Could Musical Instrument Stores Be the Future of Independent Live Music?
Post-pandemic, we’ll need two things to get independent live music off life support: fans and venues.
This is a call.
This is a call to musicians — and those who love music — to start thinking realistically about the future.
Let’s begin with the reality that live music was already struggling before the pandemic.
Note: for the purposes of this essay, when we talk about music — and live music in particular — we are talking about “independent” music. Not corporate capitalist garbage. Not well-funded and algorithmically optimized “mainstream” disposables. Not the going-through-the-motions auto-piloting of rock-star music whose success was fly-in-amber frozen at the timequake moment when Napster launched. Kenny Chesney, Drake, and Trent Reznor will all be fine.
From there, let’s continue with the reality that live music will not automatically come back when the pandemic is over.
Down at the “independent” music level, venues live by a thin margin — it’s a feast-or-famine business in the best of times. These are not the best of times.
As recently reported by NPR, “90 percent of independent venue owners, promoters and bookers say that they will have to close permanently within the next few months, if they can’t get an infusion of targeted government funding.” That’s grim. However, it should be noted that funding has been earmarked. The Save Our Stages stimulus package puts $15 billion on the table for independent venues. Which sounds like a lot of money, but sadly, it’s only half of the $30 billion that was lost in 2019.
That’s bad. But it gets worse.
Down at the independent music level, a lot of performances happen in restaurants. A lot. Not stadiums. Not concert halls. Not theaters. Not even clubs. Restaurants. And guess how restaurants have been doing during the pandemic? Exactly. As of last September, they were on track to lose $240 billion. And guess what? Restaurants were “left out of the new $900B COVID-19 relief package.” So things ain’t exactly getting better.
Eventually, things will get better. But even when they do, those restaurants that survived are going to be limping at best. They’re not going to have a lot of borrowing power, nor will they have any savings. Their margins will be thinner than ever, and they’re not likely to have much overhead to invest in live music. They’ll be busy just trying to get people through the doors, and hiring enough new staff to host them.
I’m not sure we know yet how many venues permanently closed in 2019, but as Billboard and other publications have shown, just about every state in the U.S. has seen important music institutions shuttered, from venerable college town institutions like The Mill in Iowa City, to iconic larger-scale urban venues such as Slim’s in San Francisco, to relative hipster newcomers like The Well in my old stomping grounds of Bushwick, which opened its doors in 2012 (8 years after the missus and I had already moved on, thank you very much!).
Which brings us to now. Fewer venues overall, little incentive or opportunity to open new spaces, and restaurants with thin-as-pins margins unlikely to have the ducats to start hiring live performers again any time soon. It’s brutal.
These days, I live in Santa Cruz. We’ve seen our share of venues closed down as well. And not just venues. All kinds of different businesses. There are so many empty storefronts downtown I’ve lost count. Because I’m a dreamer at heart, I walk by them and think, wow, wouldn’t it be great to open a combination bookstore, poetry center, and live music venue in that space? Sometimes I even get delusional and look up the property online. Turns out landlords and property owners are still doing fine financially. Prices are not being lowered, to say the least.
So, is there any hope at all?
Yes. But two things have to happen. I’ll make this very simple:
- We’re going to need to leverage non-traditional spaces as performance spaces.
- People are going to have to decide that live independent music matters.
Why do I highlight these two items?
The first one should be obvious. If there are fewer venues overall, no new ones opening, and no restaurants that can afford to hire musicians, then we’re just going to have to look elsewhere for venue space. And the second one? That should be obvious, too. People have to care about live music, and they have to demonstrate that care by subsidizing it.
Current estimates suggest that Spotify has nearly 150 million subscribers. Netflix has nearly 200 million. That’s 350 million people spending $20-$30 per month on entertainment at home. They pay it, because they like it. The question is, will people like live music again? Enough to pay similar amounts per month? We have to believe so. Or, we have to give up.
Let’s not give up.
Here’s a suggestion. There are musical instrument stores in just about every city you can think of. Most of them operate during normal business hours. Which means they’re closed at night. Which means … they’re available. Music stores are generally decently soundproofed, decently lit, and decently powered. They generally already have drums, amps, and PA systems on-site. In short, they’re ready-made performance venues. They’re also struggling during the pandemic, and they were struggling beforehand as sites like Reverb continue to steer instrument sales online. So there’s an incentive to develop a new revenue stream.
This is, of course, not an entirely new idea. The back room at McCabe’s in Santa Monica is “one of the world’s most treasured music venues.”
So how about we start collaborating with musical instrument store owners to start putting on shows once the pandemic is over and the shelter-in-place restrictions lift? If we start laying the groundwork for this approach now, we can be ready when the time comes.
There are, of course, hurdles to get around. Licensing, for example. There is also the question of money. Musical instrument store owners have super thin margins as well. They’re in no position to put up the money to pay for performers. But there are other models. Independent promoters, for example, can step into the breach, by putting up small amounts of money and doing promotional legwork in exchange for a percentage of the take. Artists can potentially “rent” space as well, directly from the store, and then work to make enough from the performance to come out ahead. “Pass the hat” could also work. Over the years, some of the best gigs in the country have been pass-the-hat gigs (Living Room, I’m looking at you).
I don’t pretend to have all the answers. And the idea of using musical instrument stores as alternative venues is just one idea. I don’t know what will actually work.
Here’s what I do know. We’re going to have to get creative about how to proceed, and I think “alternative venues” offer a way forward. Let’s do this. This is a call.