By Steve Provizer
The advantage of localism enjoyed by a club down the block disappears in cyberspace.
More than a decade ago, the financial infrastructure of music started to shift dramatically and traumatically. Streaming supplanted album sales; lower attendance at live events and rising real estate values combined to force a number of area music venues to close.
Since the onslaught of COVID-19, the situation has turned from difficult to dire.
The music business is a large, interconnected system. There are clubs, concert halls, and outdoor venues. There are record sales, streaming revenue, and merchandise sales. All of these have been disrupted by the pandemic, except for streaming. “Free” downloading remains enormous, while paid streaming, while it supports labels, provides a laughable amount of income for musicians. Everyone’s crystal ball is hazy at the moment, but it seems to me that the business of music is in for even more of a pounding.
Large concerts and national music tours are out; every state in the country must be fully open before these can be resumed. The infrastructure that supported the concert industry — booking, production, travel, sound, lighting, ticketing, and security — will need to find creative ways to retool or just close up shop. Record store chains are dead, while the mom and pop industry will only survive if these stores can elevate their online game. Some of them had already beefed up their web presence and are ahead of the game. A natural step to ensure survival will be to form collectives: a group of 130 record stores in England has planned an event called #Loverecordstores for June 20. Hoping to compensate for lost retail sales and promotion, the gathering will feature 24 hours of live music and other attractions put together by a consortium of record labels.
The reopening of commercial music venues will be dicey. There have been ongoing efforts to keep the name of a club alive through a series of branded webcasts. For example, New York City’s “Blue Note” and “Village Vanguard” run webcasts and “Jazz at Lincoln Center” streams online concerts and master classes. However, Boston area venues like Outpost 186, Lilypad, Mad Monkfish, Darryl’s Corner Bar & Kitchen, the Bebop, Wally’s, Beehive, Scullers, Regattabar, Sinclair, Aeronaut, and Lizard Lounge either don’t have the resources or the will to generate a powerful online presence.
For any scenario that touches on commercial music venues, real estate is key.
The big jazz rooms in hotels, Scullers and Regattabar, occupy valuable real estate. Their future has been precarious for awhile; even before the pandemic, management had begun treating those rooms more as rentable function areas than music spaces. Some of the smaller venues — the Lilypad, Wally’s, and Outpost 186 — operate in buildings they own. They survive through rentals — of the performance room as well as other spaces in the buildings. They will no doubt have to restrict the number of attendees, which means less money to producers. That means if the latter don’t want to lose money, they will have to present fewer events, charge higher admission prices, and cut musician compensation. There are musicians who rent those rooms at a low rate on a steady basis and they will continue to do so. I think these rooms are in a good position to weather the crisis and reopen. Patrons of Wally’s recently kicked in $30,000 in a GoFundMe campaign to support the club. I’m less sanguine about the prospects for Mad Monkfish, Darryl’s, the Bebop, Beehive, the Sinclair, and Toad — all renters in areas of valuable real estate.
There is an organization called the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA). NIVA has 2,000 members in all 50 states and recently conducted a survey in which 90 percent of its members find that they “will be forced to cease operations permanently if the shutdown lasts six months or longer and there’s no federal support provided.”
Accordingly, NIVA is trying to gather support to lobby Congress for help. Specifically, the organization is trying to receive funding for its members that will cover six months’ worth of payroll, benefits, and fixed operating costs, such as rent/mortgage, utilities, taxes, and insurance. These are expenses that continue even while the venues are forced to remain closed. They’re also asking for “loan forgiveness and tax credits related to ticket refunds, employee retention, and safe workplace initiatives, as well as the expansion of the PPP to cover salary and insurance benefits for part-time employees, which make up a large percentage of venue staff.” Congress itself should be a “gig economy” — working with no long-term security and benefits. But it has given itself the benefits of a lifetime sinecure — on Uncle Sam’s dime. To my mind, Congress is neither knowledgeable about nor particularly sympathetic to the real gig economy. We’ll see how much help they provide.
Online video communication will become more sophisticated, and that supplies opportunities for those producing web concerts. However, I think the situation will mirror the transition that the retail world has been experiencing. On the one hand, you don’t have to deal with the expenses posed by the “brick and mortar” world — rent, mortgage, insurance, and all the rest of it. This advantage has worked to the benefit of online retail in spectacular fashion over the last 10 years. On the other hand, without pockets deep enough to promote (musical) performances across platforms, local producers’ events will be buried beneath a pile of competing events. The contest for eyeballs and ears will become cutthroat intense. Also, in cyberspace, the advantage of localism enjoyed by a club down the block disappears.
Two big questions have yet to be answered: First, will people buy tickets to online musical events? The jury is out, but I’m not seeing strong evidence that it will. Second, is the act of going out to hear live music just a habit like any other? What if that habit is interrupted for a considerable amount of time — will it dissipate? Or, will the hunger to see musicians in live performance grow stronger as our time in isolation goes by?
Before the pandemic, there had already been a movement toward house concerts and concert series in libraries, churches, gallery spaces, and lofts. Events of this kind will most likely grow. Grassroots political pressure might be applied to local governments to provide small performance spaces in public buildings and new public construction.
There are grassroots efforts to maintain a strong musician-audience bond. A friend, George Mokray, describes a couple of these: “I know a group that has formed around the related bands Fandango (Wednesday nights at The Toad) and the Natural Wonders (Sunday afternoons at Sally O’Brien’s); it has kept their community going with Zoom meetings on Wednesdays and Sundays. They are a strong community of musicians, dancers, and listeners which has developed over the last decade plus.”
At this point, many aspects of American life seem to be up for possible reconstruction: Can we rethink policing? Can there be a satisfactory redress of racial inequalities? So too, in music. Will the fix we are in today challenge or reinforce the public attitude that music should be free? Will people with business skills decide to stay away because of the meager rewards of music promotion? Will the appalling financial situation of more and more musicians scare young talents away from pursuing a life in music?
Or, will grassroots production in alternative spaces and ongoing efforts to bond musicians with audiences gain momentum? Will consortia of interested stores and venues arise to maximize limited funds? Will they mobilize social media campaigns to effectively invite audiences back (to the maximum socially-distanced extent possible)? America will most likely be ping-ponging between waves of recovery and reinfection for a considerable time to come, a situation that will only cause the music industry further stress. There are no miracles in sight, but even turning the clock back a bit — from dire to difficult — would be an improvement.
Steve Provizer writes on a range of subjects, most often the arts. He is a musician and blogs about jazz here.