Featuring First Avenue CEO Dayna Frank, Pabst Theater Group CEO and co-owner Gary Witt and Marauder Managing Partner Rev.
The National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) was recently formed to lobby with a unified voice for assistance from the federal government after thousands of small businesses across the country were imperiled by the spread of coronavirus. Within a matter of days its membership grew to some 450 members and a week later it had expanded to 900.
First Avenue CEO Dayna Frank, Pabst Theater Group CEO and co-owner Gary Witt and Marauder Managing Partner Rev. Moose join Lawrence Peryer to discuss NIVA's formation, their goals and how independent venues are economic staples for their communities.
There is more information, including signup and contact forms, at NIVA’s website: www.nivassoc.org.
You can support the staffs of these venues by donating to their respective GoFundMe's at Lyte's COVID-19 Relief Page.
Hosted on Acast. See acast.com/privacy for more information.
• Did you enjoy this episode? Rate Spotlight On ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ and leave a review on Apple Podcasts.
• Subscribe! Be the first to check out each new episode of Spotlight On in your podcast app of choice.
• Looking for more? Visit spotlightonpodcast.com for bonus content, web-only interviews + features, and the Spotlight On email newsletter.
Lawrence Peryer: How you doing?
Rev. Moose: Good. I’m very good. I’m busy, but good.
LP: Yeah. I keep telling people it’s the busiest downtime I’ve ever experienced.
RM: Man, yeah. Yeah.
LP: I don’t know what this talk of downtime is but …
RM: Yup. Yup, indeed.
LP: It’s actually nice to have a minute to look through email. [Laughs]
RM: Same thing I’m doing right now. Exact same thing I’m doing right now.
LP: Hi there.
RM: Hey, Dayna
Dayna Frank: Can you hear me?
LP: We sure can.
DF: Excellent. Is this a video or just audio?
LP: RM and I are on video.
RM: I got no problem turning it off though, if it’s not recording.
LP: I like video if you guys are okay with it. It’s a nice feel to do that for the conversation but whatever you’re comfortable with.
RM: Is it recording on video?
LP: Yeah, as far as I know. We’ll only use the audio but when I hit record, I think it records full (ph).
DF: I now loaded my cool backgrounds. I wasn’t prepared. I saw podcast and I thought, “Okay, audio.”
LP: Yeah, no. Audio is all I’ll use.
DF: Yeah. Oh, cool.
DF: We were deciding about backgrounds, Gary. You got a real good one.
Gary Witt: Uh-oh. It’s really my background. That’s the sad thing.
LP: I’m glad it’s not in censorama because I really don’t want to smell that background.
RM: Well you have to be at a concert venue at the end of the night to know the beauty and the magic of the aromas that exist. That’s just one of them.
LP: Yeah. Yeah.
DF: My dad tells a silly story – I don’t know if you saw the first [00:03:01] but when he first took over, the men’s room had this unbearable stench to it. And no one seemed to care. And so, he called a meeting with everybody and they held it in the men’s bathroom. And you know the next day the stench was gone.
GW: We had a toilet that overflowed constantly in one of our bathrooms at the Riverside. We’d have a building engineer there every night and they would plunge the toilet. They’d block off the bathroom. This went on forever and in between shows they’d send guys in. They’d route it. We’d call a plumber. They’d route it out.
Finally, one time they took the toilet off and instead of fixing it, they took a sledge hammer and they broke it. And sure enough, there was a razor phone stuck inside the toilet just at the place where the toilet water would flush and go through occasionally. Or it would just get backed up and the phone worked when they took it out of the water. That’s the amazing thing.
DF: It sounds like a [00:03:57].
GW: I don’t know who touched the phone so that’s a …
RM: The same person that was fixing the toilet.
GW: Exactly. It had facial recognition.
LP: I thank the three of you for making time to do this. I greatly appreciate it. I was hoping we could start off maybe – I don’t want to assume too much about listeners will know and not know.
So I kind of want to start a little bit at the beginning before we leap forward by having each of you introduce yourself, your venue, your city. Who are you and who do you represent? Maybe DF you can go first.
DF: Yeah. My name is DF Frank. I’m the owner/CEO of First Avenue and the 7th Street Entry in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
We are independent promoters and venue operators working entirely in Minnesota. The First Avenue family consists of not only the [00:05:01] entry but the Turf Club in St. Paul and Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul and also the Palace Theater.
LP: Amazing. Thank you. What’s going on in the bathroom?
GW: Well here, look behind me. There you go. So I’m GW Witt and I’m the CEO and co-owner of the Pabst Theater Group in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
The Pabst Theater Group consists of a 300-cap backroom club, a thousand cap straight GA floor [00:05:35] ballroom that was built in 1883. The Pabst Theater which was built in 1895 which is a beautiful old – the fourth oldest – historic theater in America. Oldest operating theater in America. That’s a cap of 1339 and the Riverside which was built in 1927 has a cap of 2414. I feel like I’m in old places all the time.
But we’ve been doing this 2002 and we’re promoters of 700 shows a year and we do – oddly, in our business, I think we’re a little different from DF in that 30 percent of our business is comedy and podcasts and things like that. So we stretch into some weird worlds where we do some things that a lot of other people don’t do.
And in a city of our size, compared to Minneapolis, as an example, that helps us very much because we have a finite number of people to reach. So we’ve got to be able to provide a different kind of a weird variety and we’re way into doing that. So it’s fun.
LP: That’s great. Thank you for that. I want to come to this point.
RM: I think I’m probably the least qualified person to be on this conversation. So I’m RM. I run a company called Marauder. We are essentially the connecting point between our client base and the North American market.
So we work with a number of different projects but the one that is the most relevant to this context is we run Independent Venue Week in the U.S. And we brought it here to the U.S. several years ago. We have been preparing for our third year of Independent Venue Week when this pandemic started shutting venues down.
As that happened, we took upon ourselves to try to figure out how to collect the voices and try to help people that were otherwise – they are independent by the very nature of it – but otherwise not necessarily communicating with each other.
And prior to – well certainly prior to NIVA – and prior to Independent Venue Week, there really hasn’t been a national organization on behalf of independent venues or promoters in any way. So Independent Venue Week sort of took that de facto position and we did everything we could to be able to make it so the venues and the promoters were not going through this on their own.
That was certainly right out of the gate, I think it was something that none of us really realized how much that was of use. And we talk to these different promoters throughout the year and we have a different agenda than anyone else who is talking to as many different promoters because our business interest is we’re trying to help them. So we’re not necessarily trying to get revenue from them. We’re trying to help them sell tickets.
And when this all started to happen, I think we realized that the network that we were such an integral part of, it needed more and it needed a more active voice than what Independent Venue Week was created to be able to do. And that’s where all of us came together and started these discussions as far as if there’s going to be representation on Capitol Hill, who’s going to do it? How is it going to look? What’s it going to ask for? And how do we actually make that happen?
I think DF, who was probably the loudest voice in the room for quite some time asking those questions, and certainly all of us all found ourselves in the position of looking around the room. We’d be like no, this has to happen. You know, you keep looking at the same people and you’re like, “Ok, I guess this is happening.” And that’s exactly what came together.
So we created a board, created committees, sub-committees, daily meetings, hourly meetings, middle of the night phone calls, everything else to get this moving And it’s moving.
LP: Let me ask you on that front. Why wasn’t there an independent venue and promoter alliance and were there attempts in the past that went nowhere? Can you guys give any historical context to that?
RM: I can tell you just from the conversations we had – because Independent Venue Week was in itself a marketing initiative. And so, when people would call us up and they’d say, “Hey, I’ve been looking into creating this type of organization” the urgency wasn’t there as it is now.
So I think it gave an opportunity for people to be able to sort of plot out what their ideal situation would look like. And there were many conversations that have happened in the past that have gone down this road. But the truth of the matter is is independent promoters and owner operators, they don’t have the time for this. You know? They’re too consumed in the daily operations to be able to take a breath and say, “Yes, let’s do something new that is probably beneficial to the daily operations but requires a different level of commitment.”
Everybody on this phone call has spent an obscene amount of time doing this and it’s come out of necessity. If that necessity weren’t there, I don’t know how anybody would have found the time to do this.
LP: Yeah. So this circumstance is the catalyst.
DF: There’s like an attitude in music industry maybe but independent promoters definitely that and rightly so, that we kind of like go to war every day. Right? We’re fighting – every day we’re fighting for shows, we’re fighting for customers, we’re fighting for regulations that we need, we’re fighting the multi-national corporations.
We’re kind of like at this position – you know, a lot of us got into this industry and we thrive in it because we enjoy those types of circumstances. But I think people are used to be a little bit defensive. Like I would just notice whenever I went to a new city, I’d always reach out to the independent club promoter and be like, “Hey, let’s grab dinner. I’d love for you to take me on a tour of your town.” And the first two hours was always very like, “What do you want from me? What are you doing here? Are you going to try to come into my market? What’s going on?
And I had to be like, “No, no, no. I’m Minnesota. I love being the local guy. I think there is nothing more noble and honorable than being accountable and working for your community. I find so much pride and pleasure in that.” But there was definitely an attitude, a definite awareness.
And so, I give all the credit to RM as being this independent voice, as he said. That you’re not trying to sell something. You’re not trying to buy something. You’re not competing. But I think without IBW and Marauder and RM this group never would have come together.
GW: I would say that my example is – maybe it’s the last year or so that DF and I have gotten closer and learned to know more about each other’s business. That is my own personal example.
And that is that we both – I think I admired very much what she and her team do and like everybody that’s in our business, we all get each other’s emails and that’s really important for me. Like the idea of developing community is important for me.
And I watched as DF’s people – they do such a wonderful job at it. And once we developed a relationship and kind of began talking – I think we had dinner out. We had meetings in LA a while back. Then we connected our people and to me, it’s still, to this day, I’m very surprised is – what happened when we connected our people, we found that we had so many amazing similarities.
I mean we’re talking about operational similarities that we don’t know that both of us are doing but here we are both doing those things. And the main benefit of us putting our people together was that we said, at that very moment, we’re not alone. I know that’s what we said.
Because we said, “Wait a minute. We’re doing this. This is how we’re doing it.” Or we learned from things that they’re doing. To me that extrapolates out to when I was on the first phone call originally when I was introduced to RM is that look, looking at what he’s done with Independent Venue Week, it’s the exact same thing.
In putting venues together – my perfect example would be on one of our last calls where we had 40 people on the call. Out of that call I had another venue who were smaller than us in Austin, asking us specific questions about the PPP because we went to war. And, by the way, we went to war with DF and her team to figure out how we could all get the PPP calls at all hours, emails, texts, it didn’t matter.
But we then were able to – my controller was on a phone call with the group from Austin today and he was teaching them what we had learned from the PPP. And as you extrapolate that out over the time period of let’s make it through this. Let’s survive.
The good thing is what you mentioned earlier is that there will be an organization here that will essentially strengthen the independent venue world and it will strength us in our resolve to be able to look fight the battles that we fight quite often on a daily basis, stopping larger corporations from coming into our markets and taking our business away from us.
If we can nurture some smaller promoters and venue owners to become better at what they do, they’ll own or operate two, three or four venues and they’ll grow to that size and they’ll do instead of 120 or 200, they’ll do 500 shows in a market and then that really strengthens the entirety of what we all do in general and doesn’t homogenize the idea of let’s book so and so band and sell it to so and so company and it gets sent out to every venue that they associate with.
RM: I think what you mentioned though is just the very nature of being independent, isn’t it? When DF goes to a town and says, “Hey, I’m in town. I’d like to say hello” somebody else is going, “Well what do you need from me.”
And GW, when you’re talking about just even being able to have those conversations with your market neighbors, you know, the same thing is kind of true. It’s like ok, well what’s the work agenda here?
But then when you go to things that are a little bit less guided, if you will – I can’t tell you the number of different conferences I’ve been to where there’s only like three promoters or buyers in the room and they all find each other and they’re all from different parts of the country. And they’re not necessarily talking about anything specific to their work, but it’s like they all kind of congregate together and they go from show to show together or event to event and to dinner. Then it ends and they never talk again.
And I think that human nature is to be with your people, with your tribe. But the nature of capitalism is to do whatever you can do at any cost and there’s no home office that people are reporting to where there’s like a – well you need to work with the northwest territories or you need to work with the southeast markets and you need to be able to put all these things together because the independent businesses are just focusing on their one room or their small handful of rooms. And that’s what their urgency is.
GW: There’s another side of it, too. We’re sharks. We’re – everyday, no matter what we do, every day our job is to keep eating and once we eat it, we figure out how to put it – set it up in the box office, how to market it, how to communicate to the marketing team at the agency and it’s got to be up by tomorrow.
We don’t have time to look around quite often and small organizations have even less time to look around. So the very activity of what we do forces us to be continually on an escalator that keeps moving us forward which at the same time, doesn’t necessarily say, “Hey, let’s get together with other people because we’ve got time to do it.”
Now look, yeah, Pollstar and things like that do that but I don’t know, I’ve stopped going. I know DF, I know you go but that becomes the least potential of actually talking to an agent to get anything accomplished in that time. And maybe it is right that you can talk to each other which is really good.
But I see great similarity in our business than what I see in the restaurant business. They’re in the exact same scenario, the exact same case. Yeah, larger restaurants are covered by whatever their tavern association that sells them down the river sometimes when these things happen.
But the reality is is that those real independent restaurants, true independent restaurants are just like us. Their heads are down. They’re cooking every day. They’re making the next meal. They’re trying to get through and they have to be experts at all things. But they don’t have time to organize all of them.
But guess what? The pandemic forces you to have time and I think greatly that just like we’re looking at a lot of our organizations individually, like the way we do things at the Pabst Theater Group, we’re doing this now with this organization because now we have time and we’re forced to find an answer somehow, some way to survival which is what we’re being threatened with – our very survival as a business at this time.
DF: I think for me the ah-hah moment was – you know I kept reading about the Live Nation stock and the market projections and they kept saying well but when this is ending, their market share is going to be better because so many independent groups are going to go out of business.
Almost every article referenced that. And personally, if people want to sell, if they feel like that’s what’s right for their business and their family, absolutely. Everyone has to do what’s right.
But for those who want to stay independent and that don’t want to, I think we’re here to help them and help provide some kind of structure – an infrastructure – and support to get through this time so that we don’t wake up whenever this ends in a landscape that does only have two or three or four companies.
And then hopefully NIVA has an organization can help people for decades in the future who find themselves in similar circumstances.
LP: That’s great foundational context. Let’s talk a little bit more specifically about what we’re hoping to do with the organization. So it’s the National Independent Venue Association just to level set so that everybody knows what we’re talking about.
It includes venues, operators, owners and promoters from around the country coming together because of this catalyst, the pandemic as sort of this external force driving us all together. And I say us because you guys have been very gracious about allowing us to be part of this with you and to try to be part of the solution.
But talk to me about the first order of business or the first two or three orders of business. Survival is sort of a big word. How do we break that down into the things that the membership really needs you to do and really need the sort of immediate outcomes to be able to talk about all the big fun things we might doing a year or two years from now to really drive the business forward. What do we have to do now?
DF: Yeah, so the immediate pressing need as of three days ago, or I should say that started three days ago, is just this need for federal support and federal funding to make sure our industry can carry through because independent venues and promoters, we’re not just physical locations and we’re not just shows. We’re economic multipliers. We’re the heart of local communities. There are so many other businesses that rely on our shows. You know, the restaurants, the hotels, the car rentals, parking meters – everything is relying on us opening back up.
Our artist community and our employees and it just feels like there’s so much weighing and so – you know, I don’t know any independent business that can go 18 months without revenue. I mean that’s just a monumental task.
And so the first order or business is helping Congress understand and realize how important we are and again, not just – we’re important to our own employees, we’re important to our artists and our communities but also to the whole economic ecosystem surrounding us and proving to them why we deserve this support and making sure, again, that our membership base comes out of this with their businesses, their employees, their artists stronger than ever.
LP: How do you tell that story?
DF: I mean that’s a story that every individual tells. And every individual’s story and every club’s and promoter’s story is going to be different. And I think that’s really the strength of NIVA. Like I said, we’re the local guys and sometimes I think talk about that in the pejorative. But I personally could not be more proud.
And so, as the local guys, we’re going to tell our stories as constituents to our representatives. My story would be I have personal guarantees. We make huge capital improvements. We’ve supported our community through countless benefits, through donations, through internships, through programs and services. We really view ourselves as not just a business but as the heart of the local music scene.
So that’s what I plan to share but you know, a promoter in Montana or in Florida or New York City, might have a different story.
GW: Yeah, I think it’s important to note that people see us and they say, “Well what do you guys do? You’re the local concert promoter. You sell tickets.” But in reality, how we see ourselves and I think also I know how DF and they see themselves in Minneapolis is that we develop community. We don’t just sell tickets.
We develop community. We build and we develop community and we have the ability through the things that we do to be able to help and to educate and to provide editorial content and to inspire our city.
I spend $2 million a year advertising, basically sending out a love letter telling people to come to Milwaukee. When we booked the David Bird show, I told David Bird the day that we booked that show, what we did is we sprayed a David Bird cologne on the city to make the city smell better for three months until the date of that show and everybody felt good about themselves.
Developers make their decisions about where to build apartments based upon the consistency of what we do. And people travel across the state lines and they stay at hotels, etc., etc., and then the culmination of that and the show actually taking place is what gives people the confidence to know that this is what inspires a city.
It’s like having a championship team except we do it night after night after night. In Milwaukee, the Bucks were almost – it looked like they were going to be a championship NBA team. But apparently there’s no ending to that.
But those kinds of things are reasons why also we do what we do because we are part of giving the city its soul and its identify of who it is night after night. Not 10 days out of the year. Not 40 days out of the year but night after night after night that’s what gives the city its soul and identity.
If you go to Minneapolis, I mean one of the single most iconic things in Minneapolis is First Avenue. I mean that’s amazing and I hope that we accomplish the same thing with the Pabst Theater in the things that we do and the iconic building that it is.
So I think we’re much bigger than just actually being concert promoters or selling tickets. Plus I also think it’s something that DF said very eloquently in putting the letter together. The simple thing is if you’re a congressman or a senator, if you love Bruce Springsteen or if you love the Eagles or something like that or if you love Prince, all those artists began their careers not playing at arenas, but they all played in small clubs.
And if you want there to be a next Springsteen or a next Prince or a next Eagles or a next Lizzo, then you have to know the infrastructure has to be there to do it. And, by the way, if you like turning on your car radio or your radio anyplace, the only way for the infrastructure to work to actually deliver new music is for there to be a place for artists to perform because we all know that when the internet came about, the ability for artists to derive revenue from record sales was eliminated.
And we are now the sole reason how artists make money. They make money by playing in our venues and they tour more than they ever toured before. And they tour in unique ways in unique things tours. Like we said earlier, I did a show with Chevy Chase showing a version of “Christmas Vacation” and talking afterwards. I never would have thought 18 years ago that we would do that. But it sold out in like seven minutes so I think we’d do it again.
RM: I just find it funny that you asked how do we tell that story. I don’t necessarily think that – you know, present circumstances aside where you have to be able to save the industry – I think that that story has been told for decades by other people. They just might not have necessarily known that they’re telling that story. They’re talking about the time they fell in love or the time that they saw the best show of their life or the time that them and their friends went out for the last time as a group.
All of these things – and we all have those memories. We all kind of – it’s almost like you can smell that evening. You remember every single minute of it. You remember the band and you remember the person you were standing next to. You remember what shirt you were wearing. You know, you remember how much parking cost.
All of these things are just ingrained because these venues are so integral to the daily functioning of us as humans, of how we interact with each other, of how the cities are composed, of how people grow. When people have kids, they think to themselves well what’s going to be my kid’s first concert. Right? You know, all of these things that you know they’re going to be talking about in 20 and 30 years.
And you have these institutions across the country that have been around for 20, 30, 50 years but then you also have these younger, often smaller venues, that are filling up corners of downtown areas, that are currently being gentrified in their own way and bringing the economy to places that might not necessarily have those types of businesses.
GW: But that’s where bands start. Bands start in those places. REM. Thinking about it. I mean bands start in those places. Playing in front of 16 people when thousands of people will say they were there and it’s only 16 people that were there.
Also, you mentioned how will we tell the story? One of the things that’s unique about our business that isn’t necessarily the same as many other businesses because let’s not forgot, one of the reasons we’re doing this is because every business in America, in some way shape or form, that’s been impacted by this, is going out and looking for funding at this point in time and trying to justify what their needs are.
The beautiful thing about our business is what RM mentioned but it’s extrapolated out to the hundreds of thousands per promoter because we have databases full of people that we communicate to every year. Like I said, we send out 165 million emails a year. Some people think they get them all. I think.
But we send that many emails out and – as does DF – and what that is is that’s our power. We have people who have – as RM said, religious experiences at our venues and they have a relationship with us that is superior to saying like I just went out to a movie and I saw a movie or whatever.
No, man. When people go to see that show, like RM is saying, and they remember that moment – and we actually carried really cool beers and they weren’t at horrible prices, and they didn’t get sold their ticket by a scalper because we fight that. And the bathroom was clean and by the way, it had toilet paper. Not like this bathroom does, but it had toilet paper – not on the ground.
But when you have all those things and that perfect experience is there and the people who are helping them get in the door are nice and they’re not being horrible to them – like all the things that independent promoters and venues we try to do. Because we have to fight every day to make our places better every day in every single way. The experience that people take away from that is that they believe us.
What I would suggest and what we’ve talked about is like when we had – when we first had to stop doing shows we – as many other people did – we put up a Go Fund Me for our part-time people – bartenders and ushers and things like that. In 10 days we raised $71,000, almost entirely from just the people who are in our database who supported that and we were able to pay a month’s worth of – you know, what would be $100,000 minus taxes – a month’s worth of payroll for part-time staff, just in time to hit them just after they’ve lost a month’s worth of pay.
RM: What’s best about that, GW, is that – I watched that happen probably several hundred times across venues in different cities of different sizes and what I find the most amazing, aside from the fact that almost every venue was doing this to help their staff, right? Not to cover their own costs, but to help their staff. What I find amazing is that the patrons felt the need to be able to say, “I have to cover this person.” Like this one person. And that one person is 30 people sometimes but this one person is so important to me that I need to make sure that they’re ok.
Because I don’t think that we would have seen that same response if it were a trucking company saying, “Hey, can you keep my drivers fed for the next few weeks?” You people don’t necessarily feel that same importance event though…
DF: I mean but independent venues – like we’re a building and we’re four walls and a stage but the heart and soul is the people. And I think GW agrees and I think promoter probably would agree that having a stage and having the walls is great. But it’s all about the people who are filling it and making that experience what it is every day.
I know at First Avenue, you love First Avenue and if you don’t you tend to not last or not – it’s a hard job. It’s not just hours, it’s a lifestyle. It’s an obsession and it’s – personally when I’m not with my kids, I think about it all the time.
And so, you can feel that love when you walk into the building and you know the rooms that people love and they cherish and they take care of and the ones that people don’t as much. Certainly, I think for First Avenue, that people is our advantage. I mean maybe even more than friends and it’s true.
GW: Well it’s kind of the beauty though and it is what happens when things become corporatized in a way. I mean you can’t help it because you’re taking something and extrapolating it out from DF being in her market and the number of venues that she’s doing and saying, “Oh, by the way, DF, can you do that in 35 other markets and can you keep control of that same level of integrity?”
At some point in time, some VC or someone else comes in and says we need to be able to make money doing this and therefore, for my business, then oh, I don’t know, then backstage I don’t have an executive chef, a sous chef, a pastry chef and a barrista backstage at my theater anymore because that’s a line item that’s automatically cut out.
No idiot would spend money on that in the venue except independent venue operators and owners who have to battle because we need to make sure the experience is so good that Milwaukee gets including in the routing because bands love to eat and they love to eat and they get treated like crap on the road and they usually get – because food has been turned into a line item in what they do.
The people in our venues – and what DF said is so important – it’s very rare, honestly, that everyone that goes to a show is going to run into me or run into DF. Generally, they run into one of my dogs who are running around in my venues. But yeah, they’re running into dedicated people.
I find this amazing. I’ve been doing this for 18 years. I have bartenders who worked for us for 16, 17 years. I have ushers who worked for us for all those years. And we do things that corporate venues don’t. We do three nights of Widespread Panic every night at 2:00 a.m. after we have – there’s so much alcohol that has taken place around us that we feed our people wings one night. You know, we’ll do pizza another night. We’ll do barbeque another night. And everybody is just talking about their experience. They’re dead tired. They’ve just treated wonderfully and we get great rewarding responses from Panic fans about it. It’s the reason why we do the shows at Panic.
But at the end of the night, everyone loves the feeling of what they’ve done together and they feel like they’ve accomplished something. And they also know that we, as an organization, know that. We know that they’re important and we care about them and frankly, that’s the reason why we did – as everybody else did – the Go Fund Me. Because if you look at those Go Fund Mes and the venues, if you looked at the comments of the people who gave money, it’s – it gives you the chills to think about some of those people because don’t forget they’re going through the same thing everybody else is going through. They’re wondering where tomorrow is going to be but giving $100 because they can’t wait to get back to the next show. I mean all those comments like that were absolutely amazing.
And then for our side, we sent the money after we collected a certain amount so we could pay everybody as soon as possible. We would do it as a gift to them so they wouldn’t be taxed on it. And the comments that we got back from people – and some of the people were like I don‘t really need the money. I want to give it to so and so.
I don’t know, I know we’re a business but at the same time, I know that we’re something more than that.
DF: No, it’s community. It’s all about community. I mean what you said just brought tears to my eyes because it’s not just about a balance sheet or a P&L statement at the end of the year and dividends. It’s about the community that we’re building and how we’re supporting it and how we’re nourishing it and maintaining it for – you know, I view myself as a steward, not a business owner.
I’m stewarding First Avenue and the Minneapolis St. Paul music community into the next generation and I think what GW said just want to highlight that and he says it way better than I just did.
LP: So you’ve got the priority of a lobbying effort essentially for federal relief and support. You’ve got a sort of fundraising initiative to keep the organization going as well as trying to channel support to the Go Fund Me pages and just drive awareness for what the venue and promoter members are doing.
What’s been the reaction at the local community level? Are the communities too paralyzed to be able to help and think about you? Can local government play a role? Can state government play a role? Is the problem so big that it can only be a federal solution? How do you go from being an important member of your neighborhood community and your local community to the federal stage? What’s in between and how’s that all working?
GW: I think that the real answer to your question from earlier which is why hasn’t there been a national organization before is because the local communities have been so engaged and they have been able to rally when they need to.
You know, there are certainly a number of local organizations or regional organizations like the Chicago Independent Venue League or the Red River Cultural District in Austin. These different groups that have taken shape over the years for one reason or another.
The difference between what has happened in the past and now is this is affecting everyone across the world. So when that changes and you’re no longer going to the governor and saying look at this. This is important. Please pay attention. You’re instead fighting for an entire industry sector. That has to happen from a federal level. The states are going to have their priorities. The local city governments are going to have their priorities and it’s not as if those conversations aren’t happening.
But from a federal level when you’re talking about a government-mandated shutdowns, there has to be government assistance that comes with it. We’ve seen on the media side of things, local press has been incredibly supportive. The stories that local press are telling on behalf of these venues, on behalf of the neighborhoods and talking about the artists and the homes and the careers that have come out of this are amazing.
And then you have the local relationships with elected officials whether that’s local or state or federal because these are people that are already talking with their elected officials on a daily basis for one reason or another. They’re the folks that are handling fundraisers. They’re the folks that are – they’re going out for entertainment themselves. I mean there’s a lot of memories that happens with this to begin with. So I think that the local aspect is what makes these venues so special to begin with.
The unique aspect in this case is that there’s a national organization that is working to be able to look out for all of their collective interests in as fair a way as humanly possible when you’re talking about – well right now 800 different partners within this.
DF: But it’s so cool to have everyone talking. So like amongst the lobbying committee, that topic came up of ok, what are you getting from your city and then – I’ll just make up names but like Cleveland, Ohio would be like, “Oh, we asked our city council for this” and then Austin, Texas is like, “Oh, well a couple years ago, we got this.” And then Missoula, Montana will say, “Oh, but have you thought about this?”
So everyone is learning and I think like we said are sharing knowledge, sharing resources so that we can get all the help that we need. And again, the goal is just to come out of this with a strong independent music ecosystem, whether if it’s federal or state or city or county or philanthropic. But that’s the goal.
RM: That sort of strikes me. Something when GW was speaking earlier – in my mind there was sort of this inherent tension because independent is a loaded word, right? And you guys talked about this. You’re independent. It’s a badge of honor. It’s an identifier but it also has other connotations. An army of one sometimes or you’ve all used sort of the language around fighting a battle and struggle. That’s part of being independent as well.
But then when you find other independents and you realize oh, wait a minute, they’re going through the same thing. There’s like a peer support element. And then there’s also the element of I don’t have to invent the solution to this problem because …
GW: I totally buy into that idea. I love the idea that – I always think that I have to be creative and I had to think of every solution. But I completely love the idea that you can take something that works already and simply make it better. That’s the reason why we subscribe to each other’s email lists, by the way. Because we get to see a lot of the great things that we do – that other groups do and that makes us – we’re all kind of a little bit of each other overall.
I remember in the very beginning we would look at the Seattle Theater Group guys when they first built their site and their email and how they did it. There’s a venue in Portland we looked at. There’s a venue in Philly that we looked at – the Keswick – before they got sold to AEG. They had a different vibe and they were kind of moving towards that thing.
So I think we all kind of gravitate towards that. But I think the ability to have a network that actually allows us to not just be peeking in the window, we get to actually come in the house and not be arrested for peeking.
DF: But I think what’s so cool is you can take what you want and leave what you want. You know. If you’re a member of NIVA doesn’t mean you have to ask for this or you have any restrictions. Independent has 100 percent of agency authority to say, “Great, I love that suggestion. Or go F-off. I’m doing it my own way.” You know? Which I think that’s [00:43:40] is that you don’t have to follow a dictate that’s sent from the coast or that’s sent from a CEO somewhere that you’ve never met.
GW: There is a piece of our business though that says that information is power. I mean knowing about – one of the powers that Live Nation or AEG have is that they have phone calls where they’re able to talk to each other and say – you know, they’re talking about what tours are coming out because they have information at a higher level and they’re able to then share that throughout their groups.
You know, look, one of the possibilities here is the ability for us to do the exact same type of thing. It’s the ability for us to be able to say that this is happening or that is happening. This is what I’m doing with this. Or this is how I did with that.
We all want to use all the tools that are available when we make our decisions. And then you’ve got to rest your soul based upon whatever you’ve decided to pay or do or ticket price, whatever it might be. But you want to use all the tools possible.
This might really essentially give us one more tool because then we’ve got that information shared from each other and experiences and things like that of what we can do to build a better offer. Or build a better offer sheet. Especially in the new generation of America capitalism version 2.0 that we’re going to be getting into after the pandemic. Are we going to build better offer sheets that might provide better protection for us and opportunities for us?
DF: And even at a more micro level. We were having an issue at First Avenue. We always X’d hands. But people started really getting really upset about that. You know if it was an expired license or a restriction on a license, they didn’t want that marked. And so, I was able to call GW and be like, “Oh, my God, what do you do? You don’t want an X.” And he gave us what they do and we were able to update our processes and become a better organization because we had that relationship.
GW: It’s the small things that derail your entire day, right? Like the big things where you’re on the phone with a banker or something like that where you’re like ok, you put the blinders on and you move forward with it.
But the small things where somebody comes in and they say, “Hey, I have this thing happening at home and I’m not going to be able to work it the same way.” And you’re like, ok, well how do other people deal with this.
So just having a peer that you can reach out to and go, “I’m dealing with something. I remember you mentioned it, too. What ended up coming from it?” It makes it so much easier to know that you’re not alone, even if you’re the one that’s bearing the cost of what’s happening to you, you’re not carving out new territory every single step.
RM: And let’s put it in perspective with where we are today. So let’s say we have to make decisions about how, for example, we – can we do two shows in one day. How do we clean our theaters and our bathrooms after a show? Are we taking temperatures when people come in the venue? Are we staggering entries or door times for people to be able to come in?
In the older days, that would be just my partner and I and some other people at our venue sitting around going, “Oh, what do we do?” We talk it through. We get to a point. But now this is a network for us to all share that. It’s not to keep it secret.
By the way, let’s say that we have to take temperatures at entrance of all of our doors. Isn’t it going to be a better buy if we’re buying thousands of those hand reading temperature guides instead of buying 40 or 30? If we can go out and buy 10,000 of those, I’m fairly certain that each of us on the call can negotiate a really good price because it’s what we do normally.
And it applies to all aspects because there will be cleaning changes about how we sanitize our theaters. There’ll be changes at our bars. There’ll be changes about possibly going cashless. And all those things we should have the power to negotiate. Maybe it helps us long-term when we look at even our solutions that we have at our bars and what we use to be able to use as an attractive POS system at our bars that we’re able to negotiate and get things for.
All those things were generally created by us sitting in our rooms with our people going like, “Ok, I think we’ll do this” or “I saw this here and it look like it works well.” But now we have a network and I’m sure by the time this rolls through, we’ll be over well into the thousand of groups where we can put this up on the board and suggest it and find out who has information and then maybe benefit by the buying power and the logic and knowledge of doing it.
LP: So here’s the thing that really strikes me. Well actually there’s a few things. One, the fact that here we are knee deep – we don’t even know actually. Is this at our ankles, our knees, our hips? Like how far into this are we right now?
But we’re already talking about the future with some optimism and some real excitement. When I first heard about this organization, I went right to some of the places you all are at now as well, thinking about wow, what could this be when we’re all back up and running, whether it is routing a tour, buying shows, the consolidated buying power. There’s so many fun things we’re going to be able to do when we’re out of survival mode.
But it also goes back to something else. I was talking to Pollstar a couple weeks ago and we were talking about optimism and we were talking about – I think DF alluded to it earlier, maybe RM did. The corporate messaging that’s been coming down really since the beginning of this has been very pessimistic and sort of negative in a lot of ways. We can talk about whether there’s some self-serving in that message or whether there’s a strategy in that messaging.
But the comment I made in the piece was that to open a venue, to build the experience, to roll your money on putting on an event and knowing and hoping that people will come – that’s an optimistic world view. That’s an optimistic person.
The kind of people that are doing what you do. Now I’ve been on the other side of the table. There’s plenty of gruff and tough, difficult, straight shooter people but that’s business. That’s how you survive and thrive. It doesn’t mean unfair. It doesn’t mean being nasty.
But to put on a show and to build a scene and to build a community, that to me is like – that’s probably in the textbook definition of optimism and it’s amazing to sit here talking to the three of you while we’re all in survival mode and we’re talking about how great it’s going to be and what all the opportunities are now.
DF: I think that’s why the group is so passionate and so active because we’re fighting for our community You know, I’m going to get to the optimism mode one day soon, I hope. I’m definitely like in the survival – like we can’t wake up in a world that doesn’t have any independent music venues. To even think about that being a legitimate reality is so mind boggling and depressing that you have to live in the hope somewhere. And I do have hope that the federal legislators will listen to our story and respect it and choose to value us.
But yeah, I think the optimism, I’m working toward that and feeling – I think there can be hope because there is a unified voice now. So that’s what’s giving me hope.
RM: I think the optimism that you’re talking about though to me, it’s almost an entrepreneurship I’ve given. Right? These are our business owners that are always working towards what tomorrow’s growth is going to be like GW said earlier, it’s a bunch of sharks, right? And you’re always swimming and you’re always trying to figure out what your next meal is.
I think that’s part of what these conversations are is ok, it’s a desert now, but at some point, there will be another side of this. I mean factually, there will be another side of this. Everybody knows that’s going to be the case. We jut don’t know when that’s going to be.
So when that happens, there will be a return to people congregating in one space and entertainment and all the other aspects of the industry that come with this. When that happens, there will be a lot of opportunities for the people that are still in business then.
So it’s important the independently owned venues and promoters are able to make that gap because the multi-national and the publicly traded companies have made it clear that they have enough runway that they’re not as worried about it.
They’re doing their cutbacks and their stocks are taking a hit and everything else like that. But that’s certainly different than being the – I forget the word that DF said – but the caretaker of the venue that’s been around for so long and wanting to give that to the next generation. That’s a different type of priority – internal priority – than most people would feel if it were just a job.
DF: Yeah, I mean what we’re looking at in order to sustain our employees and our venues – you know, we don’t have shareholder. I mean I don’t have investors. We’re looking at massive loans, personal guarantees without any assurance that we are going to be able to reopen. Yeah, like RM said, there have been calls and the multi-nationals said they have enough cash to not do another show for 2020. I certainly can’t say the same. You know, maybe other independents are in different shapes but I guess I don’t know any independent business that can go without revenue for 18 months and sit here and go yeah, we’re going to be fine. Just don’t worry about it. This is survival mode.
RM: I think optimism comes from – there was a two-week period there for the first two weeks, I know that we had a lot of conversations with DF’s team where we were playing defense. We didn’t know. This was all new to us. Every day there was something different.
I remember in my own internal conference calls where I was like I didn’t know if I wanted to hear from other people because they were so depressed about everything that was – like something new that day.
But I think there was a time of change there. I think what creates optimism is that we stopped playing defense and we started playing offense. The beginning of time of planning this, that was a chance of going back to what we do at our core.
Ok, we have something that we have to solve. We know this is – now, we’re accepting that it’s changing every day. Let’s let it change every day. Let’s expect the change. But let’s take it on and do what you do because in the beginning – I remember the first call that DF made when we talked about what she found out about what she thought was coming down from the stimulus and we were all automatically all like, “Bam, let’s go on offense.” And we went on offense at that time.
From that day forward, and that includes creating this, I think that’s all given us a sense of optimism because we’re doing something about it instead of just trying to play dodgeball where you’re trying not to get hit. Now we’re starting to throw back and that’s a better feeling.
LP: So we have a couple minutes left. One thing I’d like to ask each of you – because again, there’s a diversity of people that listen to this. Some people within the industry, some are just fans, some – you know, we don’t know who will ultimately choose to give a listen.
Can you speak to the listener and what’s the one ask? What’s the practical thing somebody listening to this can do whether they’re an industry stakeholder – what’s something you need them to do differently? What do you need your local fan community to do on your behalf? What’s the concrete ask?
DF: Certainly, tell your representatives support your venue. Help us tell our story. Tell your representative why your local independent venue is important to you. Be open to hearing our story and assisting your local venue.
GW: I think if you’re an industry stakeholder, you can help us by finding other independent venues and sending them our way. We know that there are so many that are out there and look, we also know that they’re blinded right now because they’re focused on this impossible thing that they’ve never had happen to them before.
So if you’re a stakeholder, send them our way, no matter what. And if you’re in our database, is it your people who come to our shows? Wait for the emails that we’ll be sending to you that give you opportunities to take action that have very specific opportunities to be able to talk to your congressman, to talk to you senator and let them know how important we are to what your life is about and to what your city’s life is about.
RM: I think the most important thing is just to show up. We don’t have a physical place for people to show up right now, so everything DF and GW said is where we’re going to have to be able to focus those efforts now.
Show up if you have access to helping to fund NIVA. You know, light was such a great and early and seat tickets and like everybody who’s been such a huge help from the beginning where it was identified here’s a need and we’re very grateful for that.
Other people are going to be able to activate their own local representatives and they’ll be able to make those phone calls when the time is right. Other people are going to be able to donate towards Go Fund Me. Other people are going to be able to just look at their neighbors and say, “This is important to me. Could you help support in a way that you can?”
But to be able to show up is really important right now. We’re all obligated to take care of our neighbors right now. I view these venues as a very important part of that neighborhood.
GW: Hey, and show up, I also – you have a lot of time where you’re actually working from home now. Listen to a lot of music. Buy band t-shirts. Download and pay for artists’ new music. If you like Fiona Apple, buy the new Fiona Apple album. I mean support those artists because we are – basically we’re like chefs. We can’t cook with the artists as part of our ingredients and secondly we can’t cook without the audience as the other part of our ingredients.
So we need to keep the entire synergistic effort healthy. So if we come out of this ok, but the artists aren’t supported – because don’t forget, they have revenue coming in at all at this point in time. And we were their outlet.
I realize that for many years the record business was their outlet once they were able to do the magic word of recouping which basically very few actually did recoup unless you were Elvis or something. He probably didn’t recoup because he gave it all to his manager. But I mean support artists as well.
DF: I think I’m exceptionally – I keep thinking about the optimism and I could not be hopeful because if there’s anything I’ve learned in the last six weeks, it’s that nothing replaces the experience of live music.
I knew I’d miss it. I had to idea how much I would miss it. I would give anything to be able to go to a show and have a drink and hang out and see an artist. Even a local artist, a not favorite artist – anyone. Just get me to a show right now and I know if I’m feeling this, I k now everyone out there is feeling that way, too.
And so, I know that when we open, we’re going to be able to open stronger than ever. And so, I am exceptionally optimistic and grateful to everyone listening and everyone who helps us get through this time.
GW: And the magic of people showing up is incredible, right? I mean the whole idea – what you said earlier about you have to take that risk and you’re going to book the show and you’re going to sell tickets and people will show up.
I remember in 2005 or ’06 we did Belle and Sebastian. Twenty-five dollar tickets. They had no air play. Who knew back then? And I remember my partner Matt and I, we sold that show out and we just stood in that room and it was like if you could bottle the emotion in that room, especially for us even knowing that this could happen.
That’s inspirational and you’re right. I miss that. I miss knowing that people believe that there’s a whole society of people that believe in entertainment enough to show up. Because look, we’re not Amazon. Our business is not Amazon.com. You don’t buy something, sit at home and a cardboard box gets thrown on your doorstep and you never leave your house and you’re in quarantine.
In our business, people buy stuff online – the majority of it online – and they get up out of their house. They go to a bar. They go to a restaurant, they park their car and they come to a show. They participate. The value of our customer is so much greater than just the static database of someone who just simply sits and buys things at home. It’s crazy what our customers actually mean to the come back of what America is going to need in version 2.0.
LP: Well listen, there’s a lot, I think, that we didn’t cover and there’s a lot more I’d love to cover in the coming weeks and months. So I hope we can treat this as the start of a dialogue and have you all come back periodically. Maybe talk to some other members.
I’m working on some things where we’re going to talk to some fans and see what they’re thinking and feeling and get some fan perspective. So I hope we can count on talking to you again.
I thank you for making time and as somebody who’s been going to concerts – I went to my first show in 1983 and I was thinking the other day, trying to do the math and even before I worked in the business, I don’t think a month went by without going to a show.
So I’m looking at almost 40 years of at least monthly shows, if not weekly, if not nightly at different times as some personal professional combination. Just in the same way that I had to stop flying every week for work, I’ve had to stop going through turnstiles every week or so and it’s jarring and it sucks.
GW: What was that first show?
LP: It was the Kinks at the New Haven Coliseum.
GW: Wow! That’s incred there. I thought you were going – it was going to be something like …
LP: I’ll tell you what. It is a very cool first concert for a 12-year-old kid but if you looked at the next maybe six [laughter] – I would go to anything at that point. In the 80s, I saw everybody.
DF: It’s okay. It’s okay.
GW: All right, DF, first show?
DF: I have such a good one, it’s not fair. I went with my very cool older sister to see the Pixies at First Ave. I was like nine or 10. I know, I know. It’s not fair.
GW: All right. RM?
DF: My sister worked at a skate shop and like man …
RM: First show? Not first concert but first show, huh? First show would have been HR from Bad Brains.
GW: Oh, jeez and I thought the Kinks were good.
RM: Well I didn’t like it. So I guess I didn’t know anything about that. That brings up the time I actually went to see the opening band which was the Skunks and it was at the 930 Club. Technically, HR was my first show. I had no idea what I was in for.
GW: That’s pretty cool.
DF: [01:03:30] embarrassing but someone has to. My first [01:03:32] was the Spin Doctors so there you go. It’s not all cool.
GW: Oh, there you go. There you go. And they’re still – as a matter of fact, I had the Spin Doctors tour manager in one of my venues 40 days ago and the Spin Doctors apparently are huge in Panama. They had a festival in Panama.
DF: That’s awesome.
GW: Who would know that but he had just come from headlining a festival. I’m like, “Who for?” He’s like, “Spin Doctors. I’ve been with them for like ever.” I’m like, “Spin Doctors? At a festival?” He goes, “Yeah, they headline there.”
RM: GW, you’re dodging the question. Why aren’t you answering the question GW?
GW: Well I’m so much older that I have such a great answer. 1974, it was Uriah Heap the Wonderworld Tour and somebody passed me – like my parents dropped me off and somebody passed me a purple-colored cigarette down the aisle. I was so high by the time I got back in my parents’ car. They didn’t notice though because they weren’t that cool. But yeah, and opening for Uriah Heap was the Atlanta Rhythm Section. I remember the night incredibly well. They were so into me that night.
LP: That’s amazing. Wow. Well thank you all. I look forward to doing this again and I look forward to passing through the turnstiles at each venue very, very soon.
GW: Thank you.
DF: Thanks much.
LP: Be well. Bye-bye.
Managing Partner/Co-Founder, Marauder
Rev. Moose stands at the forefront of developing artists and organizations from around the world. Having co-founded NIVA (National Independent Venue Association) to serve American independent venues and promoters, his work as executive director of NIVA and NIVF (National Independent Venue Foundation) was recognized across industries with Clio, Webby, and Pollie Awards. Moose greatly extended the global reach of The Syndicate and CMJ by creating US programs for international talent, building from his history managing a diverse roster of international artists as co-owner of The Underground Management.
Owner - CEO/Talent Buyer at The Pabst Theater Group
GARY WITT was handpicked by entrepreneur and philanthropist Michael Cudahy in 2002 to lead the Pabst Theater in downtown Milwaukee. Today, Witt oversees the group of music venues that includes the Pabst, Riverside Theater, Turner Hall Ballroom, The Backroom at Colectivo and Miller High Life Theater. Pabst Theater Group, which has about 350 employees, hosts nearly 700 shows and events annually at its own venues as well as Fiserv Forum, the UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena and Bradley Symphony Center. Witt was a vocal advocate for music venues throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, sounding the alarm on the lack of financial support available to the hard-hit live entertainment industry.