Behind The Scene: David Weingarden on the Battle to Save Our Stages
While Congress debates the latest COVID-19 stimulus deal, we share this feature from our December issue, which touches on the Save Our Stages Act, which currently looks to be part of new legislation.
“I’ve been at Z2 Entertainment since October 2013, and it’s been a wonderful place to work,” says David Weingarden, the Boulder, Colo.-based company’s vice president of concerts and events. “We’ve been able to grow, and we now not only have the Boulder Theater and the Fox Theatre, but also the Aggie Theatre, which we acquired in March of 2019. And we have exclusive booking relationships with many other venues across the state, including the Breckenridge Riverwalk, the Strings Music Pavilion in Steamboat Springs and the Chautauqua Auditorium. It had all been going great until mid-March, when the bottom dropped out due to the coronavirus pandemic.”
While COVID-19 continues to upend the live music industry, Weingarden’s varied career lends valuable perspective and a range of contacts to assist him with the ongoing challenges. While growing up in Michigan during the late-‘80s and early-‘90s, the lifelong music fan attended a steady slate of shows, including the Allman Brothers Band, The Moody Blues and Paul Simon, at the venue then known as the Pine Knob Music Theatre (currently DTE Energy Music Theatre). After enrolling at Michigan State University, he joined the program council and took on an array of roles, from stagehand to security guard to runner for acts such as Phish, Widespread Panic and Dave Matthews Band. Then, just prior to his graduation in 1996, he received an offer to tour with The Verve Pipe, via the co-director of his concert board. Weingarden initially focused on merchandise sales while traveling the globe for nearly 300 shows that first year, which also led to similar stints with Tonic and Papa Vegas through 1999. His ensuing career trajectory included a period as the front-of-house manager at the Great American Music Hall, a few years as the day-to-day manager for the classical group Chanticleer and a half-decade as the director of concerts for the Denver-based nonprofit Swallow Hill Music, where he helped initiate a notable partnership with the Denver Botanic Gardens.
Weingarden has drawn on all of these experiences while addressing the current crisis. “It’s such a tight knit community,” he says. “I’m still in contact with people I worked with in college. Some of them were already established at that point, while others have moved up the ranks. So I can give them a call and get helpful information. It’s been important, particularly during this time when I’m trying to get artists to help out and raise awareness for what I’m doing with NIVA [National Independent Venue Association] and Save Our Stages. Instead of just making cold calls to somebody, I can get on the line with one of my old friends who I’ve known for 25 years and say, ‘Hey, can you do me a favor here?’”
What are your recollections of the days leading up to the shutdowns?
Our final two shows at the Boulder Theater were The Growlers. They sold out, but it was an incredibly weird vibe. We were all sitting downstairs in the dressing rooms and the entire conversation was about the coronavirus. I think that, during the final weeks before we shut down on March 12, that’s all anybody talked about when they came in—whether it was Rosanne Cash or The Growlers. There was a sense of impending doom. Nobody wanted to admit that we were going to be shut down, but we could tell that we were going to have to make some hard decisions because, at the end of the day, you want to make sure that everybody’s safe—not only the patrons, but also the artists and your employees. At first, we were starting to reforecast our budgets and think about how we were going to possibly go down to a reduced capacity or what would happen if we had to shut down for a couple of weeks or a month.
Never in our wildest dreams did we think that we would still be where we are in November. I’m just thankful that the accounting and finance people within our organization, and our CEO Cheryl [Ligouri], have always been smart about how we manage money. We’re all trying to weather the storm but, for some venues, it’s really dire. And it’s going to be harder and harder to make things work as we all move forward and the cash flow continues to dry up.
When it comes to government response, how helpful were the PPP loans to independent venues? What are the current challenges?
PPP was definitely a help. It saved a lot of businesses. But that first bill—a $2.2 trillion stimulus package—still wasn’t enough. We were able to utilize the PPP, but here’s the rub: PPP allowed for loan forgiveness only if you brought back your employees by June 30 [the deadline was later extended to Dec. 31]. That was amazing for all these different industries, but it wasn’t ideal for us as things progressed and got worse during the shutdown. We were the first to close and we’re going to be the last to open. So while these loans were great, they were also throwing salt on the wounds a little bit because they were penalizing the industries that were not allowed to fully open. Any industry based around live events—wedding venues, theaters, Broadway—is completely shut down. PPP is a help but it’s not where it should be. There needs to be additional, specific relief for these industries to help offset the continued losses because we’re all bleeding right now and it’s a difficult situation. So the RESTART Act, of which Senator Bennet from Colorado is a co-sponsor, is still on the table right now, which is good. It includes six months of payroll, and it allows for some flexibility around certain loans. Then the Save Our Stages Act, of which Amy Klobuchar is a co-sponsor, is going to be providing grants of up to 45% of your 2019 revenue, which can be used for rent, mortgage, payroll and whatnot. That’s a $10 billion relief bill and it would be incredibly helpful.
That being said, these are Band-Aids. Until we get a vaccine, it’s going to be a slog moving forward. Still, all of this is helpful, and we need the RESTART Act and the Save Our Stages Act in place.
Can you talk about the role of NIVA in all this?
Back in March, I got a call from a friend of mine, Matt Smith, who runs the UC Theatre at Berkeley. He called me with Dayna Frank from First Avenue, who was the founder of NIVA, on the phone. They asked me: “We’re putting together this coalition of venues to make sure that we have a voice in Washington, D.C., would you guys be interested?”
I was like, “Absolutely, whatever we can do.” That’s when we started having weekly calls and it continued to grow. Now NIVA is up to 3,000 venues nationwide; it’s amazing. Within that timeframe, they picked up Akin Gump, which is one of the major lobbying firms in Washington, D.C., and we got some funding together through various groups. And nine months later, the most recent House bill for the stimulus package that went through was very general. There was only three line items in there with industry-specific money: airlines, restaurants and live music.
So it’s unbelievable that, nine months ago, we didn’t have a voice whatsoever. We weren’t at the table. And through NIVA, we were able to rally over two million emails that we sent to Congress—to our government leaders—so that they could understand that this was an important thing for towns, cities and all these municipalities. People want to save our stages and it’s been a really incredible movement.
In Colorado, the entertainment industry is the third largest driver of the economy, and we’re completely shut down. We’ve been able to explain that, for every $1 that’s spent on concert tickets, $12 goes back into the local economy.
We’ve also joined forces with groups like NITO, the National Independent Talent Organization, which is made up of managers and agents. And there are also groups like the Independent Restaurant Coalition, the Live Events Coalition, the Main Street Alliance and the National Association of Theater Owners. We recognize that the more voices we have, the better.
How did the Save Our Stages Fest come about?
Given the ineffectiveness of the government to get things passed, we needed to take matters into our own hands. So we came up with the NIVA Emergency Relief Fund to try and raise some money. Venues can submit an application and receive some assistance while we wait for the government to push things through.
I was on that committee for the Emergency Relief Fund, and we also needed to figure out how we were going to raise money for it. That’s when we came up with the Save Our Stages Festival. During the last nine months, I’ve also sat on the Artist Relations Committee, helping recruit artists to sign the letter that we sent out to Congress. We had over 600 artists, from the Foo Fighters to Billie Eilish, sign this letter in support.
So we called all those people once again and got them on the Save Our Stages Fest. It was 25- 30 artists in 25-30 independent venues across the nation. We worked with YouTube and Google, who were unbelievably supportive and pushed this like crazy. We got the front of the Google homepage, which is unheard of, and we were on the masthead for YouTube Music the entire weekend—even just being on there for one day is unbelievable.
We were able to raise close to $2 million for this Emergency Relief Fund, and we’re still coming up with ways to continue to fund it, working with different partners. Life continues to roll on during the pandemic, and things are going to get even worse in the winter. We have over 3,000 different venues in NIVA and we’ve been able to send out surveys to the group. The information that we got back was that if we don’t get federal assistance within the next six months, 90 percent of independent venues will go under. And it’s starting to happen as we speak.
What can music fans do to help?
There are a few things that they can do. One, there are tickets on sale right now for reduced capacity shows. That’s super helpful because we do have a lot of shows that are on sale into 2021. So fans should look at their local venues’ calendars, and see what’s coming up. They can also buy venue merchandise and streams, if they’re available. They could go to saveourstages.com or the NIVA website where we are still asking folks to take 30 seconds out of their day and send an email to their Congressional representatives to let them know that they should support the Save Our Stages and RESTART Acts.
If they’re interested on a local level, they could call their town and city governments and tell their local representatives that they want to make sure that there’s some sort of relief bills in place to support the local arts, music and culture scenes within their communities. This is incredibly important, as we’ve seen from the two million emails that have already been sent to the Congressional delegations.
Just sending emails is important, but where you can go deeper is really personalizing those emails or calls. Tell them your stories and how your town is affected by not having these shows. We heard from our contact within the city of Boulder that every ticket doesn’t just equal $12; it’s actually $26 within the city, which is massive. If you extrapolate that out to 300 different shows—between the Boulder Theater, the Fox and the Chautauqua Auditorium— multiply that by how many people buy tickets per year, and then add and multiply that by $26, that’s a massive amount of tax revenue loss for the city of Boulder and the state.
So this is something that needs to be resolved because, if it goes away, it’s going to be a sad situation for all of us who live in these towns, especially after coronavirus and just seeing these empty buildings.
One thing that I hear from so many people is that, if a venue goes away, it’s very unlikely that it’ll be coming back. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.
Building a venue from the ground up is an incredibly expensive ordeal. And then, if you’re in one of these higher price towns like New York or even Boulder, it’s astronomical. So if it goes away it’s probably not coming back, and that’s not what the communities want based on how much support has already been sent out. So people should continue to talk to their local, state and federal representatives and let everybody know that they want to save our stages because that’s going to be where the power comes from.