Imagine the glorious, post-vaccine day when concerts resume and social gatherings are safe and acceptable once again. Were you planning on making the trip to see a show at an iconic concert hall in a big city or the beloved historic ballroom down the street?
The National Independent Talent Organization (NITO) says that without immediate action from the federal government, there’s a good chance that neither of them will be there. The advocacy organization further urges you to consider the previously inconceivable idea that your favorite touring group might not even be around to see that day.
According to NITO, this scenario is not just from your nightmares. The live music industry’s situation is so critical that Hank Sacks of Partisan Arts and Wayne Forte of Entourage Talent, joined by over 1,000 like-minded independent talent agents and management companies, are focusing full-time attention on this non-profit group. NITO was initially formed with 14 members to promote the welfare and prosperity of its members and their represented artists, as well as for the indirect benefit of those associated with them. They welcome a broad coalition of the live music ecosystem working tirelessly to advocate for the survival of the live music community following the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Our businesses were the first to close and will be the last to open,” says Sacks. “I’m not sure everyone understands how dire the situation is. I have successful touring bands, who are now desperate to make ends meet,” says Sacks.
“They are scraping by on unemployment. Some are delivering groceries for supermarkets in Nashville, so they don’t lose their houses. These are real human beings. If they’re offered solid employment opportunities, they will take it. We are going to lose the bands like we are already losing the venues. Thus, the entire ecosystem of the music industry is at risk,” he says. “We need everyone to tell their representatives that we need help before it’s too late.”
Sacks is based in Washington, DC, and led the group’s formative members to the Senate steps. As a co-founder of NITO, he and Forte reiterate that they are not looking for handouts. They are joining forces with industry cohorts, demanding federal aid to mend the financial damages accrued from abiding by government orders. Unlike restaurants who can provide take-out, under federal pandemic guidelines, there is no legal way for the live music business to operate.
Forte explained that agents and managers work so far in advance that by the time artists can tour again, there will be six-to-nine months of back-work to complete before their artists can get on the road. That could mean another two years before a solid tour is in place, and they receive that income.
A touring unit is composed not only of band members but a large crew on which they rely to perform. These units operate like families, sizing up to 15-20 moving parts and contributing members. Bands are reaching the point where they no longer can support their whole group, let alone themselves. Once they’ve cut their teams, they will not be able to just get back on the road. They will have to re-fill these positions in an industry that experienced folks have been forced to flee from.
“Getting back on the road” insinuates that there will be sizable venue spaces for the bands to stop and perform. In June, NIVA, the National Independent Venue Association, shared that 90 percent of independent venue owners, promoters, and bookers say that they will have to close permanently within the next few months if they can’t get an infusion of targeted government funding. NIVA, whose members include The Bowery Ballroom in New York City, Troubador in Los Angeles, 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C., and Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, surveyed nearly 2,000 professionals, garnering those alarming responses.
That was over two months ago. Since then, Congress has made no large-scale progress in this direction. NITO and NIVA have worked tirelessly to lobby for two bills: S. 4258, the Save Our Stages (SOS) Act introduced by Senators Cornyn and Klobuchar and S. 3814/H.R. 7481, the RESTART Act, introduced by Senators Young and Bennet in the Senate and Representatives Golden and Kelly in the House. Both would ensure the survival of independent venues, theatres, and event promoters across the nation.
While industries wait on lawmakers to compromise, booming commercial real estate firms have shown little empathy towards the business owners. Robert Mercurio, a member of Galactic, has been preyed on by the industry already. The New Orleans-based band owns Tipitina’s, a legendary venue with a recording studio, record label, and foundation supporting the local music community.
“We have been approached by many people trying to buy the club,” Mercurio says. “Real estate executives think now is a good time to get a deal on ‘distressed’ property. I’m sure there are a lot of venue owners across the country getting similar offers. As one of them said to us, ‘Everything is now on sale’. I hate to think about what will happen to sold places, and what the future of historic venues will look like if help doesn’t come.”
As a booking agent, Sacks sees many colleagues who’ve become friends losing venues. He cited a recent instance in Portland, Maine, where a friend lost his lease. The landlord is now turning the concert space into a Chipotle. Unfortunately, these anecdotes are becoming universal. Sacks and Forte’s primary concern is making people understand the peril of the current live music situation.
“They might not think about it now, but it’ll be like when the corner bank closes, and you go, ‘Wait a minute, where’d my bank go?’ Now, you’ll have to go to the next town. Same goes, there very well may not be a music venue in your town or the next five towns around you,” says Forte.
According to the Sacks, NITO has incidentally become the poster child of the Save Our Stages Act while lobbying for the bill, a role they are eager to fill with the extra pandemic-permitted time on their hands. This bill is explicitly geared toward keeping the music industry afloat. While both are vital to the future of small business owners, SOS has the advantage of a lower price tag. The only commonality between Republicans and Democrats during this negotiation stand-off is members from both sides are hesitant to spend more money.
The RESTART Act could cost up to half a trillion dollars. It isn’t specifically tailored to the music industry. Still, it is an extension of the previous Paycheck Protection Program that broadly focuses on businesses with high overhead and no revenue during the pandemic — a category that includes live music. The SOS Act would specifically provide six months of financial support to independent venue operators, promoters, and talent reps at a maximum of $10 billion – a number that NITO says would be sufficient for the timeline.
The SOS Act currently has 26 bipartisan cosponsors. Last week, Senate Minority Leader, Chuck Schumer announced his support for the bill outside of Brooklyn’s Indie-favorite, Baby’s All Right.
The Senate chamber is not expected back until September 8, while the House who left D.C. ahead of the Senate adjournment won’t return until September 12. In the meantime, NITO is begging constituents and music fans everywhere to pick up the slack and demand action from leaders. The future of live music depends on it.
Do your part to #SAVELIVEMUSIC, here.