Nashville live music industry on the brink of calamity; asks government for help

Recording Artist Kenny Vaughan performs during the 2011 Americana Music festival at The Mercy Lounge in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images)
Recording Artist Kenny Vaughan performs during the 2011 Americana Music festival at The Mercy Lounge in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images)

The Nashville live music industry has been eviscerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, creating a ripple effect that has left musicians, stage hands, sound engineers and booking agents out of work and put concert venues on the brink of permanent closure.

While the pandemic has negatively impacted all kinds of businesses, no sector has been steamrolled quite like ticketed music venues and the spider web of professionals who rely on concerts to make a living.

Unlike restaurants, club owners couldn’t whip up new to-go menus or offer takeout margaritas. Unlike office professionals, they couldn’t create new work flows through Zoom or Teams. As Exit/In owner Chris Cobb puts it, music venues were the first to close and they’ll be the last to reopen.

Statistics, provided by the Nashville chapter of the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) for the first time to the Tennessee Lookout, paint a daunting picture of what lies ahead for the city’s independently owned and operated music venues. As the stopgap assistance provided by the federal government and the state dries up, Nashville’s live music venues are on the brink of extinction:

*The 15 independent music venues have experienced 90 percent revenue loss since March 15

A exterior view of the EXIT/IN in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images)
A exterior view of the EXIT/IN in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images)

*The venues have an average of just under six weeks until they close their doors forever.

* Fifteen percent will be gone in one month, 38 percent will be shuttered in six weeks. In 13 weeks, all but one independent music venue in Nashville will be permanently closed.

“Artists make their money touring,” Cobb said. “Professional musicians make their money touring. All of the technical support – hundreds of thousands of road crews, lighting, audio, video, carpenters, stage hands – all of their families live off touring.

“When you talk about live music venues struggling, it’s not just the owners and the staff who work in the venues. It’s an entire world of professionals, and many of them live in Nashville, who are suffering.”

In response to the crisis, advocacy groups representing venues, musicians and other professionals who make their living off the live music have sought help from all levels of government.

NIVA, the independent venue trade group, sprung up in the wake of government shutdowns in March, launching with just 10 clubs, and growing to over 2,600 members.

Because of the pandemic, live music venues in every town in America were silenced. But, the problem is even more pronounced in Nashville – an international hub for live music and home to an ecosystem of professionals who move here from all over the country. According to the most recent estimate in 2013, Nashville’s music industry had an annual economic impact of $9.8 billion on the region.

There’s no doubt that figure has gone up since then. Pre-pandemic, Nashville’s live music scene was thriving, with everyone from small clubs to festivals like CMA Fest and Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival enjoying growth. New venues continued to pop up, such as Brooklyn Bowl next to the Nashville Sounds’ stadium in North Nashville.

“You have to explain to people who say, ‘Why don’t you pivot?’ There is no pivot option,” said Chris Cobb, owner of the music club Exit/In. “The core of what we do is packing people together in a tight space while at least a few of them project loudly, which it looks like is not good for the spread of any virus, and we keep them there for a couple hours.

“We have to do that many, many times a month on a volume basis in our business to be profitable. There’s no curbside. There’s not a pivot option for a live music venue, especially small indoor ones.”

 Nashville is an international hub for live music and home to an ecosystem of professionals who move here from all over the country. According to the most recent estimate in 2013, Nashville’s music industry had an annual economic impact of $9.8 billion on the region.

Nashville music industry is an ecosystem

Nashville’s live music industry functions like an ecosystem. New artists and songwriters need a place to play before they have a major following, and to improve as musicians before they ink record and publishing deals. Smaller clubs like the End and the 5 Spot provide a proving ground for new bands.

Clubs like Exit/In, Mercy Lounge and 3rd and Lindsley are desired bookings for more popular local artists and for professional touring bands. At the top of the food chain are renowned venues like the Ryman Auditorium and enormous stadiums like Bridgestone Arena.

While the Nashville ecosystem helps develop artists, the music business community is also home to professionals who help power the global live music industry. Lower Broadway may be a popular tourism destination, but it’s that live music infrastructure that makes Nashville a preeminent live music city.

Nashville’s music industry is also closely knit, making the last six-plus months of the COVID-19 pandemic communally painful. Soul singer-songwriter Alanna Royale ascended through the Nashville music ecosystem after moving here from Boston. She said it’s difficult to drive home to people outside the industry just how deeply the music business has bottomed out.

Royale said the fact that the music industry was over-reliant on touring for revenue has been accentuated by the pandemic.

Alanna Royale performing in 2018. (Photo: Twitter)
Alanna Royale performing in 2018. (Photo: Twitter)

“I would say, for me personally, the first time I had the discussion we’re having was early on in the pandemic with Chris Cobb at Exit/In,” Royale said. “I had to choke back tears. I thought about Exit/In not being there after this is all over. I thought about Alanna Royale not being there. I thought about all the venues across America that I love not being there, and no one cares or seems to notice. It’s hard to ask people to care because we are plagued with trauma in America, and every day there’s something new that’s pressing, asking for your attention, your time, your energy, your money.”

The crisis facing live music venues may be especially pronounced for small, independently owned businesses, but large corporations have been impacted too. In the last several years, Ryman Hospitality has invested heavily in adding to its stable of live music venues, investing hundreds of millions of dollars in improving existing venues and bringing new ones online.

Ryman Hospitality Chairman and CEO Colin Reed led the state’s tourism task force under Gov. Bill Haslam. The Reed-led task force built an entire tourism marketing strategy around the state’s music industry.

“I think about our industry, the ecosystem, is something very, very special,” Reed said. “It’s something when I chaired the state’s tourism board, nine years ago, we built a strategic plan for the state of Tennessee with music and this infrastructure at the core. When you think about this city, it is the musicians. It’s the songwriters, it’s the labels, it’s the venues. It’s the historical things like the Ryman and the Opry and that’s what makes this industry so relevant.

“When I think about the 14 independent venues we have in this town, those magical places that have been here years and years. These places are synonymous with this industry and they are absolutely a vital part of our ecosystem. They’ve got to be nurtured and allowed to survive this tragedy that this whole country has been dealing with for the last six months.”

NIVA asks Congress for industry-specific aid

Cobb said Nashville’s live music venues were able to take advantage of the federal Paycheck Protection Program loans and also qualified for the state’s small business grants for companies that lost revenue because of government shutdown orders.

But, those programs were intended to be short-term stop gaps, and the money is drying up quickly, with the possibility of concerts returning still a long ways off.

According to the data provided by Nashville’s independent venues, most have an average of about 15 weeks of expenses. Some clubs turned to crowdfunding, which added 1.6 weeks of breathing room.

Colin Reed, chairman and CEO, Ryman Hospitality (Photo: Ryman Hospitality)
Colin Reed, chairman and CEO, Ryman Hospitality (Photo: Ryman Hospitality)

With the live music industry quickly approaching the cliff, independent venues are turning to Congress for help. NIVA’s 2,600 members turned to their legions of fans to encourage an email campaign in support of the Save Our Stages Act, which would be a $10 billion lifeline through grants for independent venues. Venues owned by corporations like AEG and Live Nation wouldn’t qualify, and businesses must employ under 500 people, meaning Ryman Hospitality is too big.

NIVA also backs the RESTART Act, which would use the PPP program as a stepping stone, and provide aid to businesses, like music venues, that have been shuttered and have zero revenue, high overhead and no timeline for reopening.

U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Nashville, is a cosponsor of the Save Our Stages Act in addition to the RESTART Act.

“Live music venues are the beating heart of Nashville. PPP and (economic injury disaster loans) work well for many businesses but music venues need more flexible options and targeted relief,” Cooper said. “I have cosponsored the Save Our Stages Act, the RESTART Act, and the Mixed Earner Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Act to provide relief to this awesome industry and its workers.

“Music and entertainment venues were some of the first businesses to close and will be among the last to reopen after we eventually recover from the pandemic. They need help now.”

Support for the concert industry is bipartisan in Congress. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota cosponsored Save Our Stages.

In Tennessee, Sen. Marsha Blackburn, a Republican, is a chief proponent of the RESTART Act.

  You have to explain to people who say, 'Why don't you pivot?' There is no pivot option.   – Chris Cobb, Exit/In

“As we look at another relief package, I am working to include the RESTART Act, which would help the dormant live entertainment industry,” Blackburn said. “PPP was originally created to help small businesses keep workers on the payroll, but that isn’t much help when you aren’t allowed to open your doors. We need a solution that will help them get through this period, so that when it is safe for in person entertainment to resume, we can experience the magic of their music once more.”

Discussions about helping the live music industry are also taking place at the state and Metro level, sources told the Tennessee Lookout.

“Our hospitality industry, including our cherished live music scene, has been hit especially hard by COVID-19, and Mayor Cooper supports providing assistance to affected residents,” Mayor Cooper’s spokesman Chris Song said. “Woefully insufficient federal aid to municipalities has created difficult choices in allocating limited funds. The COVID-19 Financial Oversight Committee was formed to think through those difficult choices and review proposals for how to allocate coronavirus relief funds.

“We will continue to solicit feedback from the entire community, including our working musicians and music industry professionals, to ensure our federal relief funds are spent responsibly and equitably.”