The First Avenue nightclub in Minneapolis is striking at any angle; its grand entrance towers over a busy downtown intersection, beckoning music fans. Built as an art deco Greyhound bus depot in the 1930s, the space was transformed into a 1,550-capacity nightclub in 1970, and it became the heart of the city’s famed music scene in the 1980s. Made famous by Prince’s 1983 film Purple Rain, it now stands as one of the most beloved venues in the country. To mark its 50th anniversary last year, owner Dayna Frank wanted to make the building’s once-a-decade makeover its grandest yet by completely repainting it, revamping the beloved Walk of Fame stars that adorn the exterior and restoring its marquee — complete with retro 1980s logo — in honor of Prince.
The coronavirus pandemic scuttled those plans, however, leaving the checkered dancefloor (nicknamed the Downtown Danceteria) empty and the sticker-covered circuit breaker on Frank’s office wall mostly unneeded. Surrounded by rock relics from the venue’s past, a small picture of her wife and two children lays out what is at stake. First Avenue is backed by a personal guarantee — if it goes out of business, Frank, 41, will lose her home and the business she took over from her father, Byron Frank, who bought the venue out of bankruptcy in 2005 before falling ill in 2009. Since then, she has seen the roof cave in mid-show in 2015 (injuring three) and watched Live Nation open a competing 1,850-capacity Fillmore theater three blocks away early last year. But nothing can compare to the impact of COVID-19 on First Avenue and the thousands of venues like it across the country facing permanent closure.
“We had some incredible shows on our calendar, and suddenly they’re all gone,” she recalls. “With no revenue, how can we pay our bills, how can we pay our employees’ health insurance? That’s not something they can afford to lose right now.”
In April, Frank joined forces with other indie venue managers to form the National Independent Venue Association and raise awareness about the threat of permanent closure that their businesses are facing due to the pandemic. By early summer, NIVA had signed on 3,000 venues as members and found influential allies, including Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and John Cornyn, R-Texas. In September, Klobuchar announced that she was sponsoring the Save Our Stages act, which would allocate $10 billion in forgivable repayable grants to venues to recover 45% of their losses for the year. After federal aid deals collapsed in July and November, the long-shot effort finally panned out: Save Our Stages was passed as part of the $900 billion COVID-19 aid package that was signed into law on Dec. 27.
“We didn’t realize how hard it was to get a bill passed or how many bills are introduced but don’t go anywhere,” says Frank. “We just set about trying to get co-sponsors and trying to touch every single congressional office. People are passionate about live music. Millions of people [from around the country] responded, and we found really broad bipartisan support. Even the smallest towns have a theater that has revitalized their Main Street or a festival that draws everyone for a weekend or two each summer.”
With the work of allocating the funds ahead — First Avenue could receive as much as $15 million this year — Frank is now focused on helping to rebuild the concert business and finding a way to keep NIVA working together on a new path forward.
What does it mean to be the first president of North America’s first indie venue association?
Serving as president has been the greatest honor of my life. I’m an advocate for the power of live music. I like to think of myself as somebody that rises to the challenge, and the amount of money needed to save our industry was staggering. We understood that a second package was coming together and that we needed to lobby and advocate to be included in that effort and make sure that there are provisions to help our industry survive.
One of the things NIVA did very effectively was use stark language that came across very clearly to both politicians and the public. How did slogans like “First to close and last to reopen” help frame the issue?
By being a hell of an fact! That one is very digestible and lends itself to being easy to repeat — I joke that it’s going to be written on my tombstone — but it’s stark and it’s true. Another one was that 90% of venues would close by the end of the year without funding. That came from our member survey, and when I first saw that figure, I was in shock. We had to do something because if we didn’t, no one would survive.
Sen. Klobuchar not only sponsored this bill but really shepherded it through and built bipartisan support. Did you have a relationship with her prior to NIVA?
No, it was a random stroke of luck that I happened to be leading this and that she happened to be my senator. I was connected to her through an acquaintance. We made an arrangement to talk one evening, and I explained our situation — that we were completely shuttered. We had nowhere else to turn. We’re a small business and this is what our expenses are, and I don’t know how to get through this. And she was incredibly generous with her time and really responsive. She connected me to her office, and we started talking to them about what we were going to do. Then, working with John Cornyn’s office, the outlines of the bill came together and passed before Christmas.
Before it passed, the bill was expanded to steer $15 billion — instead of $10 billion — to museums, zoos and arts organizations in addition to concert venues. How will the funds be allocated?
It became the little bill that could and a vehicle for other groups. Our attitude was that as long as there’s enough funds for everybody, we would be proud to include so many deserving industries. We just have to make sure that independent promoters and venues, which were the most distressed because they had been closed the entire time, would be taken care of. Allocation is based on need, with priority first given to those who were down 90% in revenue in 2020 compared with 2019. These are venues where there’s no other resources. There’s no other lines of capital. There’s literally no money in the bank and no way to pay the bills. They need that money first so they can survive.
The U.S. concert business consists of 3,000 small promoters and venues competing against Live Nation and AEG, huge multinational corporations that can operate at scale and buy tours in your members’ markets. How do the pandemic and Save Our Stages Act affect that situation?
We’re an advocacy-based trade association, not a private company made up of thousands of companies. Working together, we can shape how the live music industry comes back from this and reopens. We have the power to set the agenda and create a framework for reopening as a more equitable industry by working together. We’re not trying out some new business models to compete against any one company. Instead, we’re having conversations and creating a forum for new ideas that work for indie venues.
How will First Avenue be different when it eventually reopens?
Being in Minneapolis, I feel like we have to touch upon the racial-equity issue. [The killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police last May led to international protest.] I think there is a lot of work that we need to start to focus our energy on. You don’t want to reopen as the same company. You always want to get better. You always want to get stronger, and we want to set an example for the whole industry.