The only real bright spot for live music in 2020 was that the National Independent Venue Association tirelessly fought for a dying industry forced to shutter for months because of the COVID-19 pandemic. After endless congressional delays, partisan gridlock, and torpedoed negotiations thanks in part to President Trump's grandstanding, the Senate finally struck a deal and passed another stimulus package on December 21. Included in the $900 billion Coronavirus Response and Relief Act Supplemental Appropriations Act, along with direct checks, further unemployment assistance, and targeted aid to small businesses was Section 324: Grants For Shuttered Venue Operators, better known as the Save Our Stages Act. It's the one piece of legislation NIVA lobbied for the most last year, a legislative victory that's a testament to the new organizations hard-fought organizing and lobbying efforts.
With 92 senators voting for the omnibus legislation, the oft-cited survey that 90 percent of independent venues would be forced to shutter without federal assistance is no longer a doomsday inevitability but a crisis averted. "We're not out of the woods yet, but it is so much better than how we were feeling in 2020," said Audrey Fix Schaefer, spokesperson for NIVA. While originally intended as a $10 billion bill targeted at music venues with under 500 employees, congress secured $15 billion in funding so it could cover more types of entertainment businesses that have been hit hardest from the pandemic. "They put similar businesses like independent movie theaters and independent stage theaters under the same act and made the pool of money allocated available to them too," said Fix Schaefer.
While its scope is expanded, the Save Our Stages Act still works the way it was originally intended. As VICE explained of NIVA's efforts in July, the bill is a "grant program for live venue operators, promoters, producers, and talent representatives" where qualified recipients can use the money for "rent, utilities, mortgage obligations, taxes, maintenance, paying contractors, and any COVID-related expense, whether it's procuring PPE or expenditures to meet local and state and state guidelines." In practice, the payments are scheduled and tiered so that the venues most affected by the pandemic can get the money first. "Congress set up a schedule by which entities that have experienced 90 percent or more revenue loss are able to apply to the Small Business Administration for these grants in the first two weeks of the program launching," said Fix Schaefer. Following the first wave, venues with 70 percent or more revenue loss can apply in the second set of two weeks, while the final round applies to entities with at least 25 percent revenue loss.
Additionally, Congress has set aside $2 billion of the allocated funds in the Save Our Stages act for the smallest venues that have under 50 employees. "It wasn't just about getting funding," said Fix Schaefer. "It was about making sure it was done fairly and that the money went to the right hands." This is an important point as the Save Our Stages Act cuts out publicly traded companies like LiveNation, multinational corporations like AEG, and companies that have a presence in 10 or more states. The reason for their exclusion is good politics and good policy. It would be a terribly bad look to give funding to corporations that don't need it a lift, especially as Billboard explains, "Publicly traded companies like Live Nation have access to capital markets, while AEG officials have already announced that the company will borrow money from its billionaire owner Phil Anschutz to cover losses."
Though the bill is passed and help is on the way, no venue has seen any money from this stimulus package yet and there's no set date on when they can expect relief. "We don't know any of that yet," said Fix Schaefer. "The Small Business Administration has to make the rules, regulations and the forms for these grants. They know how dire it is for all the entities that are applying and there's a motivation to get the money to them efficiently and expeditiously." In the meantime, which hopefully will only be a matter of weeks, NIVA has raised over $3 million for its own Emergency Relief Fund to tide over the venues in most dire straits before they can get federal funding (companies like Anheuser-Busch, Spotify, and Jagermeister have all donated to NIVA). "We've had about $14 million of requests, and we only had $3 million raised, so we're trying to generate more," said Fix Schaefer.
The Save Our Stages Act sends a critical lifeline and short-term relief to an industry that would've been totally decimated without any federal assistance (NIVA estimates that over 300 music venues permanently closed in 2020), but there's still a long road ahead for live music's safe return. Sen. Klobuchar and other top Democrats have signaled the need for further stimulus, which NIVA supports, especially expanded pandemic unemployment. "The biggest challenges in 2021 will be to secure the federal funding as well as turn to reopening," said Fix Schaefer. Over the past weekend, Dr. Anthony Fauci said that theaters and other venues could return in the fall "if everything goes right" with vaccine distribution, virus cases, and herd immunity. That's a huge if, but no matter what, NIVA is going to use its organizing efforts to fight for independent venues and coordinate resources to help them safely reopen when they can.