The IMI 6th Jul 2023

‘There’s a tendency to think that every new act is discovered on TikTok. But small venues are still an essential part of any musician's journey’

Following the launch of a new Music In Action grant, we sit down with the Live Music Society’s Cat Henry to take stock of the US’ small venue landscape…

At the end of last month, the New York-based Live Music Society distributed half a million dollars in grants to 17 small venues across the United States.

The figure took the non-profit foundation’s total grant distribution to almost $3 million since 2020, benefitting nearly 142 small venues and listening rooms in total.

The Live Music Society grants were initially established as a form of pandemic relief. Now under the banner of Music In Action, the funding strategy will take a longer term view, combating a broader range of challenges and fostering a greater sense of community among small US venues.

As Live Music Society Board member and legendary artist Nona Hendryx said upon announcing the first Music In Action grants: “This is not just about financial support; it’s about building a network of dedicated supporters who share our passion for live music and its accessibility. By championing historically marginalized groups and fostering inclusivity, we can give these venues and organisations assistance to expand their audiences and ensure that live music remains a vital part of our culture.”

Here, we talk to LMS Executive Director Cat Henry (pictured) about the current small venue landscape in the US in 2023, its challenges, opportunities and what’s needed from the wider music biz…

What’s your assessment of the small venue sector across the US at the moment? What are the challenges and opportunities?

The pandemic demonstrated just how much these spaces are loved and appreciated by musicians and fans. Crowd-funding campaigns saved many across the country that host not only national and international acts, but are often home to local musicians, students, community ensembles. Gathering together to hear or play some music can allow us to forget our troubles for just a little while and set aside ideologic differences.

However, it’s increasingly hard for smaller capacity venues – especially those whose capacities are lower than 300 persons – to remain solvent and independent. They are fighting just to keep their doors open. Many are leaseholders who do not own their premises and the profit margins are razor thin. Gentrification often results in building owners choosing not to renew expiring leases and opt instead for a more lucrative deal. Without protections in place, this has the potential to transform places whose identity is connected to live music – from Nashville to New Orleans.

"While there are aspects of the live music experience that should stay the same, the coming years will see a huge shift in how small venues incorporate technology."

How has the importance of small music venues changed in the US in recent years from your perspective?

Let’s acknowledge that the industry has become increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few very influential multinational corporations and people consume music in radically new ways, through streaming services and social media. There might be a tendency to think that every new act is going to be magically discovered on TikTok, but small venues provide the opportunity to perform in front of real, live people. This is still an essential part of any musician’s journey and Billie Eilish, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, they all got their start playing tiny stages as they developed their identity. Artists still need this, and fans still appreciate this uniquely intimate environment. It’s a vastly different experience than with 15,000 people in an arena, although there’s a place for that, too.

What do you need from the wider music industry to ensure the longevity of small music venues in the US?

I think the wider music industry already understands that these folks aren’t doing it to make a ton of money, they do it because it’s what they love. Continued recognition for their important place in the larger music ecosystem is important, but campaigning at the city and state level is also needed. Securing tax breaks for the smaller venues, to offset the impact of soaring inflation. Updating building codes to address requirements for soundproofing in new residential developments built adjacent to music venues. This can protect long-existing venues from being subject to noise complaints as the buildings are occupied. This has been successful in the UK, with help from Music Venue Trust, an organisation similar to ours that supports this community.

What are your predictions for the sector over the next 5-10 years?

Many businesses have been overhauled by technology, which has transformed the way we hail a taxi, order delivery, or rent accommodation. While there are aspects of the live music experience that should stay the same, the coming years will see a huge shift in how small venues incorporate technology. AI cannot replicate the feeling you get from a musician quietly strumming a guitar by candlelight or madly dancing in front of an indie band, but it can improve calendar management, ticketing, artist settlements, inventory management, and more. Plus, in 5-10 years time, there will be a host of bands who became famous because they got their start in a small venue!