Indie Venue Advocate Tobi Parks Wants to 'Usher in the Next Generation' of Live Music Professionals

Tobi Parks
Megan Poole

Tobi Parks photographed on May 12, 2021 at xBk in Des Moines, Iowa.

This story is part of Billboard's 2021 Pride List, which spotlights LGBTQ professionals who are shaping the music industry.

Tobi Parks
VP, National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) Foundation; owner/artistic director, xBk; founder/board president, Station 1 Records; attorney, business affairs administration, Sony Music Entertainment

At this point in the pandemic, Tobi Parks' xBk music venue in Des Moines, Iowa, has been open for almost half the time that it was closed. The 250-capacity artist space, which she envisioned as a home for LGBTQ+ music fans and others from marginalized communities, had been operating for only six months when the coronavirus halted concerts. (It has since resumed limited-capacity shows.) Soon after the shutdown, a fellow venue owner sent Parks, 44, an email to join a Zoom call with other panicking live-music professionals from across the country.

"That one email changed the trajectory of my life,” says Parks, whose previous music industry experience focused on copyright and licensing work for Sony and a nonprofit label/artist-development company she launched in 2015 — the same year she moved with her wife and kids from Brooklyn to Des Moines. Her peers on that Zoom call eventually became the National Independent Venue Association, and today Parks is vp of the association’s nonprofit, the NIVA Foundation, and co-chair of its diversity, equity and inclusion task force. Without NIVA’s support, she says it would have been “so easy to be sitting in despair, wondering, ‘What am I going to do with my business?’ ”

Instead, Parks spent the last year successfully lobbying Congress for federal funding for independent venues: The late-December relief package included $15 billion in Shuttered Venue Operators Grants. (President Biden’s March relief package has since allocated another $1.25 billion.) She’s also working with NIVA to share best practices for diversifying the industry’s workforce, from how and where venue staff post job listings to how they can communicate a welcoming work environment to those candidates.

Parks is sensitive to the barriers women and people of color face in this field. Even though she had a full-time position with Sony and owned the xBk building with her wife, every local bank turned her down for a “not terribly significant” construction loan to build out the venue until a white male business partner joined the venture. She has no way of knowing, of course, if systemic bias was at play — bringing a partner on board certainly lowered the risk for banks. Still, she says, “It was pretty eye-opening that it took that and we couldn’t do it on our own.”

The work is far from over. Since March 2020, over 100 independent venues have permanently closed. And because many indie-venue operators often do not own the buildings in which they work, such spaces are often at the mercy of landlords and spiking rents. That’s why Parks believes one of the most effective ways to create equity is for more venue operators, especially people of color, to own their businesses. In addition to youth and internship programs that will showcase the variety of career paths in the live industry, Parks and the NIVA Foundation want to create mentorship resources that will expand pathways to the top.

“I’m one small speck in the large spectrum of things, but it’s important for queer women of color to see me having this venue and doing things differently than the other folks in my community,” says Parks. “I want to be there to help usher in the next generation of folks who are interested in live music.”

This story originally appeared in Billboard’s 2021 Pride Issue, dated June 5, 2021.