'We're at that cliff': Rev. Moose of NIVA on independent music venues at the brink


Jay Gabler interviews Rev. Moose. (MPR)

Since April, the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) has represented America's independent music and entertainment venues in their struggle to survive amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Rev. Moose, NIVA's executive director, told The Current's Jay Gabler where things stand — and what's being lost as venues start to permanently close.


JAY GABLER: Jay Gabler with The Current, happy to be connecting today with Rev. Moose, executive director of the National Independent Venue Association. Reverend, thanks for taking a few minutes today.

REV. MOOSE: Thank you, Jay.

GABLER: And kind of...just to establish by way of timestamp, since this video won't be posted for a few days, it's 10 a.m. Central time on Tuesday, November 3, Election Day. So just...that's the reality that we are in during this conversation right now.

MOOSE: Yeah. Yeah. You know, I think everybody's kind of wondering what the hell tomorrow's going to look like, or the day after that, or the three months after that. But yeah, it's, uh...totally agreed. You know, it's interesting, because the last...what are we at now? Seven months? Eight months? Something like that, that we've been going through in this pandemic, you know, one thing that we've been very aware of is the fact that as we unified the venues and as we had a number of...thousands of different venues that are part of it, we had started under this, I guess, misnomer that there would be a solution on the horizon. And we've spent the last seven or eight months on a daily basis going, okay, well, if we can just get to this one thing, then we'll have an answer on the other side of it. And now here we are on Election Day, where it's like the same...it's the same riddle. Right? You know, we have the support, we have the story, we have the interest, we have over 200 Congresspeople that are supporting the Save Our Stages Act. There's obviously a necessity. There's no question that we're going to be losing more and more venues. We have lost many independent venues, but what we don't yet have is that Congressional act that has been passed into law that is going to actually save our stages. And, you know, in many ways it's exciting to see all the support, and in other ways that support has not turned to a tangible result in a way that is needed right now. So as you say, we are on the cusp of an unknown future. The entire world is on the cusp of an unknown future. This feeling is very familiar to us right now, because it's what we've been going through for the last several months.

GABLER: So given that, as you say, these months have gone by without seeing the kind of Congressional action that you've been hoping for and advocating for, how has your...you know, how have your feelings about the prospects for that kind of action evolved, and how have your strategies changed, given what we've learned about, you know, what the political climate has been?

MOOSE: You know, we didn't exist in February. Right? We didn't even exist in March. So the fact that the independent sector, the independent live sector didn't have a unified presence was also indicative of the fact that we didn't need a unified presence - which in turn showed the dire nature and the necessity of what we are fighting for, is here's all these things that everybody knows. Everybody knows the nightclubs, the comedy rooms, the large clubs, you know, the places where you go to discover music, the places where you go to celebrate your favorite artists, like all of those places we all know and we can rattle them off. You don't have to be a music fan or a comedy fan. You just have to be somebody who has gone outside at some point in the last 30 years to be able to sit there and say, okay, I had a pleasant memory there and I want to have more pleasant memories and I'd like to be able to secure the future of it. And obviously there is a very vocal and large group of people — myself included, you as well — that spend a significant amount of time in these rooms, and are doing our best to ensure that they will be around in the future and we see the larger economic contribution. But the political fight, from the beginning, has been the independent venues and promoters just weren't accommodated by the funding rounds that existed. PPP and EIDL is just carrying more debt, and all of these things that exist and the reality is that independent venues were the first to close, and they will be the last to open. And we're seeing that! Right, like, you know, we're seeing...what is it, 90% of businesses are open in some capacity. Not music venues! Right? Not comedy clubs! And even those that have been able to do partial reopenings, by no means is this anywhere near a solution. At best, it means that they are losing less money. And that's, like...everyone is losing money. Everyone is struggling. There is no support system, and that's what we've been fighting for from the get-go is...look, like, allow...these businesses are staying closed as a public service. It is eminent domain. So in any eminent domain situation, the government is compensating the people whose businesses or farms or livelihood has been affected by it. It's all we're asking for. We have the support. We just need it to be passed.

GABLER: So you mentioned a number — 90% — which is a number that we've heard a lot from NIVA in another capacity in that it's the number of your members who said - in a poll, your venue members — that basically they're facing an existential threat in a matter of months or weeks, not years.

MOOSE: Yeah. You know, look, there's certainly a large number that have held out because we've seen the support from Congress. But these are independent businesses, so when you don't have the capital to be able to keep paying your mortgage, or to keep paying your insurance, or your utilities, or your...you've already furloughed your staff. You have to wonder where that money's coming from. Right? You know, they've had no income. They've had negative income, because you actually have to do ticket refunds, which means negative income for these businesses. And where's that coming from? Well, okay, you've already borrowed it from your family member, you've already maxed out your cards, you've cashed in your 401K, you've pulled your kids out of university...you know, like you've tapped into anything you possibly can, and the hope is that two weeks, three weeks, three months later, there's going to be some type of Congressional resolution. It hasn't come yet. How much further are people expected to hold out for? So, yeah, the response that we've gotten, that 90% of the country's independent venues and promoters are at immediate risk of permanent closure, that's very real. That's thousands of businesses that will not be here without federal help. And I want to be clear: those thousands of businesses and the economic impact that they have on their local communities, on the national communities, on the international communities...like, they're real! And people think about those big nights out, right? Like, oh, I spent sixty bucks on a ticket and we went and had dinner and we paid for parking...we got a babysitter...like, think about how much money you actually spend to be able to make that work. The gas that goes in the tank...maybe you drove further than you would normally drive so you got a hotel room, you have tolls, all of these things...and there was a study done in Chicago recently that showed that for every one dollar spent at a small venue, it generates twelve dollars in local economic activity. And to use just that example — you know, a sixty-dollar ticket and all these other things — let's just say you and your three friends, you're going out with couples' night, you've spent a total of, what, six hundred bucks? Right? And that's probably being modest? Eight hundred bucks? So two hundred bucks a person? For being able to do just that? And then that doesn't even include all of the other, you know, jobs that come from it? And you're talking about, you know, massive, massive amounts of money. Like, that's seven hundred and twenty bucks a person for, you know, the show that's being generated. At the bar, at the restaurant...you know, everywhere that's coming around it. So I think that these are the things people don't necessarily think of. It's not just a matter of losing a business; you're losing an entire ecosystem. And then you start thinking about it from the arts and culture perspective — which is obviously, you know, something very important to your listeners and your viewers. And the arts and culture perspective is that the independent venues are the places where genres are born. Where communities have access points, have stages. Where they're more open to being able to do events with the local community and building out charities and fundraisers, where they're more approachable — even the tough ones are more approachable than, you know, some of these others. They're not being booked from the neighborhoods, they're being booked from across the country from an office that doesn't have that local tie. The prices for their drinks, the prices for their parking, the prices for their tickets are being controlled locally, and you see that in the types of programming that they have. And we've all seen that. I would imagine that certainly anyone that's a fan of The Current is going to be understanding the difference between supporting local businesses and just, you know, access points for the sake of access. And the return - the cultural return, the economic return, the emotional return that you get from that is worth more than just what you're going to see on the end of a stock market's closing. And that's what, you know, the non-independent sector is being judged by, and the independent sector is being judged by all these other different factors.

GABLER: Sure. So just to unpack that a little bit: for, say, a causal music fan knows a venue is a venue. I know my favorite act is coming to town, they're going to play this venue, I buy a ticket, I go, I see the show - might not really think about the distinction between an independent venue and a non-independent venue. Could you talk about that a little bit as head of the agency that promotes Independent Venue Week?

MOOSE: Yeah. I think that an apple is an apple. Right? And we know the difference. When you go into the store and you buy a six-pack of apples that are shrink-wrapped in styrofoam and plastic wrap and you bought 'em for a dollar twenty-five for the whole thing and you're thinking to yourself, how do these people get it so cheap? Not my problem! And then you also know the difference between going to a farmers' market and you're looking at what appears to be the exact same apple, only it's being, you know, one ninety-nine or two ninety-nine and it was picked locally and the employees are paid fairly and it wasn't using the same pesticides, and all these other things, and something in the back of your head is like, huh! An apple's not an apple! And you have to kind of, like you just said, unpack those different elements that show the difference between one or the other. And in this case, it is apples and oranges! Because you do have these independent venues that are sometimes owned by a person, or local partners, or, you know, the community, some of them, many of them are nonprofits by their very existence, and the people that are involved with them...they live in the community! So when your favorite artists come through town, I don't think that most consumers are going to think to themselves, I'm not going to go to that show because they're playing at that venue. You know, generally what happens is you're like, oh, great, now I have an excuse to go to that club! I love that club, I want to go to that club more. Like, you know, you...just mentally, you're drawn towards things in a different way. Or, it sucks they're playing that venue 'cause I'm not generally a fan of it for one reason or another. I think what we're trying to do is — with Independent Venue Week in particular, which my company Marauder runs — what we're trying to do is just bring more consumer awareness. So when you're hungry for an apple, you can sit there and you can say, I'm going to spend my money here, and here's all the reasons why. 'Cause I want it to exist tomorrow, and 'cause I've always been a fan of it, and here's a reason for me to go out of my way to show them that I care. And that's ultimately what it is. You know, I think that educated consumers make good decisions, and we're trying to help educate consumers.

GABLER: And independent venues, I know, pride themselves on being educated about their market, because they're run locally. You know, they know what, maybe, up-and-coming acts can come to town and build an audience and build partnerships with other local media and, you know, what have you, other partners...as opposed to a venue that's not independently owned and run might be booked by, you know, someone out of the state who's just putting this artist in all the same kind of venue across the country because it's kind of a package deal.

MOOSE: Yeah, and I don't necessarily know if consumers are going to be aware of what that means for the ability for a venue to continue to operate...but what sells in New York and Chicago is not going to be what necessarily sells in Allentown, or Minneapolis. Right? And so when, you know, a tour is being put together as a package and somebody says, we'll give you thirty shows, here's the exact rate that we're going to give you, it's the same across the markets...and that's not reality, 'cause the local economic factors of what's going on in Pittsburgh is going to be different than what's going on in Nashville and you're going to have to know that and the people are going to have to be able to book a show that's right for their audience. When you're working with the independent sector, I think you get a lot of that, where you have that expertise, that local connection, and the people that understand that, you know, they have an audience there and they know how to reach that audience. They're, generally they go out of their way more because they have more on the line. As it became reality that independent venues were in jeopardy, there's a reason that the superstars and emerging artists alike came out of the woodwork to say that we need to do something to help save our stages. And the reason is that these are the rooms that give people their start. Right? And that's true for megastars, it's true for people that have played three shows ever and that was as much as they wanted to do. But they give people their start, and there are plenty of rooms and plenty of artists that don't necessarily want to play more than a hundred or three hundred or eight hundred people at a time. And there are plenty that use it as a launching pad to be able to grow into being these superstars that we all know. And I think that independents give the opportunities and the flexibility and the access that is vital to being able to maintain both arts and culture but also the economic aspect that comes with all of this. And what's at risk with this is the lack of opportunity. What's at risk here is if we lose the independent sector, if we lose these rooms, they're not just going to pop up after the pandemic. It just doesn't work like that. Many of them have built the local neighborhoods around them, they've moved into distressed neighborhoods and become that community anchor for other businesses to be able to flourish around, and thinking about what that takes to be able to open up a new, large room in the middle of a city center is really difficult. There's a reason that, generally, new clubs start outside of city centers, and everything else comes. The best example of this...I mean, you can look at 9:30 Club in D.C. and they moved locations several years ago, and they moved to a neighborhood that was not full of condos and not full of high-rises and, you know, where you would put a music club. And other businesses have since come, and it's certainly been a developed area since then, as a core anchor tenant...which, I think that there's ways that venues can be part of these communities, and it's a cycle that we're very proud of, to be able to help build that community access and the community voice that is so needed on an independent level.

GABLER: So as you note, every independent venue is different. That's the word "independent," right? They have different ownership structures, some are for profit, some are nonprofit, so I know there's no one answer to this question...but as we look to coming weeks and months, do you have any sense of what kind of timeframe we might be looking at? Are there any markers that venues are looking at? You know, is there an opportunity that is going to pass at a certain time where you're thinking it's going to start feeling like a cliff where you really are going to start to see a wave of closures?

MOOSE: We're at that cliff. This is it. We're here. It's happening. We're losing venues. We're losing venues too frequently. We've lost venues. It was avoidable. You know, there's always going to be ups and downs in any business, but this was imposed upon businesses and it was preventable. We have a solution. The solution has wide bipartisan support, and the longer it takes, the more venues we are going to lose, and it is going to happen faster and faster. So whereas before it might have been one or two a week, and then it's like one every day or so, that cliff that you're talking about? We're here! This is it! It's happening! And we're going to look back on this and say, how could this happen? And that's part of a larger conversation that's being had across the world right now, but I hope that future generations are able to learn from this and move faster and look at how fast we've moved - it's phenomenal that what's happened with Save Our Stages, that turned from a hashtag to legislation. Music festival...we have the support. We have the government support, we have the people support, we have the community support, we have the artist support...and we don't yet have the actual results.

GABLER: So what are you asking people who want to help to do right now?

MOOSE: Go to SaveOurStages.com, and on there is a link that allows you to directly connect with your federal elected officials, and you can tell them how important independent venues and promoters are to you and why. It's so much easier than that if you just want to type in your name and hit send, we got the letters ready. We've sent...over two million letters have been sent to Representatives and Senators since we started this, and we have also launched the NIVA Emergency Relief Fund, which is accessible for donations through SaveOurStages.com as well, and the NIVA Emergency Relief Fund is intended to help the venues that are in the most dire positions right now to try to help bridge that gap between what they have or have not gotten from the government to date.

GABLER: Well, thank you very much for taking a few minutes to talk about this urgent situation.

MOOSE: Thank you, Jay, for giving it a voice. I mean, I know it's close to you guys. I've been to shows with you. I get it. We all get it. I'd like to be able to do it more.

GABLER: Yeah, me too. Alright, well, thank you again. Take care.

MOOSE: Thank you, Jay.

Related: Andrea Swensson interviews NIVA co-founder Dayna Frank

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