Episode 1

An oral history of Save Our Stages Fest

Independent venues were the first to close and the last to open due to the COVID-19. In this episode we talked to the small business owners who fought to keep live music alive through the pandemic and put on a legendary festival to do it.



In Fall 2020, the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) teamed up with YouTube to produce the SaveOurStages Festival — quite possibly the biggest virtual music festival of all time — to raise money for the Save Our Stages Act: life-saving federal aid for the nation’s independent music venues. They were the first businesses to close due to COVID-19 and they’ll be the last to open. Nothing exemplifies the heart of business more than artists, legislators, corporations, and fans coming together to save live music.

And there’s so much to talk about, from the logistics of organizing such an event with 30+ major artists, the technology to stream it around the world, and the ultimate goal of lobbying the US Congress to get involved and pass this legislation.

Many venues still haven’t received financial assistance, so the emergency relief fund is still accepting donations to distribute to the most at-risk venues. Please consider donating here.

Watch SOS Fest on YouTube.

LB Harvey

Episode one, the first to close, the last to open.

Do you remember the last time you listened to live music? You bought tickets to a show, you waited in line. Maybe you even showed up early to catch the opener, or maybe you showed up late so you’d miss it. I remember the last show I went to before the COVID-19 pandemic shut them all down. For me, it was the LCD Soundsystem concert at the Greek. The energy was absolutely palpable. You could feel it in the air. None of us knew it was going to be the last live music we’d be hearing for well over a year. 

Bands started canceling tours as soon as early March of 2020, well before any of the large scale shutdowns were being mandated. And now, even as restaurants are starting to open up and indoor dining and offices are starting to welcome people back, most music venues are still closed. The first major festival of the year won’t be until late July, and most artists aren’t planning to tour until the end of the summer at the earliest event. 

Venues, concerts, conferences, stand up comedy, movie theaters. They were the first to close and they’ll be the last to open. And four stadiums, arenas and large halls. They’ve lost a ton of money, over 30 billion lost just in concert revenue. But for independent venues, a lot of them lost everything. Threadgills in Austin, Texas, Rebar in Seattle, Slim’s in San Francisco. At least 300 venues across the country have all been closed for good as a result of COVID-19. 

The Heart of Business is the relationships between a company and its customers. But how does the heart keep beating for small venues when you literally can’t have live music? That’s the story we’re telling today. My name is LB Harvey, and in this episode of Heart of Business, it’s a story about how a bunch of local bar owners, booking agents, and bona fide rock stars kept live music on life support for over a year, putting on the biggest virtual festival of 2020 and saving thousands of local stages across the country. Here’s Matt Klassen with the story. 

Matt Klassen

The last show my band played was January 30th, 2020. We’re just a local rock band, all in our 30s, long past any dreams of making it big. But we used to play small venues around town, maybe once a month. We all have day jobs, but for a lot of our friends who played their last live show around the same time, that was it. The end. Their dream deferred for what we all thought would be a couple of months max. 

A lot of musicians I know took to the internet — TikTok, Twitch, YouTube — to try to make ends meet, or probably just to stay relevant. But the venues I used to play, they went dark. But behind the scenes they were working on something. I talked to some guys in the industry. I know. 

Patrick Wilson

Hey, I’m Patrick Wilson. I run, head up artist relations for NIVA, the National Independent Venue Association. My day job is I’m a talent buyer for a music venue called White Eagle Hall in Jersey City, which is just over the water from Manhattan. 

Stephen Chilton

I’m Stephen Chilton. I promote concerts under the name Psyko Steve Presents and own a music venue in Phoenix, the Rebel Lounge. It’s sort of a 300 person rock and roll club, and for the last year, one of the founders and vice president of NIVA, the National Independent Venue Association. 

Patrick Wilson

NIVA started up as, you know, a number of independent venues across the country were learning that our livelihoods and the venues were at stake and so we organized, started with just a phone call with a handful of people, and then fast forward a year later, probably about 2500 independent music and comedy clubs that are part of NIVA. 

Stephen Chilton

Before even the shutdowns, when it was first starting, when shows were first starting to get canceled and after South By Southwest got canceled. Reverend Moose, who runs a marketing firm Marauder and runs Independent Venue Week, threw out this Zoom invite to the hundred or so venues that were part of Independent Venue Week and said, Let’s get out on a Zoom and talk about what we’re all seeing. 

And we got on a Zoom on a Thursday and we basically did that call every day for the last year, every Thursday. The first call was kind of before most cities shut down, it was like March 12 when some things were starting to shut down, but not everything. And then the second call was after everything had shut down. 

And we were just... Everyone’s freaking out. No one was talking about what it was going to mean for small venues or promoters or concerts. Everything at that time, everyone was talking about the NBA and the NFL and Coachella and all these like huge, massive things that no one was talking about, well, all us little guys are going to be shut down too. 

Matt Klassen

How screwed did you think the whole industry might be? 

Patrick Wilson

Once South By shut down, that was sort of the epicenter of, "Oh, [expletive]. Like what?" So that was a very pivotal point when there was rumblings that that was going to shut down and then [expletive] got real. 

Stephen Chilton

The start was we have no idea what to do. We need— the only way we can do it is by getting together and organizing because we don’t have any solutions. And this is when the first stimulus bill was going through and we were not in it in any way, like the original PPP program did not work for promoters and venues. You know, that was all about keeping people employed. Well, if you’re completely shut down, how do you do that? And so that first stimulus happened so fast and we were completely not thought of. Like our industry, industries like ours were not thought of. 

Patrick Wilson

The rooms that are part of of of NIVA range from a 50 cap, walk-up only type venue in New Orleans with no advance ticket sales that are doing entirely local events, to places like Red Rocks and stuff. So we range a ton. But the bread and butter of of independent venues are these local rooms that are probably between 200 to a thousand or fifteen hundred cap. The smaller rooms obviously survive almost entirely off of local musicians and non-touring bands.

My job is fine. Like I’m fine. I was able to figure some stuff out, but cutting 40 bar staff and 30 crew and stuff, I mean, we were cut— I mean, almost a hundred people that relied on us and to make that call to them and say or that, hey, we’re done for the for the next, what we thought month and then six months and then a year. That takes its toll for sure. Again, I can only speak for me, but and I’m sure Stephen said similar things and... 

Stephen Chilton

I’ve been giving refunds this whole time. So like anyone has asked for a refund for a postponed or canceled show, we’ve given a refund to everyone that’s asked. And so that’s been good for us. A lot of people were just financially not able to... South by Southwest didn’t do refunds and like, you know, for a lot of producers and promoters and venues, smaller venues, that’s been a big issue for a lot of people is not being able to get refunds. So we were in a lucky spot that we were able to do that for all our shows. Anyone who’s wanted one.

Turning to NIVA, a different sort of different side, fan support was what got us noticed and what got Congress and Washington paying attention is we did this huge letter writing campaign that go to Save Our— we launched the Save Our Stages campaign, a campaign I helped come up with on our marketing team that came up with that name and that hashtag. And, you know, we got this form on our website that would send emails and we got over two million people to write an email to their congressmen and senators. 

And, you know, I remember, at one point we were like 900,000 emails and we were like, if we can get another hundred thousand emails sent, we could do a press release that we sent a million emails. And then the big giant restaurant association came out with a press release that they had sent fifty thousand emails to Congress. And we’re like, what? You represent every restaurant in America and you gotn 50,000 emails? We were like, maybe a million would be interesting. We could do a release around a million. 

And that’s all we heard was like Congress heard. Like it was so grassroots. Everyone knew we had... There was no Astroturf, there was no money. It was just every venue and promoters sharing the Save Our Stages last May and June and all the fans being like, yeah, like we care about this and got really loud and we got a lot of attention in Congress. When you’re a congressman and you’re getting 50,000 emails to your inbox, you notice that, you know. And so that’s what it was. All the fans’ support just showed that we mattered and we cared. And Congress got the message and was like, oh, wow. Like, this is something, this is an issue that we need to pay attention to. 

Matt Klassen

Why couldn’t these independent venues make it on their own without this kind of broad base of support? 

Patrick Wilson

The simplest way to describe it is, you know, while many venues did take up the government assistance with PPP, PPP loans specifically were not made for an industry like us because you needed to spend 70 percent of the loan with staffing. And we didn’t have a way to staff. Even if we were doing a live stream, we just couldn’t spend that much money on our staff. 

So it was just not for an industry that went from one hundred percent to zero percent. I mean, some of the best touring years we’ve had was in... 2020 was going to be one of the biggest touring years and best, most successful years for a lot of rooms across the country. And because of that, you know, venues were starting to do some capital— getting ready for capital improvements, and were looking at opening... A number of people I know were working on their second... had just put a down payment on their second room, were opening an amphitheater or something. And this hit. 

So, you know, the... While again, a lot of venues took PPP, it wasn’t a sustainable form of aid for most rooms because of the need to to spend it on primarily staffing needs. 

Matt Klassen

You kind of became a lobbyist, right? Like how hard was it to get these legislators on the same page? Obviously, you’ve got bipartisan support. You had bipartisan grassroots support. Like what was the process like to people kind of observing from the outside? 

Stephen Chilton

Oh, yeah, I mean, the first part started with that letter writing campaign, I mean, we hired a big lobbyist and they’re like, look, no one knows or understands your issue or your industry. You’re going to have to make a lot of noise to show that people care. And we did. So that was sort of step one, was showing that. And then the other one is we had our lobbying committee, and we’re in all 50 states. 

You know, we’re in all 50 states. And in every major city, there were independent venues that got behind NIVA. I mean, it took us a week to sign up members in all 50 states. We were reaching out in every state to our representatives. This wasn’t a movement that was driven out of L.A. or New York or Texas or something like this was everywhere. Everyone had a relationship with their congressmen, their senators, their people. I knew Greg Stanton, our congressman, when he was mayor of Phoenix. I knew Ruben Gallego when he was a state representative before he was in Congress. And it’s like, I don’t know a lot of people in Washington, but I know our people. 

And that was the same for everyone. There were venue owners everywhere that were like, oh, yeah, my former mayor is now our senator or our you know, it’s not a coincidence. Our big champion, our first big champion was John Cornyn, a very conservative Republican out of Texas, South By Southwest canceling: music is a big deal in Austin. There’s a lot of honky tonk bars. In Texas, they understand the impact music has on the economy. And, you know, him and Amy Klobuchar, Democrat out of Minnesota, got together and did the Save Our Stages act. 

But that was because of grassroots across. We were able to have that old school grassroots get on the phone and talk to our representatives and talk to their staff and be loud and annoying. 

Matt Klassen

Where’d the idea for Save Our Stages Fest first come about? Like you had that Save Our Stages legislation that was being written, but where’d the idea come from for this virtual festival? 

Patrick Wilson

You know, not too far after we started the campaign in March and the organization, there was a call from Lyor Cohen from YouTube and to one of our founding members, Stephen Sternschein. And they had a call and Lyor basically asked, you know, what can you do to help? And it was at that point where I started to... they put their hand out and said, we want to do anything we can. And, you know, quickly after that, this idea to do a fundraiser to tide people over and raise as much money as we can and Save Our Stages Fest started. 

Stephen Chilton

YouTube was a huge partner on the whole thing. They helped us produce it from you know, it wasn’t just we streamed it on YouTube like their artist team, Ali and Matt and Natalie Stone. And just a ton of the people at YouTube were super behind it and held our hands and were like... We’re like, we don’t know how to do it. And they’re like, do this. And we’re like, OK. 

Patrick Wilson

When we started booking a festival, it was at a pretty small team of us and a couple of people on the YouTube side. We had a specific group of artists that we were looking at and tried to be as diverse as possible. But it was quick. I mean, it was a quick... We were asking for a lot, to be honest. We were asking people to come into a live room and test, and we did as safe as we possibly could and do it for free. I mean, we obviously paid all their crew. That was a big part of it for us. We wanted to make sure we were paying crew and and band members and whatnot, but the artists themselves donated their time to us, which we’re eternally grateful for. 

Stephen Chilton

Yeah, it was a lot of work. And being Patrick, part of the core team that did it all, Patrick did most of the booking of it hand in hand with YouTube’s artist relations. And we got a lot of great artists. And, you know, our biggest holdup wasn’t artists not wanting to do it, it was logistics. There were lots of artists there, like our bands in different cities. We can’t I mean, this was still, you know, when we were planning this last July and August, it was like the heat of COVID, height of COVID. And like people didn’t want to travel. 

You know, Brittany Howard ended up driving herself to Nashville to do it. So because she really wanted to do it and her band was in Nashville and she didn’t want to fly, she just drove. I don’t know how far she drove, but I don’t know where she lives. But she drove herself to Nashville to do it because she really wanted to do it. 

Brittany Howard

I’m in the best room in Nashville, in my opinion. It sounds amazing. It has a lot of history. It’s just a special place because this is where my family would drive to come see me play. And they know that this is a special place, a special moment to be performing. 

Stephen Chilton

Reba McEntire and The Roots and, you know, The Roots were interesting because we had to get all our COVID plans through... NBC had to approve it because of their bubble with The Tonight Show at the time. And so which was good because it forced us to, like, work out our COVID plan now. But we had to have that level of detail. 

And it’s like we said on our first plan and they’re like, this isn’t detailed enough. Like we need... this is the outline. We need the details like, who’s doing testing? Who’s doing it? You know, it was good, though, because it forced us to work on it. I mean, because we were serious about it, too. So, you know, it was all the logistics. The Roots wanted to do it and they needed to know it was safe, and we needed to know it was safe. So a lot of headaches, but it was fun. 

Patrick Wilson

So Miley was probably our biggest success... 

Matt Klassen

That’s Miley as in Miley Cyrus, 

Patrick Wilson

Miley was a really big get for us, and it was our last artist that we had, we booked and we really felt like we needed... We had a great lineup put together, but we definitely felt like we needed one more headlining artist to really pop. And, you know, she was, you know, we talked to her team and she was out in New York filming something at the time with Dua Lipa, I think. She was at a venue up there. And so we got in a call and they’re like, would she... Is it fine if she just sort of said a couple of words and filmed it for you guys? 

And and I was like, you know, I’m sitting on the other side, like, I just, No. I mean, yes, of course, that’s fine. Like, that would be fine. But that’s not what I wanted. That’s not what we wanted. But it was a delicate balance, because here we are with her team and they’ve been very generous to us and she’s been very generous to us. And we are absolutely asking for a favor. You know, I mean, this whole thing was artists doing us favors that we’re grateful for. 

So I said, yeah, that would be amazing. But that’s not what we... I mean, what we want is we would love for her to be in a room and, you know, the management team thought for ten seconds and goes, OK, let’s... We’ll get back to you. And they got back to us like it’s probably four days before our deadline and said, yeah, she’ll do it in L.A. and can you get us the Whiskey a Go Go. And the only... About the only positive thing of the pandemic when you’re trying to shoot these things in venues is as sad as it is, it’s like for the most part, most of these rooms didn’t really have holds on them. 

So we were lucky enough that we could usually get any room that we wanted at that point. And so and so from like, you know, from the call to her being on set was probably four days. And, you know, we got in there and we had a you know, the band was in early and we were in early and I was on set. I was in L.A. so I was on set with all the L.A. shows. And we had a scare at the test. 

We were worried about putting anyone in, obviously, that tested positive and it was a false positive, luckily. But there was for a couple hours, there was a chance that we she didn’t come and we didn’t do the shoot and the venue wasn’t available. She wasn’t available the next day. And we had already announced a lineup a couple of days before, which was confirmed with Miley, of course. And it wasn’t... There was. And so there was you know, I lost I mean, four pounds of sweat, probably those two hours. And it wasn’t the L.A. Heat. And then, sure enough, everything was fine and it was a negative. 

And she comes in and she must’ve you know, I think she rehearsed... She had never rehearsed the covers, I don’t think. The band was rehearsing it. And she gets on stage and does like two takes of Zombie by The Cranberries and and crushes both of them. And does a couple other songs. And then it was their biggest success story because she... 

That song ended up going viral, that video version of it, and then she ended up putting it on Spotify, as a Save Our Stages live song and put it on her last release. And she really got us a ton of views and a ton of donations and stuff. So I got to tell you, I was sitting there, you know, in the Whiskey. And again, it was our last... Our second to last shoot. We’re shooting The Roots a couple of days later at the Apollo. 

But it was our last shoot in Los Angeles. And so I was sitting there and it was [expletive] emotional and I cried. I was like it was... There were so many things hitting me like, oh, you know, I’m lucky that I got to see a bunch of music in the middle of a pandemic when no one’s seen it. I’m lucky that we had such a pop star in front of us do this. And she was just amazing. And it just was a rush over me and I was like, what am I doing? It was great. 

Stephen Chilton

A lot of it was boring stories of being on Zoom calls with lawmakers and staffers. And, you know, it’s a lot less interesting than you’d think. 

Patrick Wilson

I mean, I guess the other story is we we had the Foo [Fighters] at the Troubadour and we had two days blocked out, but we were hoping to get it shot in a day, and so they had a big production come in and and we were there for probably six hours, load-in, stage was set, you know, they were still tuning some stuff up. But the band wasn’t there yet and we lost power. We ended up having to try to find a generator. You know, we’re burning daylight. But we found a generator, it took, you know, an hour, two hours to get the generator. 

Their generator shows up. The only place to park the generator at the Troubadour is in a back alley, which is a thorough alley. So people do drive through it. And sure enough, we didn’t... I don’t know if we didn’t or they forgot, I can’t remember, but we didn’t get cable ramps and so couldn’t put the we couldn’t put it out there until they drove back on our way in our back. So we lost an entire day and the Foos didn’t come. 

And luckily they had anticipated something potentially. And so they come back the next day and do it. But they were I mean, Dave [Grohl], all of them are just sweet, sweet people. And I mean, Dave especially has been our champion for independent venues since the start of this. So he’s on our advisory board and he will do anything for us and we’re ultimately grateful. Miley was stoked, it was her choice to do the Whiskey. She was really excited to to get back to her roots, but also the roots of those venues and who else has come up through those rooms. People were really, really excited about that. 

Matt Klassen

So, I mean, eventually, like the Save Our Stages act passed. I mean, obviously the story is not over because the money’s not in the bank. So, I mean, there’s still a journey ahead of us even as we’re recording this. But like it maybe you can take me back to the moment when you knew it was going to pass, like how did it feel? Or were you, like, always positive that this would pass? 

Stephen Chilton

No, I mean, it came out that it was a long shot. I mean, when it first got announced that John Cornyn and Amy Klobuchar were introducing this bill, you know, a lot of the feedback was like, oh, isn’t that cute? They wrote a bill for you like, this is never going to happen. You know, like but it’s neat, you know? And we’re just like, no, this is like survival. And like all these other groups didn’t want to get behind it because they saw it as a long shot. And we went and pounded the pavement and we got over 200 members of Congress to sign on.

And in October it passed in the first in the House bill of the Heroes Act bill that ended up not passing, but and it passed in the Heroes Act. And when it passed in the House bill got through to the Senate, everyone turned their heads and went, what this got passed? The House passed this thing? You know, and from then it was like, OK, now then it felt like it was going to happen. Then it was we’ve got to get in the final bill. 

And, you know, when after the election and they started renegotiating and coming back, it was like they’re going to cut half of this out. We’ve got to stay in the half that doesn’t get cut out. And in the final bill, we were the only industry specific bill in there, with the exception of the post office, it was the post office and us were the only two industry specific pieces in that final bill when everyone said we couldn’t. So you have fun when we did a big Zoom call the night it passed the Senate. 

Patrick Wilson

You know, we all, I think, each finished our own bottle of whatever libation was in front of us, you know, that felt... It felt like there was hope. And so to get all these people together to work on, you know, and people in those same markets, people that I compete with on a regular basis are now very close friends and people that... We fought together to to save each other. And so that that that is a silver lining that was really, really amazing and something that I know I’ll never forget. 

Stephen Chilton

Five months later, we’re still waiting for the money to flow, it still has not gone to anybody, so we’ve now all been able to apply. There’s an application, everyone’s applied for it, and we’re just waiting for it to get processed. So we’re hoping in the next week or two that they’ll actually finally start hitting venues’ new bank accounts. It’s a big, big program. The government has never done a program like this ever before. And so it’s a lot of moving pieces, very complicated, we’re an industry that the SBA (Small Business Administration) doesn’t understand. 

That was one of the problems is there are no definitions written around our business. How do you define a venue? I helped write the language that’s NIVA’s membership rules that became the language that’s in this bill. And it’s like no one in government understands our business. We’ve never been, you know... It’s like if you want to talk about farming, you know, the government knows how to talk about farming. If you want to talk about manufacturing, the government knows how to talk about manufacturing. If you want to talk about education, they know how to talk about education. They don’t know how to talk about us. It’s never been a part of the vocab the way it is now. 

Matt Klassen

So what’s next for NIVA? Like does NIVA kind of fade away or is there still a future use for it going forward? 

Stephen Chilton

No. And so much of the work I’ve been doing at NIVA is laying the groundwork for an organization that lasts and we’re working on a lot of fun things. I’m going to do a conference at some point in the future, not this year, but next year. We’re working on... Starting to work on a conference, starting to work on other issues, or we’re organizing a chapter system of local local organizations under us to help on more localized issues, work on sound issues or zoning or whatever local issues affect venues. 

And we started a foundation to run the ERF (Emergency Relief Fund), the National Independent Venue Foundation, that’s this 501C3 nonprofit. And they’re working on developing education programs and job training programs. And you know that. And then the big one I’m excited about is really merging because from day one, NIVA’s included both nonprofit and for profit members and so really bridging the gap in the arts world between the for profit venues and the nonprofit venues. 

And I think a lot of the time the difference is really your tax status and not how you operate. And sometimes people treat it differently. And so I think there’s a big divide between nonprofit arts venues and in arts centers and for profit. And really there’s not a lot of difference other than the tax status. And so bringing some of that gap and bringing some of that community together. I think it’s a big one, how can both sides advocate for the arts more effectively? 

Patrick Wilson

It took so many people and you know, our fans were... Look, our fans, the fans of these independent venues sent millions of letters to Congress over a very short period of time. We would not be able to do this without them. The artist community gave us so much and donated so much of their time into their own many fundraisers. I mean, we feel very, you know, I think I can speak for us as an organization. We feel very, very lucky and grateful to have this community that supported us during this. And, you know, I wish I could give out guest lists for life to everybody, but I feel like we need some money, so. But I can’t wait to see everyone back at shows. 

LB Harvey

If you haven’t seen it, you really owe it to yourself to watch S.O.S. Fest. It’s all streaming on YouTube. The Miley Cyrus performance alone is everything you’ve heard and more. As we’re recording this, many venues are still waiting on funds to be released. So NIVA is still accepting donations to help the most at risk venues stay afloat just a little bit longer. You can find links to donate to NIVA, as well as the S.O.S performances on our website, Front Page, at front.com/blog.

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