World Cafe Live founder fights to keep music venues alive (KYW)
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World Cafe Live founder fights to keep music venues alive (KYW)

December 12, 2020
by Charlotte Reese, for KYW Newsradio

When owner Hal Real walked out of World Cafe Live on March 13, he thought to himself, “Wow, we might not have any live music in here for a month or so.”

That was eight months ago.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, World Cafe Live hosted about 600 ticketed shows a year. One-third of those welcomed people at no charge, for events like open mic nights and new-artist introductions.

World Cafe Live shares a space with Philadelphia public radio station WXPN. But in March, the music venue and its two stages closed due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Since then, Real said not much has changed.

“And that’s really sad,” he said. “Any activity we’ve had has really been our effort to sort of keep our pilot light lit so that our fans know we’re still here, we’re in hibernation and we can’t wait until we come out of hibernation.”

There are about 25 independent music venues in Philadelphia and more in the surrounding suburbs. Being independent, Real said, means the venue is “locally owned, locally controlled and not part of some multinational company.”

About 90% of the live music industry is controlled by public companies, so indie venues were already in the minority. And as the pandemic continues, they’re quickly disappearing.

Some of the independent venues that partially reopened in Philly have already had to shut down again. Real believes that until there is a widely adopted vaccine, guests will not want to return — and that goes for artists, too.

He believes World Cafe Live won’t be back to full operation until October 2021.

A silver lining of salvation

World Cafe Live merged with its nonprofit, Live Connections, in late 2019 to create what is now its education department. Real said that gave him the opportunity to do something he always thought about: create a network of independent venues across the country.

If the pandemic has any kind of a silver lining, Real said it’s turbocharging his plans to bring venues together.

The National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) has about 3,000 members from all 50 states and Washington, D.C.

“In eight months, (NIVA) went from start-up to having legislation drafted that would truly help our members way more than the (Paycheck Protection Program),” he said, which “really didn’t do much for us or any other pending legislation.”

And what started as a social media hashtag — #SaveOurStages — has turned into a bill approved by the U.S. House and pending in the Senate. It’s part of the ongoing COVID-19 relief negotiations in Congress.

Still, Real feels like a “hostage” amid the impasse going on in D.C.

“If they ever turn to (the Save Our Stages Act), I have confidence it will pass. Unfortunately, we needed it to pass in July or August,” he admitted. “We were counting on it by September or October, and now here we are, and literally hundreds of our members are announcing that they can’t hold on anymore and that they are permanently closing.”

Boot & Saddle in South Philadelphia recently closed. So did the Chameleon Club in Lancaster, and The Rex Theater in Pittsburgh.

There are about 100 members of NIVA in Pennsylvania, but there are around 200 more that would qualify to be in the group.

Real doesn’t see a robust economic recovery if small venues keep closing. Independent venues are huge drivers in the tourism industry for cities like Philadelphia, where restaurants and hotels get a lot of business from concerts or shows.

Meanwhile, there’s similar legislation pending in Harrisburg for a bill on the state level.

“It’s not a Republican issue or a Democratic issue,” Real noted. “Everybody likes to go out to see a live performance.”

Real believes Pennsylvania’s issue is confined to a $5-billion budget gap, as well as the fact that so many small businesses, including World Cafe Live, have been completely shut down — taking a significant amount of potential tax revenue off the table.

World Cafe Live’s 93 furloughed employees were recently told not to wait for the venue to reopen.

“We hate to say that,” he said, “but we don’t want (them) holding onto hope because there’s just so much uncertainty out there.”

After the pandemic, Real thinks the arts will receive an elevated level of respect from the public. “You don’t know what you got till it’s gone. You know the old Joni Mitchell tune? And I think people really miss going to their museum, gallery or local venue. And to the extent we see a continuation of failures … it’s going to make people say, ‘We can’t let this happen again.’ ”

Real encourages people to support World Cafe Live, NIVA, a Philly band, or one of their favorite independent venues or artists by buying something from their store, like a sweatshirt or hat, or just donate.

“It’s like taking a spigot and turning off the water, and it’s been eight months,” he alluded. “It’s scary because of what’s going to happen to the ecosystem. How long does it take? What if we turn the spigot on and it’s just drip, drip, drip? That’s what we’re looking at.”