For Gregg McCraw, founder of Charlotte-based booking agency Maxx Music, which books shows for the Neighborhood Theatre, the journey of the genre-bending Boston-based soul/pop/jazz fusion band Lake Street Dive in Charlotte is indicative of how musical acts work their way up in a music economy.
In April 2013, the little-known group played at The Evening Muse for two paying customers. Their next stop in Charlotte 18 months later was across the street at Neighborhood Theatre, Charlotte’s biggest independently owned music venue at 1,000 seats. They’ve played at the Live Nation venue Fillmore multiple times since then, and McCraw expects that whenever Lake Street Dive is able to perform again in Charlotte, they’ll be at the Uptown Amphitheatre, built for bigger Live Nation acts.
McCraw compares it to baseball’s farm system, in which players often spend many years climbing the ladder through the minor leagues before they make it to the majors. “Most bands spend time in the minors, and some of them make it to the big leagues, but without the minors, the whole system falls apart,” McCraw says.
Now as a result of COVID-19, McCraw is seeing that infrastructure begin to crumble, and it could start with Neighborhood Theatre. On Wednesday, the venue launched a GoFundMe campaign, stating that it’s facing its most difficult period in the venue’s 24-year existence. McCraw and others with the venue are hoping to raise $50,000 through the crowdfunding campaign, while also encouraging supporters to call on their representatives to help protect independent venues. On it’s website, the newly formed National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) provides an easy-to-use format in which they only have to enter their name and address to shoot out an email to their respective representatives.
McCraw says he’s spent hours each day on the phone with venue owners in Charlotte and around the country, and Neighborhood Theatre is not alone in its grave concerns.
“We’re not the only ones in danger of not making it through this. ” McCraw says. “Maybe we’re the first to raise the flag, but this is endemic to everyone in this business. We all have rents, we all have utilities, we all have insurance bills — all those things that are coming due every week, every month, every day, whether we open the doors or not. So the ability to pay all of those bills and stay alive to be able to reopen when we can do that safely is what’s in question here.”
McCraw says one of the most frustrating things about this crisis is that there’s no way of telling when the end might come. Neighborhood Theatre hasn’t hosted a show since March 7, and upon review of Gov. Cooper’s three-phase plan to reopen the state, McCraw has determined that they won’t be able to until June 26 at the earliest.
Even then, he says, it won’t be about the government allowing them to do so, but whether they can do it safely, and whether people will even show up.
“No matter what the government says, I don’t talk to anyone in the industry who is not concerned about doing this responsibly,” says McCraw. “Not just opening up the doors and getting back to business, but doing it so that our staff is safe, the musicians are safe and all of our patrons are safe. So that’s first and foremost, and then the reality of all this is, it doesn’t matter what Roy Cooper says, it doesn’t matter what Maxx Music or Neighborhood Theatre says. What matters is: Can we make music fans comfortable enough to come back out to an event? And that’s a wild card; none of us know the answer to that.”
Until then, the team at Neighborhood Theatre will rely on GoFundMe donations and sales of new merchandise, for which they partnered with two of their neighbors — Ink Floyd right down E. 36th Street; and Inkfinity Printing, located on The Plaza.
McCraw says the live music industry is already a low-margin business that he describes as “legalized gambling,” but with no one buying tickets or coming through the door, and no real timeline for when concerts can resume, independent venues now face a future more uncertain than perhaps any other industry.
“Not to disparage restaurants, I know they’re in a horrible position too, but we can’t do take-out music, there’s no drive-thru with us; it’s open or not open,” he says.
Based on what was already on the books, McCraw says he had expected 2020 to be the biggest year ever for live music in Charlotte, certainly in the 25 years that he’s been booking shows. Following the pandemic, however, if venues were to remain closed across the country, they’re expected to lose $8.9 billion in revenue.
Many independent venues in Charlotte wouldn’t make it through the crisis if that were to happen, joining the ranks of other independent venues that the city has lost in recent years such as Double Door Inn, Tremont Music Hall and Chop Shop.
And for those not concerned with the small and mid-sized venues in town, McCraw calls back to his original point about the music economy, and the stepping stones that independent venues provide for up-and-coming acts before they make it big. For example, before they became internationally known, The Avett Brothers out of Concord recorded their a 2005 live album in Neighborhood Theatre. And in 2009 shot the video for “I and You and Love” at the venue (below).
“The people who go to one concert a year at Spectrum Center or The Fillmore or one of the amphitheaters, the message that all of us would like those people to understand is that the band that you’re seeing at The Fillmore or the Spectrum Center or PNC [Pavilion] didn’t just show up one night there, they worked their way through a music economy … and Neighborhood Theatre is big in the music economy,” he says.
He references the recent news that Saudi Arabia invested $500 million into Live Nation.
“I’m not trying to poke fun at Live Nation, believe me, Maxx Music works with Live Nation, but Saudi Arabia is not infusing $500 million into any small music venues across the country,” he says. “We are the ones that are going to suffer.”