Congress Can Save Independent Venues if It Wants To

“The Save Our Stages Act is a critical lifeline,” said Joe Shanahan, the founder, owner, and operator of iconic Chicago venue Metro.
July 31, 2020, 11:00am
Metro Chicago - Save Our Stages by Joshua Mellin (@joshuamellin _ jdmellin@gmail
Photo: Joshua Mellin

This week, Maine's Port City Music Hall announced its permanent closure marking another irreparable loss in an already devastating list of cultural institutions shuttered. Independent venues urgently need a bailout. If no major legislation is passed before the Senate starts their recess, the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) estimates that 90 percent of independent venues would have to close in six months without federal assistance.

As Congress negotiates the details of a forthcoming stimulus package to combat the staggering economic damage of the pandemic, there are still no votes currently scheduled for sweeping legislation like the NIVA-backed RESTART Act. "Even the smartest people who've done this a million times before, like legislators and lobbyists we're working with, say that they can't give any solid predictions when there's going to be a vote and what happens next," NIVA Director of Communications Audrey Fix Schaefer told VICE. With no guarantee that relief is coming their way, organizations like NIVA and the National Independent Talent Organization (NITO) have been left to wait for action while lobbying for legislation that'll give their industries a lifeline.

The most promising proposed law comes in the Save Our Stages Act. Co-sponsored by Minnesota Democrat Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn, it's specifically tailored to the needs of independent venues. It creates a $10 billion grant program for live venue operators, promoters, producers, and talent representatives. Recipients can use these grants for costs like 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. It’s an extension of the [Paycheck Protection Program]—kind of like the airlines [bailout] was—to get at a particularly hard-hit industry that the PPP isn’t going to work for," Sen. Klobuchar wrote of the bill in a Rolling Stone op-ed.

While many independent scrambled to get the PPP, the loans' eight-week window wasn't suited for the prolonged shutdowns the industry is facing. "The Save Our Stages Act is a critical lifeline," said Joe Shanahan, the founder, owner, and operator of iconic Chicago venue Metro. Businesses like ours are eligible to collect no greater than 45% of their gross revenue of 2019. It's a very smart fiduciary equation as they use the numbers from 2019 to take us through 2020." Like the proposed RESTART Act, the Save Our Stages Act extends the PPP for six extra months of short-term economic relief. Also, it will issue supplemental grants after that period if funding remains available and applicants still need help.

Where the RESTART Act and the Save Our Stages Act differ is that the latter limits the size of eligible businesses to those with under 500 full-time employees, rather than 5000. "The PPP was a fumbled rollout, and we all know that so many big businesses grabbed a lot of that money," said Shanahan. "I mean, isn't this the Small Business Administration? The Save Our Stages Act ensures that a publicly-traded or Wall Street-funded company doesn’t receive this money." While it won't be the thing that guarantees the survival of every independent venue, it does target relief to independent venues who are suffering the most. "We can survive with either the RESTART Act or the Save Our Stages Act but the latter is tailored to our line of business," said Fix Schaefer.

Another bill proposed in the House also aims to help independent venues who have taken a loss on canceled shows. The Entertainment New Credit Opportunity for Relief & Economic Sustainability, or ENCORES Act, is backed by NIVA. Proposed by Wisconsin Democrat Rep. Ron Kind and Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Mike Kelly, the bill would provide tax credits worth 50% of each refunded ticket. For Fix Schaefer's company, I.M.P. which owns independent clubs like the 9:30 Club, Merriweather Post Pavilion, The Anthem, and Lincoln Theater, that relief would be considerable. "So far, we've had 222 canceled or postponed shows," said Fix Schaefer. "When you add all that, that is more than a quarter of a million tickets for just one company. The ENCORES Act addresses another one of the debilitating financial ramifications of this pandemic. It would be very meaningful to get that help."

Not every proposed fix helps independent venues. Fix Schaefer and NIVA warn that Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and Maine Republican Susan Collins' Continuing Small Business Recovery and Paycheck Protection Program Act locks out some of the places that need help most. Fix Schaefer says that many of the loans in this plan aren't forgivable, they don't allow for flexible use of funds that would cover high-cost rents and exclude businesses that rely on part-time workers as most indie venues do. "Rubio's plan also excludes seasonal businesses which means that amphitheaters, places that in most parts of the country are by definition seasonal, can't get the help," said Fix Schaefer. "We are working as fast and as hard as possible to explain a very complicated industry to people who have never needed to know about it before."

Independent venue owners like Shanahan aren't trying to rush back and potentially put their staff, fans, and performers at risk for a quick dollar. "We've accepted that we will not be open until there's a vaccine. Independent venues are economic engines as well as cultural agents and the Save Our Stages Act recognizes the fact," said Shanahan.  NIVA is currently responsible for 1.3 million emails that asked Congress to support legislation like the RESTART Act, the Save Our Stages Act, and the ENCORES Act, but more work needs to be done. "We've always been able to take care of ourselves but now we are under the gun," Fix Schaefer said. This is dire. We only have between now and when Congress goes on recess."