Rev. Moose knows all too well the challenges independent venues face in 2023.
Having run Independent Venue Week in the US via his role as Co-Founder and Managing Partner of boutique marketing firm Marauder, in 2020 Moose helped create the National Independent Venue Association [NIVA] in response to COVID's devastating impact on the independent sector. (He remains Founding & Emeritus Executive Director of NIVA.)
One of the leaders of NIVA’s efforts to secure the $16 billion Shuttered Venue Operators Grant, which prevented thousands of independent promoters, venues and festivals from going out of business, he also oversaw the launch of NIVA Care, NIVA’s healthcare program for its members, and the NIVA Emergency Relief Fund, which distributed more than $3 million in grants to independent businesses in the live sector as they awaited Federal assistance.
“It's always been an uphill fight, if you will, but it doesn't mean that it's an impossible fight by any means,” he offers. “It’s a tough business to be in to begin with, but it’s very passion led from the independent side. It’s led by people that are in the community, from the community, lead the communities, and they are the ones that are starting new musical genres or creating the home for new musical genres to start. They're the ones that are creating culture and leading that culture creation from their various different enterprises.
“So I think the importance of the independent sector with live performances and live arts and music and comedy and everything else of that nature, it can't be understated. It truly is a vital aspect of this cultural zeitgeist that we all experience.”
Here, Rev. Moose draws on his experience both in the independent venue sector and his work at Marauder to discuss the current venue landscape, the important role community plays in the health of the independent live ecosystem, the key to successful email and SMS marketing, and more…
What are the biggest challenges independent venues are facing?
Well, I think there are several new struggles for independent venues in the US in particular.
A lot of the issues are that people have yet to come back in full. There is a lot more competition for that purchasing dollar. And some of that competition is things like rent, the cost of food going up.
And there's also the fact that people adapted to a world where they weren't looking at the show calendar and trying to figure out what to go to. So you're competing with Netflix, and you're competing with staying home and doing nothing, or walking the dog you just got over the last two years, or whatever it is.
Not to mention, you have an entire generation that just grew up without the inherited aspect of going out to live events and live shows. So there's a gap created there too. Plus, you also have there being so many things to choose from and every venue being booked and every band being on tour.
So there are a lot of forces that are making it more difficult to sell tickets that wouldn't have been a difficulty at all only a few years ago.
I do think that there is a strong benefit to supporting the businesses that are more likely to take chances, that are more likely to reach within the community, that are more likely to book from the community, staff from the community.
So leveraging community is important for independent venues?
I think the venues that you and I would view as being successful, we're viewing them that way because they are in engaging with the community. Not the other way around.
They're special for a reason. They're special because they did a fundraiser for the school. They're special because they opened up their doors when there was civil unrest so people had a place where they could charge phones or get water. They're special because they're flying a flag out front that says, ‘all are welcome here’.
And I think that when that is absent from a community, when it's being dictated from a company on another coast, you miss out on that inclusiveness, you miss out on the diverse aspect of it, you miss out on people having somebody they can approach and say, ‘I'm working on this thing, and it's really cool. And you grew up with my father, and it would be great if you could give this a shot.’
These are the things that you just can't replicate in other means.
"I think the venues that you and I would view as being successful, we're viewing them that way because they are in engaging with the community. Not the other way around."
Besides some of the things you just mentioned, are there other ways you see venues engaging with their community in an impactful way?
The answer is yes. But I want to give you a better answer than that.
There's a statistic that we used with the Save Our Stages campaign [now known as the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant]. For every $1 spent in an independent venue, it generates $12 in the local economy. Live venues are economic multipliers – it means the restaurant next door, it means the parking attendant, it means the hotel, it means the airline, it means the clothing shops, the card shops, the coffee shops, everything around it.
And when you start doing the math as far as how many people does this venue hold, how many shows they do a night, you can figure out the extent of how much money is being generated in the economy.
And I think there are people – I will say people in this case as opposed to venues, because people run and operate these venues – that understand the value past just the dollar. And they are the ones that have turned their rooms into food banks, and served people during hurricanes. They're the ones that have led fundraising efforts when a catastrophe has happened. And they've led the charge to make sure that their peers, their competitors mind you, are being helped.
And then of course, you also have people that are commercially successful and are putting that commercial success at risk for taking stances that are socially controversial. And they're doing that because it reflects the type of people they are, the type of people they want in their rooms, the type of people they want to feel safe in their rooms.
Are you seeing venues have success with membership programs or fostering community through platforms such as Discord?
Fan clubs are still very appropriate. You definitely see fan clubs, membership groups, where you know your money is going to support the club. And you get benefits – a limited edition T-shirt or access to tickets before others or whatever the case might be.
Social media, for all its woes, is still a platform where people can congregate around shared interests. In reference to the venue aspect of it, when you have the people that are running these rooms being so active in their communities, I think sometimes it's easy to neglect the marketing of your own asset, because you're busy putting other people forward first.
It isn’t necessarily the best move if you're a for-profit business. But I do think that the people that I've had the good fortune of spending the last several years with, that are doing this, that are operating in good faith, even sometimes when it's not the best business move, there's a reason they've been around for decades. They're the people you want to support when the shit hits the fan.
The Shuttered Venue Operators Grant was a $16 billion program, the largest arts and culture funding in American history. There were some [venues] who didn't qualify, simply because they had such great local support. And what a blessing that is to be in that position.
And I'm glad that they were seeing that support.
From a commercial perspective, the more time punters spend in the venue the better. Are you seeing any venues undertaking initiatives that increase time and revenue spent in their room?
The easiest way to have somebody in your club for a longer time is to put something on the stage that's gonna keep them there. So I think it's really about fan engagement, and making sure that the opening bands are being promoted as well as the headline artists. It's about the fans having the tools and utilizing the tools in front of them to be able to say, hey, I want to show up at doors instead of waiting until the headliner would go on.
I think at least with the locally owned and operated venues that I spend a lot of my time in and that I'm closest with, they're looking into the community to be able to give people their start. They're putting openers on specifically to be able to give them their first shows, or their ability to be able to gain fans as those shows grow.
So I think the answer to your question is, the best way to keep people in the space is to make it engaging and to give them something they want. If you're showing up to a music club, you want to hear something really good.
How does a venue or event get the most out of its social media channels?
I think the aspect that most people end up getting wrong with social media is they push and only push. And it is intended to be a dialogue. Engagement comes from a dialogue.
If you're just going to post sales pitches over and over again – ‘Come to my show, come to my event, listen to this’ – it's not going to be there. We've talked about community engagement a lot in this conversation. That is community engagement. It is about saying, ‘Hey, here's somebody in my neighborhood doing something cool, and showing love for others.’ It's about responding. It's about engaging with people in a very real way.
And it also means recognizing your shortcomings, and knowing that there are plenty of things that you aren't necessarily great at. So maybe focus on the things that you are. If you are dominating TikTok, but you couldn't do anything more than make a Facebook event post, then that's it. Do that.
Make sure that you're spending time on it to actually engage, and make sure that there's a dialogue happening and that you're not just using it to hock your wares.
Are you seeing any alternatives to Meta being effective?
There's this thing. Most people have heard of it. Most people have used it. But most people don't think of it as a priority when it comes to actual marketing. And it blows my mind because it's so simple to use. And we all use it.
It's called email.
And it's so easily overlooked as a marketing tool because everybody is busy trying to leverage their social clout or reach new audiences or anything else of that sort. And generally speaking, if you're selling tickets to an event, you have already sold tickets to an event, so you have people engaged with you in a very real way.
And you can reach them at home, in a manner that they can digest, when they want to digest it. So email marketing is not something that a lot of people talk about. And it's incredibly effective. And it's probably the least difficult of the platforms to really kind of navigate, simply because there are so many tools available to users to be able to make email marketing that much easier.
What’s the key to a good marketing email?
Cut the shit, right? Just don't make it so sexy that you lose the entire point of it. Don't hide it behind cat memes and all the other stuff, just get to the point – this is what I’ve got, this is what you need to know. Put it in the subject line. We're all too busy. Give me what I need, and make it look pretty and thematic and in the right tone of voice and all the other things, but really just give me what I need. That's how you should be doing it.
Have you had much experience with SMS marketing?
Yeah, I think it's a very personal way to be able to communicate with people. But with that comes a lot of responsibility.
So if you're going to be doing SMS marketing, you have to understand that it can't be utilized in the same way as social media or email marketing, because you are even more invited into somebody's daily activity.
And you risk being unsubscribed from that much more if you really mismanage SMS marketing. But again, if these are people that have previously bought from you, if it's an alert that tickets are about to go on sale for an artist they've already bought from, those types of things people are not just tolerant of, but they engage with.
It's a very valuable tool. But it's the personal aspect of it that makes it so valuable.