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Scottish band Franz Ferdinand plays to a sold out crowd during one of the opening shows at The Atlantis in Washington D.C. Photo credit: Ben Eisendrath, Courtesy of I.M.P.

Some small music venues kept rocking even after COVID shut them down. Here's how they did it

When I.M.P. opened the Atlantis in April, it was the independent music production company's fifth venue in greater Washington, D.C. It was also its smallest. The concert hall is a tribute to the original 9:30 club, a beloved and intimate live music space that first opened 44 years ago and lives on in a larger location, also owned by I.M.P, next door.

The other venues it owns, operates, or books, are at least three times as large. (The largest, Merriweather Post Pavilion, is an outdoor amphitheater with grounds that can hold more than 19,000 people.) But for I.M.P. owner and chairman Seth Hurwitz, the thrills that come with seeing live music in an intimate, smaller, venue was the point.

"Here I am standing, sitting in front of the stage," Hurtwitz said, on the floor of the Atlantis after their first week of shows in May. "You're sitting in basically the back of the floor and we're right next to each other. This is an excitement when you see a band like that, there's nothing like it."

Three years ago, the opening of a new venue in the city, or anywhere in America, seemed impossible — nevermind significantly smaller ones, that have less potential for ticket revenue. Already facing high costs such as rising rents, insurance and labor, as well as corporate competition, small, independent venues took another hit when COVID-19 forced officials to declare public health emergencies and ban mass gatherings, including indoor concerts. I.M.P., and other independent music venues and promoters, had no shows, and therefore, no income. Audrey Fix Schaefer, communications director for I.M.P., remembers the feeling.

"Frightened. Scared. Nothing like that had ever happened. The idea of being shut down for more than two days was unthinkable," Fix Schaefer said. Ninety percent of independent venues surveyed by the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) that summer said they feared shutting down without some kind of assistance.

But demand for live concerts is now back, and independent small venues are navigating a new market.

The National Independent Venue Association, which formed during COVID to offer support and seek financial assistance from Congress, has drawn venues across the country together to share industry knowledge and lobby Congress to protect musicians and fans from issues that have rocked the world of live music in recent years, including price gouging, fake tickets and fraudulent resale practices. Today, the association has more than 1,000 members and over 3,000 full and affiliate members across all 50 states.

After securing $15 billion in pandemic relief for venues and theaters — lobbying for the Save Our Stages Act, passed in December 2020 as part of Congress' $900 billion COVID-19 relief bill — NIVA has turned to focusing on predatory practices by ticket resellers.

While the Biden administration has taken on so-called "junk fees," recently announcing a deal with LiveNation/Ticketmaster to show all fees in the total cost of the ticket, advocates, including those in NIVA, say it doesn't address the bigger problem: third parties buying tickets with the sole intent of reselling. NIVA says when consumers pay more for a show than they might otherwise need to, they spend less at the show and at surrounding businesses, or, may not attend at all, threatening the survival of small venues. That survival matters not only for fans and local economies, but for artists too, NIVA says. And despite some progress being made, challenges still remain.

Dayna Frank, co-founder of NIVA and CEO of Minneapolis-based First Avenue Productions, which owns and operates independent music venues in Minneapolis and Saint Paul, said she's proud of what NIVA has accomplished so far. "But we are at such a deficit on this issue. The secondary companies and the brokers have been lobbying on this effort for 15 years. And we just started six months ago."

Before COVID, "independent music venues were just that, really fiercely independent, and there was no way that they would come together on anything, because if you're an independent [venue] across town, you're a competitor,." Fix Schaefer said.

"Everybody knew they would go under if they didn't come together."

'Independent venues are pivotal to emerging and working class artists'

While NIVA's founding goals were about supporting independent venues, the spaces matter for artists and local economies, too.

And especially as album sales have given way to streaming platforms, such as Spotify or Apple Music, which pay artists fractions of cents per play, "Independent venues are pivotal to emerging and working class artists," Frank said.

In order for an artist to build a fan base and achieve any financial success, touring is critical, and that means artists need a healthy marketplace of different sized venues, she added.

And artists and venue owners alike believe that the fanbase is what will drive ticket sales more than anything else.

For artist Bartees Strange,who will be performing in September in one of The Atlantis' opening series of shows, "There's nothing cooler than, you know, putting out a record playing for a hundred people and then coming back to that city and there's 500 people and you're like, 'Wow, like this is working.'"

For the areas surrounding independent venues, ticket sales symbolize more than just concert attendance. "When people buy a ticket to a small venue, the economic impact of $1 spent on a ticket actually equals $12 in local economic impact," Frank said. People who buy tickets often then have to book hotel rooms, use ride-sharing services to get to the show, patronize nearby restaurants and bars around the venue, and more. As an example, using the NIVA Economic Impact calculator, developed with the Arts Management program at Colorado State University, a small venue like the Atlantis would put nearly $2.5 million back into the local economy, through restaurants, hotels and transportation, for the duration of their shows that are already scheduled through the rest of the year.

Challenges for these types of venues remain. Fix Schaefer and Frank both pointed out rising rents and real estate costs, as well as insurance costs. Add to that, major competition from corporations such as LiveNation/Ticketmaster who can secure rights for entire nationwide tours at their own venues and contract with larger venues as well, controlling everything from ticketing to production. But the collaboration NIVA has built among independent venues and promoters will be a key part of future success, Dayna Frank and others said. At NIVA's second annual members conference in July, that collaboration was featured by spotlighting sessions on cyber security, workforce development, ticketing practices, how to use data to book shows, among others. That collaboration and networking did not exist previously, Frank and Fix Schaefer said.

Independent and smaller venues are "important just because they have the flexibility to change with the times," Strange said. "They understand people, they're a little closer to the ground"

Capitalizing on their flexibility and their partnerships, NIVA recently launched a new effort to take on predatory ticket reselling practices that hurt consumers, venues and artists alike. "What they're doing is sweeping up inventory, controlling inventory to maximize their own prices on a secondary market. That is hugely, hugely damaging to our fans," Frank said. Resellers buy tickets with the sole purpose of selling them at a higher price, or even sell speculative tickets before they actually go on sale.

"If you buy a ticket for $200, that should have cost $80, that's $120 that people don't have to go to the next show." Frank said.

When fans buy tickets from resellers, not from venue-approved ticket exchanges where fans who can't make the show can resell tickets at face value, artists lose a way to market new music, and venues lose a way to market new shows, disseminate key information, and even the possibility of bringing in future concert attendees.

"We don't want to see the money going to people that had nothing to do with the cost of putting on this show," Fix Schaefer said.

When the Atlantis opened up ticket sales for its opening series of 44 shows, with some big names such as the Foo Fighters, Third Eye Blind and Maggie Rogers, it enacted some of the ticketing rules NIVA is recommending. I.M.P. used a lottery system which allowed fans to request tickets. Tickets were then sold, but not issued until one day before the show. Up until that moment, fans had essentially had a license, that they could only sell for face value, or the same amount they paid. When ticket sales opened, more than half a million requests were made for the 19,800 tickets available.

Support like that is music to small venues' ears.

"Venues are churches," said Bartees Strange, "It's like a place where the spirit can move."

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