The National Independent Venue Association sets the stage for its first conference in Cleveland

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Formed during the pandemic, the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) has forged an ongoing conversation and partnership among local independent performing arts venues. Now, leaders from those sites will gather in Cleveland for NIVA’s first-ever national conference.

Several preview events took place yesterday, including a welcome party at the Beachland Ballroom. But the main events of NIVA ’22 will take place on July 11 and 12 and will include workshops, panel discussions, impact studies and, of course, live music. The event takes place at the Music Box on Mondays and at Pickwick & Frolic on Tuesdays.

Sessions will explore a variety of topics, including venue collaborations with nonprofits, equity and programming, music festivals, selling more tickets, music incubators, and the changing nature of the marketing. Although much of the conversation revolves around live music, many discussions will apply to all performing arts, including theater and comedy.

Nick Kostis, owner of Pickwick and Frolic and Hilarities, said Cleveland was a perfect fit for the first-ever NIVA conference.

“We have the presence of not only the historical preparation of rock and roll history, but also, in the realm of comedy – I mean, we’ve spawned comedians as far back as Bob Hope in this community,” said Kostis said. “There is a kind of historical DNA.”

A Monday morning State of the Union welcome address will feature an introduction from Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb, according to Sean Watterson, owner of Happy Dog and vice president of NIVA’s Great Lakes Chapter. On Monday night, an awards ceremony will recognize venues and music industry professionals for their work during the pandemic, at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

The Rock Hall turned out to be a big part of the conference launch in Cleveland, Watterson said. Last year, NIVA partnered with Rock Hall to invite NIVA members from across the country to the induction ceremony.

“We didn’t just bring them to town and give them tickets. They gave them access to the room, Greg [Harris, President and CEO of the Rock Hall] shouted at us from the stage. Really, we had ulterior motives. We wanted that first conference, so we gave everyone a good time,” Watterson said. “The importance of getting everyone together at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, which we’re doing on Monday night, was just too appealing. It was a no-brainer for the folks at NIVA.

(Image courtesy of NIVA)

Local music will also be part of NIVA ’22. Falling Stars will perform as their house band at the Rock Hall Awards. Grief [A] BLKstar performed on the Sunday night pre-show at the Beachland Ballroom, along with Meshell Ndegeocello.

NIVA’s D Tour initiative, which offers musicians a network of NIVA clubs for touring routes, will feature bands from founding D Tour member cities at two Happy Dog concerts. Monday night, Discord Theory, Caleb Kopta, Lily DeTaeye and PAKG will perform, and Tuesday night, find The Babylonz, Oregon Space Trail of Doom, Soothsayers, Daisha McBride and Cavves. Both concerts are open to the public and tickets are $10.

The NIVA conference, on the other hand, costs $299 for NIVA members and $699 for non-members.

Since this week, 450 people have bought tickets for the conference, Watterson said. This two-day event will be the first time many NIVA members will meet in person, as their meetings have all been held virtually for the past two and a half years.

In these early meetings, the organization struggled to secure funding, following the pandemic’s devastation of independent venues. NIVA led the #SaveOurStages lobbying initiative and helped convince Congress to allocate $16 billion to the Small Business Administration for closed venue operator grants.

Now, NIVA will begin exploring other issues affecting independent sites across the country. Watterson said some potential projects for the organization will include considering using collective buying power to secure better commercial insurance rates, ensuring that funds from performing rights organizations reach performers and to consider secondary ticketing platforms with high fees.

Central to NIVA’s ongoing mission is a focus on the impact independent venues have on surrounding communities and their role as a springboard for performing artists.

“We’re not big corporate groups that book major venues after people have reached a certain stature in entertainment. We are those places where you catch people going uphill. This is where the Bruce Springsteens of the world emerge from,” Kostis said. “We are not the movers and shakers of this industry; we are the lifeline of this industry. Without these steps, where will they come from?

Watterson added, “Part of the reason I fought so hard to get the conference here is that we see this value and we want local people to see it… We are looking at all efforts to bring in manufacturing jobs intelligent and Intel factories in Ohio. And really, when you go back to the roots of today’s technology, in Austin, Texas and San Francisco, music and hospitality were there first.

For more information about the conference, visit

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