FLINT, Michigan -- There’s a saying that the music lives on -- but what if independent music venues are forced to shut down for good?
The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is still being felt across all industries and demographics. The live entertainment scene, however, was hit immediately -- and isn’t poised to return anytime soon. Local venue owners can’t picture any concerts taking place in their spaces until at least 2021.
Flint music venues The Machine Shop and Flint Local 432 have been closed for nearly seven months -- earning zero income, trying to pay the bills and survive. Statewide members of the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) have joined together to request a relief fund, #SaveMIStages, from the State of Michigan. Their goal is to receive relief to ensure that independent music venues and promotional companies are not forced to shut their doors for good due to the pandemic. NIVA estimates that 90 percent of independent venues will close permanently if aid doesn’t arrive soon.
According to a news release, traditional small business loans and pandemic relief assistance were not helpful for venues, who are experiencing a 90 percent revenue loss. It’s a loss felt even more deeply across the board -- considering NIVA members in Michigan typically contribute about $667 million to the state’s economy.
The Machine Shop has been an iconic venue among rock musicians and concert-goers since it opened in March of 2002. Owner Kevin Zink said the goal was to bring in awesome local and national touring rock and country artists. Since then, they’ve booked and hosted Eric Church, Shinedown, Pop Evil, Anthrax, and more.
“Over the years, we have seen bigger and bigger artists coming through our doors,” he said. “It has been awesome to see so many bands grow over the years that started out playing our venues in their early days.”
The Machine Shop has been at negative income since COVID-19 hit, with their last show on March 7, 2020. For Zink, independent venues are ‘the lifeblood of touring at different levels,” and representative of the community -- showcasing local talent the area has to offer.
“My greatest memories of concerts growing up were the club/small venue shows,” he said. “I don’t think people want to see that go away. I know I sure don’t. Bands, crews, agents, etc., depend on the independent venues for their survival.”
These venues provide income revenue to small towns, supporting families and businesses like hotels, restaurants, gas stations, and other businesses.
“Each dollar spent at these independent venues equates to $12 put in the local economy,” Zink said -- referencing a Chicago study.
“All the independent venues are looking for is a bridge to get through all this mess,” Zink said. “We were the first to close, and will be the last to open. The impact we make on the Michigan economy should make it a no-brainer in my mind.”
Dubbed ‘Downtown Flint’s all-ages anchor,’ Flint Local 432 founder Joel Rash is celebrating the venue’s 35th birthday. Despite bouncing around between a dozen different rental halls and buildings, the mission has not changed -- to “provide a diverse, safe, and welcoming space for young people to make music,” Rash said. Over the years, they’ve hosted Fugazi, My Chemical Romance, Chiodos, Atreyu, Thrice, and countless local performers.
“In a typical year, we book 80 concerts and put 400 acts on stage,” Rash said. “Punk, hip hop, metal, R&B, indie, Americana, whatever local kids are playing we are booking. It is really gratifying to see acts like The Swellers and Chiodos start at the Local, and move onto national stages, but even bands that never do more than play some shows in Flint are important.”
When ‘the writing was on the wall’ back in March, with their last show on March 7, Rash knew by the next month that this was going to have a drastic impact on the music scene, for a long time. The nonprofit canceled all of their in-person events for 2020, and transitioned to an ‘online venue,’ live streaming acts of local performers every Saturday.
“We are very fortunate that as a non-profit we have grant funds to keep us afloat,” Rash said. “The venue is rented out to Jack’s Record Stache, so they can stay open and let folks look through records while social distancing, and the livestream shows have moved into our Factory Two space to take advantage of fiber internet.”
For Flint musician Dylan Grantham, 24, of Americana band Young Ritual, COVID-19 left his list of traditional gigs down to zero.
“As a musician who has the goal of making a sustainable life out of music, all of my plans for this year were either wiped clean, or changed dramatically,” Grantham said. “Big plans for the release of a new single (‘Together, Alone’ out October 23) had to be downscaled into something we could do safely without compromising the quality, which I’m proud to say we did.”
As for his music, the impact’s been felt in the content he’s creating. “As an artist, my job is to describe the world around me,” he said. “That has been a painful task considering the trauma we are experiencing. It feels like inspiration comes much harder, and themes of the pandemic keep showing up in my lyrics.”
Venues like the Local, where Dylan’s first shows took place, are vital, he says. “It’s particularly difficult to know all of these young artists who are missing valuable time to hone their craft in a supportive and historic venue like The local.”
While some venues have turned to livestreams of band performances, for Zink, the live music venue space is something that simply can’t be replicated.
“Live music is what made me build the shop,” he said. “You can’t get that feeling from a home stereo while watching a live stream or car speakers at a drive-in concert. Live music needs to return as it is. There is no replacement as far as I am concerned.”
Ways to get involved in #SaveMIStages locally include purchasing artists’ records, buying merch from the Machine Shop, and visiting the NIVA website, and writing a #SaveMIStages letter to your state-level elected officials.