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Save Our Stages

 What has music lost and gained during COVID?

My editor at Shutter 16 magazine ( http://www.shutter16.com ) posted a note on her Facebook page last week lamenting the coming closure of the Metropolitan Opera House until late next year along with a Billboard story on the closure of thousands of music venues across the country (https://bit.ly/309ogpt).   So what has music lost and what has it gained, if anything, during the pandemic?

The National Independent Venues Association (NIVA) predicts that 9 out of 10 of its almost 3,000 members will shut their doors permanently by next month without some kind of financial assistance from Washington if they cannot open.  Many people think that Federal help is not likely since the GOP has blocked the Democratic House’s second stimulus bill.  Nevertheless, The Save Our Stages Act has been introduced into the Senate by a bipartisan team of Senators John Cornyn (R-TX) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and into the House by the bipartisan duo Reps. Peter Welch (D-VT) and Roger Williams (R-TX-25).  The bill would set up a $10 billion grant program to keep venues open for 6 months.

This makes perfect sense. Venues are projected to lose $8.9 billion if they stay closed until next year so this money could conceivably keep them open until the pandemic passes.  If they close, they could cost the American economy up to ten times that much according to the NIVA website. NIVA also points out that value-added by arts and culture to the U.S. economy is “five times greater than the value from the agricultural sector.”  Of course, this includes more than just music venues, but the point is well taken. Live music is important not only to our souls but to our economy.

But the news is not all bad, or at least the situation is not all bad.  The pandemic has taught us some things that may endure in live music. There actually is some live music – there are a few live events in small venues in different cities – often restaurants – that can afford to enforce social distancing and mask protocols; and of course live music is available here in Chapala, Mexico. The other good news is live streams.  

A not-so-small industry has developed to live stream concerts into our phones, computers, and pads, giving us the opportunity to experience intimate concerts with artists we would otherwise be cut off from.  This week I enjoyed a live stream concert from the Rockwood Music Hall in New York by my friend Blake Morgan. I have never been to the famous Rockwood and have only been able to see Morgan live twice in appearances at the Hotel Café in LA.  I could not have seen him in NYC without the live stream industry, and the acceptance by the music industry – venues included – that they must provide new formats to stay open.

The same goes for festivals, from the virtual International Mariachi Festival in Guadalajara to the Monterey Jazz Festival, to Bonnaroo, and the Cold Waves Industrial Music Festival, the opportunities to at least see, hear and chat on otherwise out of reach festivals are amazing.  Instead of wondering how to spend my tiny ticket and travel budget, now I have to try not to spend my life in online music festivals and concerts.

I know kicking back with your friends and joining a half million other people online for John Butler, Michael Franti, Nahko, Trevor Hall, FINK, and Rising Appalachia at the two-day One Earth Live Festival is not like being there, but you also aren’t waiting in line with them for the bathroom and the beer is free from your own refrigerator.

More important, is that live streaming has added another income stream for artists and songwriters.  It is no secret that many live venues cannot afford to pay musicians decent fees for live performances, and some even charge the bands to play.  Artists need all the revenue streams they can get.

But the question is not either/or – it is how we can have both together.  From a band’s point of view, they want the live audience – it feeds their souls.  But it doesn’t always feed their bodies (free drinks help). In my ideal world, we would pressure our government to put aside partisan concerns and election strategies and just pass The Save Our Stages Act, while we continue to support the growth of live streaming.

I don’t think the two compete; WE WANT TO GO OUT and bands want us to be there cheering.  But we can always go out on the weekend to live shows (after COVID) and hang out at home or with friends during the week for streams.  From the band’s perspective, they can play weekends for whatever the house can pay them, and stream during the week at virtually no cost and free of the restrictions venues often place on playing in the same town the same week.  Hopefully, everyone wins.

Same with festivals.  There are only so many tickets and only so many people who can afford $200 – $1200 for them, plus travel and lodging and the time off.  I think that audience will be there regardless of live streams. Festivals are unique, sometimes life-changing experiences.  But the virtual side has opened up a huge new festival market that can afford to pay $20 -$50, adding to the artists’ fees and the promoter’s profits – and creating a video record that can be resold with a residual stream to the bands.

I and many others will be disappointed to see the Metropolitan Opera House close until next year, and we will be devastated if the live music venues in our towns close for good. We can get our music in live streams and radio, but why should audiences and bands settle for less than everything – live and live-streamed.  Support The Save Our Stages Act now, continue watching those live streams, and kick in a few dollars to the online fundraisers to keep bands and venues alive while we get through COVID.  And wear a mask.

Patrick O’Heffernan, PhD., is a music journalist and radio broadcaster based in Los Angeles, California, with a global following. His two weekly radio programs, MusicFridayLive! and MusicaFusionLA are heard nationwide and in the UK. He focuses on two music specialties: emerging bands in all genres, and the growing LA-based ALM genre (American Latino Music) that combines rock and rap, blues and jazz and pop with music from Latin America like cumbia, banda, jarocho and mariachi. He also likes to watch his friend drag race.

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