The Business of Keeping Venues Afloat
For almost everyone in the business of live music, venues dealing with a pandemic are discussed like an on-again, off-again relationship. “It’s complicated.” “Well, we’re just seeing how it’s going right now.” “Not sure, we’ll just see where it takes us.” The same phrases circle each other and with no end to this unbearable relationship in sight, we are all left with the task of making it work. Since March, venues in St. Louis like The Sinkhole have been trying to do just that. There was a lot of momentum behind these indie venues in the first few months, but as the days have dragged on, it feels as if live event spaces have been forgotten about in their most critical moments.
While the entire music industry is struggling without the money flow from touring, it’s the venues that are taking the hardest blow. Many places are still completely shut down, and in the long run, due to capacity and safety reasons, these spaces will also be the last businesses to open at the end of all of this. At the beginning of quarantine, there were countless Instagram posts and Twitter threads about donations, livestreams, and merchandise sales to support these local spaces, but it seems that attention to this situation has dwindled as the days dragged on. In a lot of ways, it's understandable. In the eyes of many people, the music industry and live entertainment might not seem necessary in comparison to other businesses and issues. We see these venues as just buildings to inhabit for a few hours whenever there's a good act in town and rarely think of the people keeping the lights on. While venues have tried to jump on that virtual lifeboat, like many artists, it's been about as useful as a grabbing onto a lifeboat in a tsunami.
Places likeThe Sinkhole luckily have had other avenues to explore and help carry the load after doors closed on their main source of revenue. The primarily punk and heavy metal venue on South Broadway now mirrors a lot of other places around, with windows covered and doors closed. The Sinkhole, usually hosting about five to six shows a week, also looked to livestreams as something to fill the void and have had a bit of success. Through sponsorships and donations on Twitch, the video live streaming service, they’ve been able to utilize the venue and close the gap a bit. “We’ve been able to make just enough to stay above water without being unsafe,” says Matt Stuttler, owner of The Sinkhole. The livestreams hold almost no risk, with only the band and one employee there to supervise the livestream. This is also the model they’ve used for their studio space. Livestreams and recording only require an engineer to work with bands so, in Stuttler’s words, “the relative risk here versus going to QuickTrip or something is relatively low.” Matt Stuttler, owner of The Sinkhole, joked.
Stuttler started The Sinkhole record label and studio in 2019 and has been opened for booking throughout September. The small scale of the studio and livestream setup also works for The Sinkhole’s small circle of employees. That circle totals out to three people, including Stuttler. As the owner, he’s the only full-time employee relying on The Sinkhole. “Bartending or sound engineering wasn’t their main source of income so when the pandemic hit, they weren’t left with complete unemployment,” says Stuttler. Knowing his staff had stable income relieved some burden, but this advantage doesn’t change the urgent need for action.
There is currently a push to pass the Restart Act, a bill that would offer loans and extended repayment plans to small businesses. NIVA, the National Independent Venue Association, has been especially vocal in backing the bill. Stuttler has been keeping an eye on the progress and even with the seemingly large support for the bill, the process will most likely move slowly. To alleviate some of the strain, NIVA has opened its application process of grants for venues. “Everyone is kind of just anticipating applying for that and seeing how much funds are available,” says Stuttler. It's another side effect of the pandemic –the responsibility of waiting it out with fingers crossed.
In the end, what is there to do but wait? It's hard waiting for a solution with no live music in the near future. There’s the fatalistic stance that, with no date of relief in sight, these venues are only buying time. Still, there’s always the weary optimistic that says we can all stick this out together and reach to the other side. “I’m optimistic that everyone is honing in on their craft at home. I think on the other side of this we’ll see a big wave of support for venues because people will be rearing to go back,” Stuttler says. So everyone will try to stay on the side of positivity and look to this divine “other side”. If the future holds any similarity to the longed-for past, maybe we will finally go back to standing awkwardly together. Packed into shows with drinks in hand, nodding along to the music.