Cleveland music scene in spotlight as city hosts first National Independent Venue Association conference

Wichita’s Cavves, left, headlined the Tuesday night NIVA concert at Happy Dog, while San Antonio’s Babylonz opened the show with a fierce set of glam-punk.

By Laura DeMarco

This story was updated July 13, 2022.

Greater Cleveland was a national leader in the Save our Stages advocacy for independent venues during the pandemic, but it was a chance conversation between friends that led to the first ever National Independent Venue Association conference coming to town this week.

More than 560 indie venue owners, show promoters and musicians from around the world were in Cleveland on July 11 and 12 for the conference, which included daytime panels and networking, and public evening shows at member venues,

“The idea of having the conference here started last summer at Wonderstruck,” says Sean Watterson, co-owner of the Happy Dog and NIVA Ohio Chapter Head, as well Senior Consultant for the Fund for Our Economic Future.

“[Rock Hall CEO] Greg Harris and I were talking, and I asked him if we could get tickets to the Induction Ceremony for the Save Our Stages advocacy captains nationwide, and he got them for all of them. They came to Cleveland and went to the Inductions and the Rock Hall and the Happy Dog and the Beachland Ballroom and all of these other places.

The Soothsayers from Taos impressed the crowds in the Underdog.

“So when NIVA was thinking of a place to have their first event, we had laid the groundwork.”

The conference concluded with a concert at the Happy Dog Tuesday night, featuring bands selected by members of the new D TOUR national network of independent venues and promoters. Acts ranged from glam punk to Latino hip-hop, R&B, indie and power-pop. Daytime events took place at the Rock Hall, Music Box and Pickwick & Frolic/Hilarities. An independent venue awards ceremony was held Monday at the Rock Hall. Cleveland’s Bop Stop radio show, “Live At The BOP STOP,” was selected as the “Best Innovation By A Club, Promotor, or Festival.”

Cleveland’s Oregon Space Trail of Doom, left, showcased their heavy math rock-emo sound at NIVA. Right: Crowds get into Soothsayers in the Underdog lower level concert club.

“It has been an amazing two days,” said Watterson on Tuesday at the Happy Dog, as a packed house watched indie bands representing San Antonio, Taos, Nashville, Wichita and Cleveland.

“There have been so many great conversations and shows, with real, on-the-ground promoters and owners. People are commenting how they love that it’s small business owners, not just a bunch of ‘corporate suits’ sharing ideas. And people love the Music Box and Hilarities. They are so impressed with Cleveland.”

Count the bands on the stage that night among the impressed. “Cleveland is a great city, it seems so supportive of the music scene,” said Buddy Hellhound (his “stage name”) of San Antonio, who spent the day touring the city and visiting the Rock Hall. “We can’t wait to come back and play again.”

His sentiments were echoed throughout the evening. “We love you Cleveland, and NIVA,” enthused Sophie Emerson, singer of up-and-coming indie power-pop band Cavves, from Wichita.

“This conference has been awesome, the panels, the bands, everything,” said Lisa Vinciquerra, Director of Programming and Live Events at the Rock Hall. “We need to get NIVA to come back.”

With its rich music history and strong indie club scene, the home to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was the perfect place for the conference that will include panels on topics ranging from the economic impact of music and arts to music incubators, mental health, and setting advocacy priorities for 2023. Mayor Bibb kicked off the conference at the Music Box Monday morning.

Beyond Cleveland’s music roots, the city’s history of musical advocacy also played a role in the formation of NIVA — and bringing its first in-person event here.

“NIVA didn’t exist as of March 12, 2020,” explains Watterson of the organization that now has more than 3,000 members from all 50 states and Washington, D.C. “What did exist was the Cleveland Music Club Coalition, which formed a few years ago fight the Cleveland Admission Tax.”

“So when COVID came and all of us closed, the network came together over the course of a couple weeks.”

The local movement soon became part of a national one, as indie venues from across the county began to coalesce and lobby after a call organized by the Independent Venue Week organization.

“We came up with Save our Stages and divided up the county,” says Watterson, a lawyer by training who had previously worked for the SEC. “I stepped up for Ohio. My role was to get clubs and promoters in Ohio to reach out and lobby to convince Senators Brown and Portman to sponsor the bill. We needed bipartisan support, and Ohio was very important in that respect. We needed, and did get them as sponsors.”

What began as a grass roots movement led to transformative assistance for shuttered venues nationwide with the passage of the Save Our Stages Act in January 2021, administered by the SBA. Locally, more than $78 million in grant money was designated for Cuyahoga County venues.

“It was incredible,” says Watterson.

But the work is far from done. This week, NIVA venues talked about the aftermath of COVID on the industry, as well as other pressing issues facing independent operators, from how to get fans to return to secondary ticketing regulation to cultural land trusts, inflation and future advocacy.

Organizers hope that in addition to going back home with new ideas and connections to actualize on a local level, attendees will leave town with a new respect for Cleveland.

“This is cementing us in the national landscape,” says Watterson.

Resources

For more information on the Save Our Stages Act

For more information on joining NIVA

For more on Independent Venue Week

Greater Cleveland Partnership’s All In vision for a Great Region on a Great Lake has five key priorities: Dynamic Business, Abundant Talent, Inclusive Opportunity, Appealing Community and Business Confidence. All of our work ties back to these values. This story relates to Dynamic Business and Appealing Community.

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