Off-Stage Struggles

As multinational conglomerates thrive, independent venues are fighting for survival

When Tobi Parks opened xBk Live in Des Moines in September 2019, she thought she knew what she was in for. Running an independent music venue was hard enough. She’d already spent years in the music business as a lawyer for Sony Records. She knew the deal. 

But her 250-person-room sits a half block off Des Moines’ up-and-coming Dogtown business district, and it’s easy to miss if you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for. There’s no flashy, attention grabbing sign to draw people in. The double door reads xBk, but that’s tucked five feet into the building’s front, making it difficult to see. The bands that come through are the kinds that pack five members and their equipment into a big white van with a “rent-a-trailer” hitched to the back. 

What Parks didn’t know when those doors opened for the first time was that a global pandemic was on the way, and the live music business and her competition would change even more than it already had. 

“Prior to COVID…we had a different number of venues before then,” Parks says. “In comes the pandemic. It makes it much more difficult. That being said, fast forward post-pandemic, [xBk is] well-positioned in the market because there’s only two smaller venues that book national touring acts of our [capacity].”

The two venues Parks is referring to are Lefty’s, which also resides in the Dogtown district, and Noce, an upscale jazz club downtown. So, while Parks’ lack of competition directly benefits her business, she still says she wants to build on the previously established scene in Des Moines because it’s good for the independent business as a whole. 

“I think more competition breeds more opportunity for the market to grow and for artists to play,” Parks says. “If our room is booked and [the other room our size] is booked on any given night, for any other band that’s touring, there’s no other place to play.”

Independent Venues Drive Communities

The live music industry has never been more lucrative. According to the Music Business Association, global ticket sales topped $25 billion for the first time, with total industry revenue from live music—tickets, merch, fees, etc.—reaching $31.5 billion. The total topped the all-time highs reached in 2022 when artists hit the road in heavy numbers after COVID-19 restrictions shut down the touring business for most of 2020 and 2021. Of course, Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour accounted for a lot of that, pulling in over $1 billion in revenue. Beyonce’s Renissance Tour grabbed $580 million, while Bruce Springsteen and Coldplay nabbed $380 and $325 million respectively. Concert industry magazine Pollstar called 2023 “a colossus, the likes of which the live industry has never seen before.” 

A lot of that money went to one place. According to industry magazine Billboard, Live Nation Entertainment, which owns concert promoter and venue operator Live Nation and ticketing giant Ticketmaster, saw revenue jump by 36%, hitting $22.7 billion. It owns or partners with hundreds of venues across the U.S. It controls the majority of ticketing in the country (more on that in a minute). Ultimately, it swallowed 72% of all concert revenue last year.

That doesn’t leave a lot for folks like Parks. But last year was particularly hard for two reasons. The first: Banner tours like Swift’s suck up a lot of money that might otherwise trickle down to little venues. It’s something she talked about last year with “Marketplace” Kai Ryssdal. 

“The average person only has so much expendable income, and if they’re spending $3,000 to see Taylor Swift, that’s less money they’re gonna spend buying tickets to come to my venue,” Parks said on the show.

And that lack of income can have lasting trickle down impacts. Jeff Roalson is the lead singer and booking contact for Iowa City indie rockers Halfloves, which played the first-ever show at xBk. He says small independent venues are foundational to building a thriving music scene, both locally and across the Midwest as a whole. Without a healthy club scene, there won’t be any new Taylor Swifts. 

“If there’s no places for new artists to grow their music in a live performance setting, the creative culture and community will suffer—not only for artists, but for anyone who appreciates live music at smaller and mid-sized venues,” Roalson says. “…When it comes to local artists finding a home and community for their music, the independent, locally owned and managed venues are a key part of any city’s musical DNA.” 

Andre Perry, the executive director of Hancher Auditorium, a 1,800-seat performing arts center on the campus of the University of Iowa in Iowa City, thinks it is even more than that. He believes independent venues can help define the culture of an area. 

“When you put all those together, it really starts to add up into something that helps define the culture,” Perry says. “And then you can build restaurants and cafés and all those things that go around those things.”

But for Parks, it all comes down to the experience. When you head out for the night, what kind of place do you want to hang out in, an intimate club or something else? 

“I’ve been to a number of Live Nation rooms and it’s kind of like the difference between going to a boutique store versus going to Walmart,” Parks says. 

Banding Together

In March 2020, the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) was founded to support small venue owners like Parks’ and advocate for legislation in congress, which became known as the Save Our Stages Act. The act, which eventually passed and was signed by President Joe Biden, provided monetary relief for venues like xBk. Perry also serves on the board of NIVA, an association that he says he’s passionate about.

“The association exists to really represent, support and advocate for the whole network of independent venues across the country,” Perry says.

In Perry’s eyes, the biggest win for the organization in its four-year lifespan has been just that: banding everyone together. From the east to the west, NIVA connects independent music venues in a way that hasn’t been done before. The community of owners and operators is as tight as it’s ever been. And because of the organization’s growth, advocacy has expanded to tackle multiple issues facing the live music industry.

The Battle with Brokers

Since its inception and the battle to advocate for the Save Our Stages act, NIVA and Parks have turned a portion of attention to the second big thing making it hard for independ venues:  ticketing. Ticketmaster and Live Nation own nearly 80% of the market share when it comes to concerts, and just over 70% of all live events, including some put on at xBk because the venue allows third-party booking companies to host in the room. 

While the company has a near-monopoly in the business, it’s the flaws in the ticket resale process that concern venues. Parks says independent owners want a secondary market, but the goal is to make it fair. The issue is not with ticket resale as a whole, but rather with who is manipulating the system. When secondary market brokers buy tickets to sell at a higher price, they don’t need to sell all of them to break even or make a profit. Then, less people have usable tickets in their hands, and drop counts–the difference between tickets sold and tickets scanned at the door–plummet. 

For example, a show may sell out officially, but only about 80% of those buyers show up to the event. According to Parks, pre-pandemic drop counts were 10-15%, while in the last few years numbers have risen above 30%.

The difference? Brokers were cheating the system while venues were fighting for their lives.

“We’re not trying to penalize the folks that can’t find a babysitter and can’t make it to the show,” Parks says. “We’re trying to penalize the folks that are using bots and 17 different credit cards and all of these ways that they can go in and scoop up tons of tickets.”

That’s where the major dips in drop counts originate. Brokers can make their money back by selling a fraction of the tickets that they bought and can write the rest of them off. Meanwhile, the venue doesn’t get the extra beer sales, and the artists don’t get the extra merch sales that comes with bodies in the venue. They need people in the room.

“It’s just these people that are sitting behind a computer and milking the consumer out of tons of money,” Parks says. “And that’s the kind of thing we’re trying to put a curb on.”

In the past year, Parks, along with her partners in the “Fix the Tix” movement, have been to Washington, D.C., to meet with prominent national leaders to figure it out. Parks herself met with President Biden in June 2023. This activism has led to the recent introduction of the Fans First Act in the United States Senate, which aims to make automated ticket brokering illegal. 

While the work can be strenuous, and money is hard to come by at times, independent music venues are working together to survive, both in the political realm and their own communities. Because people are out and about again post-pandemic, venues don’t have to live-stream shows just to get by. Now, beers are being drunk, and records are being bought at merch tables. NIVA is beginning to get legislators’ attention, and there’s a light at the end of the tunnel for independent owners like Parks. It’s about maximizing the usage of that light going forward.

Author

  • JD Snover

    My name is JD, and I am the Senior Audio Producer for Urban Plains. Audio is essentially my life as I have worked in radio for nearly seven years now. 

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