How We Work Now: Nashville’s Exit/In Venue Owner Chris Cobb

Chris Cobb
Courtesy Photo

Chris Cobb

In a new series amid the coronavirus pandemic, Billboard is asking individuals from all sectors of the music business to share stories of how they work now, with much of the world quarantined at home and unable to take in-person meetings, attend conferences or even go into the office. Submissions for the series can be sent to HowWeWorkNow@Billboard.com. Read the full series here.

This installment is with Chris Cobb, owner of Nashville music venue Exit/In, which is working through the double-whammy of the Tennessee tornadoes and global pandemic.

Chris Cobb: We have a small team of six on salary that run Exit/In and [bar next door] Hurry Back. We keep non-traditional hours. Being a small mom-and-pop club, everybody wears multiple hats. For the last 15 years, I’ve been accustomed to my phone always being on and answering it.

The club averages 20 shows a month. I have been with Exit/In since 2004. I was working in this industry when we went through a recession, so we’ve seen waves in the past, but for the most part everything has been on an upward trajectory.

In January, things were pretty easy. Then we had a tornado. Exit/In was unscathed, both physically and with our people. It was almost weird how unaffected we were. Then came the reschedules. Two clubs in town [Basement East and The 5 Spot] were totally shut down, so there was an onslaught of moving shows to Exit/In. Our talent buyer and I immediately got buried with work for all the reschedules and marketing. I think we confirmed around 20 shows that week, in just that five-day period after the tornado.

That lasted for a week. Then we had the pandemic. March 15, our GM and I spent an hour on the phone and came to the conclusion that the best thing for us to do was to close after the show that night. We closed Hurry Back early that afternoon.

It was such a hard stop. That is starkly different from any situation I’ve been in before. We’ve had to slow things down or slow things to a stop in different scenarios, but in just one day saying, "Well, I guess we’re closed now" -- that was strange. For me and other members of the team, it was really hard to know what to do the next day.

I spent almost a week with my head buried in live streams. Like most, we haven’t done many and have been a little resistant to live streams. We’ve got some holds in June to stream some audience-free shows on a pay-per-view model from Exit/In. We worked on that and bolstered the merch line really quickly.

We introduced a delivery out of Hurry Back. We spent a week checking in morally, making sure we felt okay about doing deliveries. We returned almost $4,000 worth of product. But we had 30 tapped kegs [when we closed]. Those kegs are lost, so we wanted to try to move those. We spent about a week trying to get growlers, and legally you’ve got to offer food with them. Our most popular item is a big soft pretzel, so we decided to do a bake-at-home pretzel kit with instructions on how to cook it yourself. We felt that was the safest way we could push out anything more than just a bag of chips.

Our bar manager is one of the three people we’ve been able to keep on salary. We had to let go 31. He spent a couple days repricing everything and built a to-go menu with over 30 beers into Postmates.

Dayna [Frank] of First Avenue hit me up 15, 16 days ago. She is our unbelievably powerful, fearless, amazing leader of this nationwide movement. Independent Venue Week had started these town halls and she said, "You really need to get engaged." Immediately, NIVA [National Independent Venue Alliance] started to be born.

NIVA hired lobbyists Akin, Gump. Real quick we elected an interim board. Dayna is president. I don’t know if we are at 1,000 members yet but we were at 900 and it’s been about 125 additional members a day. We ended up splitting the country into precincts in an attempt to build our grassroots efforts and lobby our representatives in D.C. to support us and make sure that we can all open again. I'm the Southern precinct captain.

Nashville is so strong and we’ve got 13 NIVA members here. We asked our Congressperson Jim Cooper for a meeting on 5:30pm on a Wednesday and at 6pm that same day there was a meeting scheduled for the next morning. We were all on Zoom for 45 minutes with him and three members of his staff. It was great. He tweeted about us saying that Congress needs to support.

We're covering five districts in our state for NIVA. I’ve spent time with those members helping them get meetings set up with their Congresspeople. I'm also helping Florida, Alabama and Arkansas organize their efforts as well. The adding of members is pretty much doing it itself now. That snowball is rolling down hill.

Right now we are in phase 1 of our grassroots movement. We have got to get our representatives to understand, to listen, so that when it comes time to make these decisions [about funding] they make the right ones.

We’ve needed a group like this for a long time. I tried to wrap my head around why it hasn’t happened before and I think there are a handful of reasons, but it has been that we’re all so damn busy. I hate that that is the reason, because it sounds like a cop out, especially since now there is nothing more important. I’ve got over 100 unread emails from my staff right now, but none of it matters if we don’t get Congress to listen.

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