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NIVA’s Quest To Save Independent Music Venues From Permanent Closure …

Written by on July 15, 2020

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The National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) is an organization committed to uniting music venues across the country, promoting and nurturing the environment of live music halls. Ayana Contreras had the opportunity to chat with co-founder Chris Bauman about NIVA’s support of music venues amidst the COVID-19 global pandemic.


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Ayana Contreras: Happy to have you, Chris. Could you give us a brief overview of your work and your participation with NIVA?

I’m Chris Bauman, I own Zenith Music Group in Chicago. We have Avondale Music Hall and Patio Theater; we’re partners in the Lyrical Lemonade Summer Smash festival in Douglas Park. SPKRBX is one of the production promoter companies. And when it comes to NIVA, I’m one of the founding members of NIVA and then also a precinct captain at NIVA in charge of Illinois and the Midwest. So, NIVA is now comprised of 2000 music venues across the United States. This is actually the first time that independent music venues have had an opportunity or a real need to come together and unite, and we’ve been able to do that through NIVA. You know, it’s actually pretty crazy because over a four-month period, we’ve literally unified the entire country, in terms of independent music, and come together to really, quite frankly, save our industry.

AC: In the wake of COVID-19, what are challenges that the shutdowns have created for you and the live music community?

CB: To be completely honest with you, it has totally decimated our industry. You know, I use the analogy that if it was a national disaster, it would be like a tornado landed directly on our music venues and we have to rebuild them all. We have to get them going again. That’s exactly what’s happening now economically with us being shut down by the government for the public health. We’re in really bad shape.

And that’s why we’ve been lobbying Congress, we’ve been lobbying the state, we’ve been talking to the city of Chicago, just for any sort of relief. Really, our goal is just we want to open our doors again. There are studies showing that 90% of NIVA members will be closed in the next three to six months if there’s no sort of national relief or any sort of state-organized relief efforts to keep us alive and open our doors again.

So, you know, aside from the economics, there’s an emotional side to it too. I’ve done this and I got into this business because I’m passionate about creating once in a lifetime experiences for people. And that’s what you get right when you go to the Metro or Avondale Music Hall or Sleeping Village or The Hideout, or any of these awesome venues that Chicago is looked at by the rest of the world for our music scene. And right now, we’re just very much at risk of losing that. But other places like Britain have just passed $1.7 billion to retain and keep their live music in their culture through this. Right now we’re trying to push some things into Congress, and through our Save Our Stages campaign. We just broke a million emails to congressmen and senators, nationally, to support RESTART, which is the bill that we’re pushing in Congress, which could give us the relief we need to open up again. As you know, politics has become a little crazy in this country, so we’re hopeful to get it through.

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AC: What about from the artist perspective? I’m sure plenty of artists are going struggling due to live venues representing a big part of their income.

CB: You’re so correct. We are basically the engine to all these economic drivers. We’re the economic driver to musicians getting paid, to sound techs getting paid, to bartenders getting paid, to stagehands getting paid. The live music industry also produces revenue for surrounding bars. So when you go to a show, what do you do? Well, you go to a bar beforehand, right? You’ll go get dinner beforehand, you’ll go to a bar afterwards. You park your car, right? So you have parking lots next to music venues that are also suffering. So really, we are this economic pillar for musicians.

And musicians are in a very bad spot as well right now. Obviously different things have been going on to try to plug the hole with live streaming and trying to take donations and trying to do things like that. But it’s just not, at the end of the day, going to allow us or musicians to really survive.

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AC: You mentioned a couple of clubs and venues associated with NIVA already, but could you name some other organizations or spaces in Chicago engaged with NIVA as well?

CB: Right now, we’ve got a little over 100 venues in Illinois, and then in Chicago alone, I believe there’s over 40 or 50. I’ll have to check the exact number, but I’m just trying to think off the top of my head, but The Riviera, The Vic, Patio Theater which I own, and then Avondale Music Hall which I own, The Metro, Sleeping Village. Pretty much every venue in Chicago that your listeners have gone to probably are part of this organization at this point because we’ve been forced to all come together.

And you know, if there’s been one silver lining to all this, it’s actually coming together as an industry in Chicago and working through this and really our survival being vested in each other: calling congressmen and trying to reach out to people that we’ve never reached out to you before. We used to call agents and we talk to musicians. And now we’re on the phone every day with, you know, “Senator so and so” and “Congressman so and so”. We really all had to come together now to ensure our survival. If anything has come out of this, it’s been the silver lining of just the camaraderie that us as a music scene in Chicago have become.

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AC: What do you suggest as a solution to help folks fix this situation?

CB: You know, it’s such a good question. And I… don’t know. I mean, I don’t know if the government knows. I’m not sure anyone really knows. I know that in Illinois, compared to the rest of the country, we’re doing a very good job, it seems, in keeping the COVID rates down and keeping deaths down. It seems like we’re going in the right direction in Illinois. Now, the problem is that our business is built on social gathering. Our business is built on getting really into a show and being shoulder-to-shoulder potentially with somebody at any type of genre show. Right now, we’re looking at probably spring 2021 before I’m going to be able to open again.

We also run into this problem where we can’t open in phase four right now Chicago’s plan. I’ve got hundreds and hundreds of people that are supposed to be in my venues, and I have these huge buildings, opening up for 50 people to be in social distant, A) it doesn’t work with all genres of music. You can’t do it with certain genres and then, B) I’d end up losing more money opening, taking all my employees off unemployment or anything else that they might be on, and then end up having the risk of being shut down again, which would be totally disastrous. We’re just in a very precarious spot.

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AC: So the RESTART Act, what does that entail? As far as government is concerned, who’s supporting it and who’s opposing it? Would it really help?

CB: RESTART will save our industry. It is our last hope.

The Senate and the House of Representatives are going to come into session in two weeks to get things done, and then they’re going to go into recess. But they’re coming in two weeks to Washington to do what everyone’s expecting to be the final stimulus, at least as of now, to clean up everything else that they they’ve done to date, which I mean, we’re alive because of what’s been done. But at the same time, it has not fixed the problem and we don’t have a very long runway here.

The way that the bill is created is there are two Republican and a Democrat in the House who have sponsored it and then a Republican and Democrat in the Senate, who sponsored it. So it’s bipartisan, which means that everyone on both sides of the aisle are supportive, and we’ve just been garnishing now the support for RESTART specifically because what RESTART does is it will allow us to recoup as a grant not necessarily a loan. Which as I’m sure you can imagine, taking out more loans when you’re closed and then having to pay them back when you open isn’t really going to help the business very much. In fact, it probably put a lot of us under even quicker, having more debt and having them to pay that debt once we open again. So RESTART is a grant that is granted to hospitality, live music and other businesses where you’ll be granted and forgiven up to I think 90% based on the losses you had in 2020.

I’ll give you an example. Let’s say Avondale Music Hall has zero revenue in 2020. Then I think it’s 90% to 100% of the grant that was given will be forgivable, so it becomes a grant. Now if I end up with 50% revenue, well then 50% will be forgivable. So it offers a lot more flexibility and it’s not tied to certain financial metrics, like payroll or other things: we’ve got huge mortgages for our big venues, we’ve got huge insurance bills for our big venues. We have licensing fees, which, to my knowledge, we still have to pay in July. Some of us are having paid thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars we don’t have to just keep our venues licensed so we can open up again. Things like that have not been waived yet, or deferred. We’re trying to work with the city to get that extended or waived, but little things are going to allow us to be able to open our doors again.

Right now the best thing that anyone can do is go to saveourstages.com, because once you go there, you can sign up, and then it’ll automatically send an email to the representative where your house is locate. It’ll send it to the senators, the Congressmen, and anyone who needs to get that letter about RESTART. We actually broke a million letters to congressmen and senators and, to put that into context, that hasn’t happened in Washington D.C. for a very, very, very long time. And it shows just how much people care about the live music scene across the country, and how much your listeners and ticket buyers and people who go to events want us to come back. Can you imagine a world of all House of Blueses only? I mean, that’s honestly, unfortunately, what we might be looking at.

And that would be very tragic, again, especially for Chicago. Because we are looked at by the rest of the country and the world, for our music scene, and we’re incubating some of the artists, the best artists in the world, who then leave Chicago and go to the rest of the world and bring shine back to Chicago. We’re really at risk of losing that one last point

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AC: I know you already have had some local experience in organizing and bringing together venues in Chicago, correct?

CB: That’s exactly right. So CIVL, which is the Chicago Independent Venue League, is made up of about 40-something Chicago venues now and CIVL was formed by Katie Tuten and Tim Tuten at The Hideout and then [Robert] Gomez at The Subterranean. They founded and they’re the co-chair people of CIVL and they founded this organization to fight the big developers who were trying to come in and trying to use taxpayer money to then give Live Nation in this particular case, freebies to then build out this huge development and have all these venues that were corporate-owned in Chicago. We didn’t feel that was right from an ethical standpoint, and we didn’t feel it was right for the culture of Chicago either, which again, has been based off of independent venues like, you know, my Patio Theater was built in 1920. The only reason why it’s still standing there is because the community loves that building. And because, you know, grandparents used to take their grandchildren there since the 20s. Being able to retain that for the community is a labor of love. Nothing compares to being on stage at Patio Theater, looking out, seeing the ambiance and seeing the people. They’re never going to rebuild that again.

The culture of Chicago and our history is what’s so valuable. And you know, the whole real estate company thing and CIVL coming together to fight that, was really the start and then when the government shut us down, we thought, “Okay, like, this is going to be a serious problem. And we’re going to be totally left behind if we don’t organize and step up.” That’s really what sparked NIVA on the national level. And now we’re actually making an impact and having a voice and we need your listeners voice and we need your voice and we need everyone’s voice now to really make this happen for our survival.

My own feelings aside, obviously, I’m biased because I am a venue owner, and I am operating in Chicago, but we’re just such a risk of losing something so beautiful and awesome and unique.

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AC: We all know Chicago’s music scene is incredibly varied, but so are the venues housing these acts. Are you getting the word out to smaller venues, and other venues that maybe wouldn’t get the same attention as a Riviera, or a Thalia Hall?

CB: We are! And that’s been something to which we’ve really been active about. We want the entire city to be one, and inclusive and bringing everyone together. We are bringing more and more [venues] on and we’re actually learning every single day of new venues to your point

There are also new venues that were just about to open on the South or West Side in Chicago, and we’re helping now as a group helping each other to make sure that these venues open. To make sure that that ecosystem and that culture is retained.

There’s there’s just so so much just—I don’t even know how to phrase it—there’s just so much flavor to Chicago is what it is. There’s so much flavor. And we need to continue to embrace that. The city, the state and the federal government really just need to get behind it.

I’m so appreciative for you having me on here. And I’m sure you can hear the passion in my voice. It’s been just months and months and months of talking and lobbying and really doing whatever we can to ensure our survival. And I’m excited to see you at a show very, very soon, you know.

AC: Chris Bauman, thank you so much for your time.

CB: Thank you. Really appreciate it.


Visit SaveOurStages.com

Interview edited for length and clarity by Luis Mejia Ahrens