While some owners have kept their businesses operating by cutting costs -- renegotiating leases, deferring mortgage payments or furloughing/laying off employees -- others have tapped new revenue streams. New York’s Bowery Electric created a livestream series with the platform VEEPS where artists perform professionally mixed and engineered sets from the venue, splitting profits evenly. (“Every band that has performed has walked out with money,” says talent buyer Stephanie Boriskin.) Chain Reaction in Anaheim, Calif., licensed its name for limited-edition merchandise deals with bands like Stick to Your Guns and local brands like Violent Gentlemen to cover its monthly $7,000 rent.
Other venues are striking deals with third parties interested in buying the exclusive rights to branding, sponsorship and livestreaming, says Steve Sternschein, owner of Heard Presents in Austin and NIVA treasurer, who negotiated an agreement with YouTube to host the three-day Save Our Stages virtual festival in October. Theoretically, NIVA could handle these arrangements, leveraging its membership to help smaller venues find partners and others get better deals.
While NIVA’s main focus is still lobbying for a federal relief bill, the group’s success and collective approach could continue to benefit indie venues after the pandemic as the industry navigates the new revenue streams created by licensing, livestreaming and booking. One model could be indie-label rights management group Merlin, a nonprofit that negotiates licensing deals on behalf of its members.
There are legal restrictions on what business association can do collectively -- member companies can’t collude to set prices or limit competition -- but it can negotiate with brands like YouTube and share information internally. If they don’t work together, venues risk losing ground to new competitors like SaveLive, former WME co-head of music Marc Geiger’s initiative to buy up controlling interests of distressed venues to create a new dominant player in indie music, or companies like Big Neon, which wants to bundle venues’ advertising rights with proprietary ticketing technology.
Venues of all sizes have an opportunity to direct the evolution of streaming and licensing in a way that prioritizes the needs of venues first, says Sternschein. "The goal is to preserve and nurture a competitive and transparent marketplace, rather than enriching one group or company.”
This article originally appeared in the Dec. 19, 2020, issue of Billboard.