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March was looking to be a blockbuster month at the Sweetwater Music Hall.

On the heels of a show In late Feb. by acclaimed singer-songwriter Jerry Joseph, the venerable downtown Mill Valley music venue had lined up a series of fan favorites, from The Garcia Project featuring local legend Maria Muldaur, along with Petty Theft, the massively popular Tom Petty cover band, as well as a multi-show run from New Orleans stalwarts Rebirth Brass Band, including a kids-centric daytime show.

And then the bottom fell out from beneath the live music landscape in the United States and, well, all over the world.

On March 12, Shooter Jennings, the only son of country legends Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter, showcased a set of gritty, passionate songwriting and vocals, and the Sweetwater’s doors have been shut ever since.

And by all indications from Gov. Gavin Newsom and, more locally, Marin County Public Health Officer Matt Willis, live music will be among the last sectors of the local economy to return.

Sweetwater General Manager ​Madison Flach says it’s been a rough couple of months. “I don’t know when we’re going to be a full business again,” she says. “Right now, it’s just about trying to stay hopeful, be pragmatic and make plans for a variety of different scenarios.”

Flach and her close-knit team of employees – an IndieGogo campaign raised more than $18,000 to support furloughed employees – have worked together for the better part of five years. They’ve held a few Zoom calls but otherwise have been longing for the days when they can get back to doing what they do best: showcase great live music in one of the best venues in the Bay Area.

While it can seem like an insurmountable predicament at times, Flach and her team have taken solace in the idea that some of the most famous music venues in the United States are in the same exact situation. 

“This is an existential crisis,” Dayna Frank, the owner of First Avenue in Minneapolis, a regular spot for Prince, the Replacements and Hüsker Dü that opened in 1970, told the New York Times this month. “Independent venues have no financial backstop. We do not have corporate parents. There are no financial resources we can turn to.”

To make matters worse, while businesses across the country are filing insurance claims for losses related to the pandemic, claims filed by arts groups have been met with “a torrent of denials, prompting lawsuits across the country and legislative efforts on the state and federal levels to force insurers to make payments,” according to the New York Times. The insurance industry has argued that its policies never promised this kind of coverage in the first place and that fulfilling all of these requests would bankrupt the industry.

In an effort to save irreplaceable venues like the Sweetwater, more than 1,300 venues and promoters for the likes of Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, the Fox Theater in Oakland9:30 Club in Washington, D.C. and World Cafe Live in Philadelphia have formed the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA). The organization retained powerhouse lobbying firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld to seek tax relief and more flexible loan programs. 

“I’ve been impressed at how quickly they activated and how much they’ve been doing,” Flach says of NIVA. “It’s nice to feel that there a community around the independent venues.”

The organization is leaning on the overall impact of live music as an “economic multiplier,” a powerful force whose events have positive ripple effects on surrounding businesses like restaurants, retail shops and hotels. According to a 2017 study from the National Endowment for the Arts, the value added by arts and culture to the U.S. economy is “five times greater than the value of the agricultural sector.”

The value added by arts and culture to the U.S. economy is “five times greater than the value from the agricultural sector” (2017 study by The National Endowment for the Arts)

Flach says she appreciates the longtime local support for the Sweetwater and longs for a return to some sense of normalcy.

“It’s two month since we closed, and we’re still largely in the same place we were then,” she says. “We can’t wait to get back to live music here in Mill Valley.”

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