Stone Church

Robin Johnson, owner of the Stone Church in Brattleboro, is leading a regional chapter of the National Independent Venue Association. 

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BRATTLEBORO — Regional chapters of the National Independent Venue Association are sprouting up, and who better than Robin Johnson to lead the one for New England?

Johnson, who runs The Stone Church in downtown Brattleboro, has been involved with NIVA since May 2020 after the need for starting the association became apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic. He has worked on the membership committee and on some advocacy issues.

Recently, Johnson was named president of the regional chapter representing New England.

“I’ve just been there consistently, is one of the main reasons,” he said. “And in theory, I’m somewhat competent.”

JJ Gonson of ONCE Somerville in Massachusetts is the chapter’s vice president. Lauren Wayne of State Theatre in Portland, Maine, is the secretary.

“Right now,” Johnson said, “we’re busy just trying to first build up membership again.”

Since NIVA started, the association has gone through different membership sign-up periods. At first, the effort was about trying to get as many venues and promoters involved as possible. Later, as federal grant funding became available, more detailed criteria was developed.

In the fall, NIVA began taking membership dues based on ticket sales going back to 2020, before the pandemic. Previously run by all volunteers, the association now has a few paid staff members at the national office.

Regional chapters have begun to convene.

“We’ll be able to better serve the regional differences we have,” said Johnson. “This way ... we can focus on those, report back to the national office, then bring back information to our chapter members.”

Johnson sees similarities between New England, the Pacific Northwest and some urban centers, where the population is highly vaccinated and there have been a lot of restrictions put in place by the state, locality or venues, and there has been a high rate of people not showing up for live events.

In order to get members to join and pay dues, Johnson said, “we’re highlighting a lot of the different things NIVA has done besides the Save Our Stages Act because that was obviously the primary focus for the first year and a half and what we’re really known for.”

A special membership rate is available for venues to use Bindle, an app for event attendees to show COVID-19 tests and proof of vaccination.

The association also is negotiating with performing rights organizations (PROs) such as BMI and ASCAP. Johnson said in the past, rates could be very high for smaller acts.

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“We’re working on making PROs more equitable for artists and less burdensome for venues,” he said.

NIVA Care, a health insurance portal, recently was launched to offer health care plans.

“For us, it’s very similar to the Vermont Health Connect group so there may not be a better option,” Johnson said, referring to the state’s insurance marketplace. “But this is universal to everyone in NIVA, so any venue or promoter throughout the country. Anyone they put into the organization, contract or 1099 workers, can access this portal. It’s a major expansion in access for workers in the performing arts.”

Johnson said before federal grants were made available to venues, NIVA raised millions of dollars through its Save Our Stages Fest and major partnerships. The association created an emergency relief fund known as National Independent Venue Foundation, which still has money left over.

Now, the fund will help venues in ways unrelated to the pandemic. Applications will be accepted on “a rolling basis throughout the year and reviewed as received on a case-by-case basis” by a committee under the direction of the foundation’s board of directors, according to a statement issued Wednesday.

“While this initially started as a COVID-19 thing,” Johnson said, “the idea is to transition the foundation’s emergency relief fund to be able to help venues and promoters in any kind of emergency situation similar to FEMA.”

He sees tornadoes in the Great Plains, wildfires in Colorado, and hurricanes in Florida as examples where the aid would be useful.

Johnson called the association “a primary support group for many of us.” He said in the beginning of the pandemic, it became clear the industry is so much different than others.

Having a group to consistently check in with proved to be helpful.

“Everyone is going through the same thing and we’re able to share the experiences on the local advocacy level,” Johnson said. “It’s an amazing networking opportunity for the industry.”

Regional chapters will have some autonomy. Johnson said the groups will have their own fundraisers and events.

As of Tuesday, other Vermont venues in the chapter include ArtsRiot and Higher Ground in Burlington. Currently, many of its members are based in the Boston area.

Johnson said he’s “bugging folks in the Pioneer Valley” in Massachusetts about signing on. Meetings are being held via Zoom for now and the first national NIVA conference is scheduled for July. Johnson expects the chapter to meet in the spring.

“That will probably be our first big meeting where we hopefully get a lot of venues and promoters together,” he said. “We’re currently thinking about doing quarterly meetings and then two in-person events per year to bring as many people from the region together as we can.”