Pittsburgh Area Music Venues And Promoters Seek Help To Survive Pandemic Shutdown

Jun 29, 2020

About 20 of Pittsburgh’s independent music venues and promoters have joined a national effort to get federal relief for their industry, which has been sidelined during the coronavirus pandemic. Venues and promoters that present music and comedy said the shutdown has hit them especially hard, and there is no end in sight.

“Our mortgages aren’t going away, our utilities aren’t going away,” said Liz Berlin, who co-owns Mr. Smalls, in Millvale. “We have no idea when any money’s going to come in, at all.”

The marquee of the Rex Theater, on the South Side, promotes the Save Our Stages initiative.
Credit Photo by Bill O'Driscoll / 90.5 WESA

The businesses are among some 2,000 venues and promoters across the country that have joined the National Independent Venue Association, or NIVA. The group formed as the pandemic began, and is advocating in Washington for an economic stimulus tailored for the industry, which went silent in mid-March.

Revenue from ticket sales, food and beverages has zeroed out. And while bars, clubs and theaters in southwestern Pennsylvania are now permitted to operate at 50 percent capacity for gatherings of up to 250 people, with distancing requirements, the venues said they can’t function at a fraction of a full house.

“It’s not as simple as we open at half-capacity,” said Alex Neal, general manager of the Thunderbird Café and Music Hall, in Lawrenceville. “We can’t pay the artists half of what they cost. It doesn’t really work that way.”

Ticket sales must cover promoters’ expenses and venues’ costs, as well as artists’ guarantees. Those costs remain whether 500 people come through the door or 50.

"It's not as simple as we open at half-capacity"

“We’re planning on selling 850 tickets here, and that’s just not gonna be possible,” said Berlin.

And that’s to say nothing of the health risks to everyone from artists to security guards.

Many of the venues have gotten help from federal stimulus programs including the Paycheck Protection Program. The PPP was designed as an alternative to unemployment: Its forgivable loans mostly served as a way to pay full-time workers even at businesses that were wholly or partially idled. For the loans to be forgiven, the PPP requires a high percentage of the funds to be used to meet payroll. That approach is less helpful for music venues, which have high fixed costs and employ mostly part-time and contract workers.

NIVA is pushing for federal legislation like the RESTART Act, which would provide six months’ worth of mostly forgivable financing to businesses like venues and promoters. Spending rules would be more flexible than with other coronavirus relief programs, and would recognize the music industry’s heavy reliance on part-timers, from sound techs to bartenders.

Club Cafe, on the South Side, is another of Pittsburgh's shuttered music spots.
Credit Photo by Bill O'Driscoll / 90.5 WESA

“We’re not under any kind of corporate umbrella that is able to open up any big lines of credit,” said Adam Valen, marketing manager for Drusky Entertainment, which books shows at venues that include the South Side’s Smiling Moose to the landmark Carnegie Music Hall of Homestead. “When it comes to lending money, banks turn us down because we’re too risky of a model.”

An additional complication: Even if venues here could open fully, the national and international acts that sustain them are unlikely to get back on the road until artists are comfortable packing onto tour buses, and the nation is no longer a patchwork of venues operating under diverse restrictions.

Music venues and promoters are of course not the only businesses hurt by the shutdown. Most nonprofit performing-arts groups are also either dormant or operating online-only. But compared to theater troupes and dance companies, music venues rely much more heavily on touring talent.

(The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, which does present mostly touring talent at its theaters Downtown, has canceled or postponed much of its in-person programming through December, including touring Broadway shows at the Benedum Center.)

A few local clubs are presenting local acts live to reduced-capacity houses, including Jergel’s Rhythm Grill, in Warrendale, and Crafthouse Stage & Grill in Baldwin. A handful of outdoor venues are functioning, too, for events like drive-in concerts.

"Most of the gigs that were rescheduled for right around now, for June, July, August, are all pulling out again"

But for most venues, touring acts are what pay the bills. And it’s anyone’s guess when in-person concerts will resume on a wide scale.

“Most of the gigs that were rescheduled for right around now, for June, July, August, are all pulling out again,” said Berlin. “Some are booking for October or further. We don’t know if those shows are even gonna happen.”

Some say it may not be until next summer, or even later, before live music returns – and that’s assuming a coronavirus vaccine is developed.

According to a NIVA survey, 90 percent of the group's members say that without federal support, they’ll have to close for good if the shutdown lasts six months.

Other NIVA members in Pittsburgh include promoters like Opus One Productions and venues like the Roxian Theatre, in McKees Rocks; the Andrew Carnegie Free Library and Music Hall, in Carnegie; the Club Cafe and Rex Theater in the South Side; Spirit, in Lawrenceville; and the Mr. Roboto Project, in Bloomfield.

Indie venues and promoters matter because most forms of popular music -- from jazz to punk and hip-hop -- were nurtured in that environment. And because few artists start out playing hockey arenas, many musical careers were launched that way, too.

Think of the chitlin circuit, where James Brown, Tina Turner, and so many others honed their chops; Bob Dylan playing Greenwich Village clubs like Gerde’s Folk City; and the legendary CBGB’s, where the New York punk scene birthed the careers of Blondie, Patti Smith, Ramones and Talking Heads. NIVA president Dayna Frank heads First Avenue Production, in Minneapolis, which operates the famed club First Avenue, where Prince partly made his name.

Nightlife is also an economic driver for cities, generating revenue from parking, dinners out before a show, and drinks after it ends.

Lauren Goshinski, a curator and promoter based in Pittsburgh who works internationally, says NIVA recognizes that the music industry is an ecosystem, with artists and promoters as important as brick-and-mortar bars, clubs and theaters.

“I think that’s crucial, to see them together in this, and they’re inextricable from one another,” said Goshinski, a NIVA member known in Pittsburgh as longtime curator of the avant-garde musical and performance-art series VIA.

In addition, Goshinski said programs like the RESTART Act would align the U.S. with European countries that recognize the importance of nightlife not just as businesses, but also as crucial cultural spaces. In Europe, she says, “nighttime economies and live events are understood as culture with a capital ‘C,’ and not just like beer sales.”

Venues “are cultural treasures,” said Allison Harnden, the City of Pittsburgh’s nighttime economy manager. “If they’re lost, it’s not recovered.”

The RESTART Act was introduced by Sen. Todd Young, (R-Ind.) and Sen. Michael Bennet (D.-Colo.). NIVA is asking music fans to support it through an initiative called Save Our Stages. More than 1,000 musicians, comedians and other touring artists have already signed a letter to Congress backing relief efforts.

For NIVA members, concerns about the future are accompanied by a new sense of empowerment.

Support for NIVA is “really inspiring to see,” said Valen. “Now we have a collective voice. And that’s truly been the silver lining in all this.”