After earning support from senators like Lindsey Graham and Kamala Harris and such rock stars as Billy Joel and Billie Eilish over the past two months, the owner of First Avenue felt relatively optimistic.
Dayna Frank’s virtual meeting with other Minnesota music venue operators, however, added to her despondency.
“Everyone on the call across the board said their break-even point was at least 50 percent capacity, and more like 75 percent,” Frank recalled, referring to attendance limits imposed by COVID-19 health guidelines.
“I don’t know if any of us can survive long enough for that. Not without help.”
Independence Day marks a reckoning of sorts for independent music venue owners in Minnesota and around the country. Soon they’ll find out if help is on the way.
As Congress reconvenes after the July 4 holiday break, one of its main orders of business is a fourth stimulus package to spur the U.S. economy through the lingering pandemic. And one of the lobbying groups most prominently vying for tax abatements and relief money is a brand-new one called the National Independent Venues Association (NIVA), which counts the owner of Minneapolis’ world-renowned rock hall as its president.
Formed in early April with other club operators in New York and Milwaukee, NIVA’s membership now includes a total of more than a thousand clubs and promotions companies from all 50 states. Its 29 other Minnesota members range from the Bluestem Amphitheater in Moorhead and the Minnetonka-based Blue Ox Productions to the Cabooze and Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis.
The organization not only launched a social-media campaign under the hashtag #SaveOurStages, it went old school and hired a prominent Capitol Hill lobbying firm. Members of Congress are now being schooled on what a big deal small venues like the Troubadour in Los Angeles or 7th St. Entry in Minneapolis really are.
Among the sales pitches: NIVA claims its members generate $10 billion nationwide annually. Most of that money stays local, too, via taxes, rent, employment and spillover to neighboring businesses.
“We’re very community-oriented businesses,” said Lowell Pickett of Minneapolis’ Dakota jazz club. “The reason we’re remaining closed is for the health and safety of our community.”
NIVA sent out an April 22 letter to congressional leaders spelling out how bad things are at the moment for its members: “Our businesses were among the first to close as COVID-19 spread across the country, and are also likely to be among the last to reopen,” it read.
“The collapse of this crucial element in the music industry’s ecosystem would be devastating,” read a subsequent letter sent June 18 and signed by more than 600 musicians and comedians, including Willie Nelson, Lady Gaga, Mavis Staples, Coldplay, Eilish and Joel.
Most venue operators have written off the rest of 2020 altogether. So has the concert industry as a whole, with most major tours now rescheduling for the second half of 2021. NIVA claims more than half the venues in its ranks won’t see 2020 without support.
It’s worth noting, too: The industry was actually doing very well overall up until March.
“We’re not asking for help because our business model wasn’t working,” Frank emphasized, carefully differentiating independently owned music venues from corporate competitors AEG and Live Nation.
The latter company opened the newest in its chain of fancy Fillmore concert halls in Minneapolis just a month before quarantine hit.
“Independents can and are competing under normal circumstances, we just don’t have the deep resources they do to weather this,” Frank said. “We don’t have our own ticketing company. We can’t sell $500 million in stock to Saudi Arabia to get by.”
Live Nation representatives have not responded to any requests for comment from the Star Tribune in recent months, and plans at the darkened Fillmore remain gray. The company did pledge $10 million in relief to stage and tour crews globally.
Half capacities & bottom lines
Between its growing roster of venues — also including the Palace and Fitzgerald theaters, Turf Club and Fine Line — First Avenue Productions was slated to host 28 sold-out shows in April. Among them were a series of concerts to celebrate the namesake club’s 50th anniversary in early April, including some unannounced shows by such famous alumni as the Foo Fighters.
Jarret Oulman, co-owner of the Amsterdam Bar & Hall in downtown St. Paul and the 331 Club in northeast Minneapolis, had just made his biggest liquor order of the year — for St. Patrick’s Day — before the Amsterdam abruptly shut down in mid-March. He had also just purchased a cool old building over the winter to convert into a small music venue along W. 7th Street in St. Paul.
“I’m confident we can eventually bounce back,” Oulman said, “but not with the kind of incremental path that we’re looking at. If we can only operate at 25 percent capacity, that’s just going to put us in a bigger financial hole trying to operate with those limits.”
Music venues were given the chance to reopen at 25% capacity in Minnesota’s latest COVID-19 guidelines last month. Nearly all of them have stayed closed, though.
The nonprofit Cedar Cultural Center’s executive director isn’t ruling out reopening before year’s end, but he worries about having to raise ticket prices too high to break even — along with many other concerns.
“Hopefully we will do some shows at reduced capacity later this fall,” David Hamilton said. “But we have to implement training and safer distancing procedures and document our procedures.”
Some venues that double as restaurants or have patio space — which can now operate at 50% capacity in Minnesota — have offered modest live music bookings.
Both the Aster Café and Icehouse in Minneapolis are planning limited music shows starting this month. Crooners, on a spacious lakeside property in Fridley, started up its drive-in concert series last month and is also now hosting a patio music series.
“We’re trying new things and pushing the envelope a bit, but it’s not out of desperation or charity,” Crooners marketing director Beck Lee said. “We just want to be able to turn a profit while keeping everyone safe.”
With its downtown location on Nicollet Mall, the Dakota cannot expand outdoors for its music offerings and will likely wait until it’s safe to fill the room.
“I just don’t see a way out this year,” Pickett said.
Not sitting by idly
Closed venues are scratching out modest revenues via a variety of alternate sources.
The Dakota, for instance, sold “virtual e-cards” with musicians singing Father’s Day and Mother’s Day greetings. It has also promoted gift cards, some sales of which benefited its out-of-work staffers.
First Avenue has been pushing 50th anniversary T-shirts and other merchandise while also touting its Twin Cities Community Trust, a nonprofit fund that has doled out more than $200,000 to unemployed local music venue workers. It’s even opening up its doors for small private events, including weddings.
Amid all the uncertainty of the pandemic, the tragedy of George Floyd’s death in police officers’ hands and the subsequent week of rioting and looting last month became another calamity for Twin Cities venues to face.
Rioting along University Avenue in St. Paul left the Turf Club with months’ worth of repairs from looting and water damage. Near the largely ruined E. Lake Street in Minneapolis, the Hexagon Bar was burned to rubble, and the Schooner Tavern sustained extensive fire damage and looting.
The Hook & Ladder Theater — around the corner from the destroyed Third Precinct police headquarters on E. Lake — also got hit by looters and arsonists but survived well enough to begin hosting audience-less virtual concerts at the end of June. Its operators say the neighborhood’s destruction has only added to their resolve to survive the pandemic.
“We feel like we have a moral responsibility to fulfill now,” executive director Chris Mozena said.
NIVA halted its campaigning in the weeks immediately following the Floyd tragedy out of respect. Many of its members have been supporting Black Lives Matter and other racial justice causes in the meantime.
“We don’t want it to sound like our industry needs money before these causes are addressed,” said Frank, who has used First Ave’s resources to tout numerous BLM-related causes and cut contractual ties with Minneapolis police for security purposes.
Frank said her company “would be throwing all kinds of benefit concerts” for racial justice efforts if it could right now, and pledged to do so post-quarantine. That’s alongside the stockpile of dates already on the calendar for next year with concerts postponed from this year.
“There are a lot of reasons to be optimistic about 2021,” Frank said. “We just have find a way to get there.”