect space for two peoples’ perfect day. This is an extra good place for a wedding because we’ve got such a good sound system and sometimes people really want to rock at their weddings. We are happy to oblige.
Bands cannot start on arena tours. Sure, they’d love to, but you have to work your way up, earn your stripes and pay your dues. And while you’re paying those fucking dues you frequently are doing it in a van with a few other smelly people. You’re stopping at cheap places to eat and sleeping on peoples’ floors and the whole reason you do it is to play at small, independent venues. It’s how bands get good. Playing over and over and over again to different audiences. Listening and learning from those audiences’ reactions. Building fan bases so that they can sell T-shirts and records everywhere they go so they can keep doing it. Because it’s art, and that matters.
Small, independent venues are more able to support these bands. Perhaps their overheads are lower, being in less high-volume areas, and frequently they aren’t locked into very specific booking contracts so they are able to be more flexible in their programming.
A big part of our job is to make the venue appealing so that bands want to come back again when they tour through. Independent venues frequently are run by a few people who are intimate with the space and how it works best for bands and they can be accommodating and provide natural hospitality. People who work at small venues do it for love. There’s not a lot of money, but there’s so many wonderful experiences to be had every day.
We call ourselves independent, but what we are is interdependent. Performance is art. Art soothes and nurtures us. It makes us happy. Without the bands and the audience the venues cannot provide art. And without venues we are all making art in a void.
JJ Gonson is the owner of Cuisine en Locale/ONCE Somerville. — “Written with love for the staff of ONCE Somerville. I miss you and can’t wait to see you soon.”