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As Venues Vie for Government Financial Relief, Time Is Running Out

With both chambers of Congress back in Washington D.C., music industry organizations such as the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) are continuing their fight to secure federal funding for clubs and venues teetering on the edge of closing.

The political situation remains fairly similar to when the House and Senate left last month without passing a second Covid-19 relief bill. Though with four additional weeks of mounting bills, the stakes for venues have only gotten higher. The loss of independent venues not only threatens a key segment of the live music ecosystem, but would likely have a ripple effect that rattles other nearby businesses, like restaurants and bars, that thrive in part because of their symbiotic relationship with venues.

“Hundreds of venues have gone under so far,” Audrey Fix Schaefer, the head of communications for several D.C.-area venues and a representative for NIVA, tells Rolling Stone. “I think there are a lot of others that have been just holding on, totally white knuckle, in hopes of this funding to come through. And they keep waiting and waiting, but there comes a time when that wait is going to stop.”

The two bills that will meet the demands of the live music industry remain the Save Our Stages Act and the Restart Act. Save Our Stages, introduced by Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas and Democrat Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, is tailored specifically to independent venue operators, promoters and talent representatives. It includes $10 billion in grant funding and does not come with some of the restrictive provisions in the CARES Act passed in March that made Paycheck Protection Program loans for small businesses financially unfeasible for independent venues.

A key tenet of those PPP loans was forgiveness if businesses spent 75 percent on payroll; but for shuttered venues, there are few-to-no employees, and thus no payroll to cover. Yet venues, even when closed, remain stuck with an array of huge costs, including mortgage payments, utilities and insurance. With the Save Our Stages Act, venues would be able to put federal funding towards those costs to stay afloat until it’s safe for concerts to happen again.

“Small venues were some of the first to close their doors, and I know the prospect of re-opening is becoming even more difficult as this pandemic continues to grip the country,” Klobuchar tells Rolling Stone. “But we can’t let the music die. Save our Stages has growing bipartisan support, and Senator Cornyn and I continue to work with colleagues on both sides of the aisle to ensure aid for small venues is included in any pandemic relief package.”

“My hope is that we’ll come together and pass one last bill at least before the election,” Cornyn said during a Facebook live session Thursday about the bill with Texas musician Josh Abbott. “We’re only forty-seven days out, but it will include the Save Our Stages Act. Again, we need to extend the PPP Program; the President said he would also like to have direct payments like we did before to individuals, and re-up some of the unemployment benefits, and we can’t do that unless we pass another bill.”

Meanwhile, the Restart Act, which was introduced in both the House and the Senate, isn’t specifically geared towards the music industry, but it broadly focuses on businesses — like venues — that have high overhead and no revenue during the pandemic. And while it is a PPP bill, it doesn’t dictate the percentage that has to go to payroll and offers up to 90 percent forgiveness on loans to companies with high revenue loss.

Not all acts are considered equal for venues, though. PPP programs contained in bills like the HEROES Act (which the House has already passed), the Senate Democrats’ P4 Act and Senate Republicans’ HEALS Act are far less helpful. These, too, require most loans to be put towards payroll, as opposed to overhead costs. They also penalize businesses that rely on large numbers of part-time employees, come with restrictions that make loan forgiveness difficult and do not provide the long-term support venues need, as many claim they cannot open at full capacity until there’s a vaccine. Additionally, a bill put forward by the bipartisan Problem Solvers caucus in the House — which President Donald Trump expressed some light support for on Thursday — contains no PPP provisions that would be beneficial to venues.

While congressional gridlock has been the hallmark of the Covid relief saga, Save Our Stages Act has drawn significant bipartisan support, garnering 42 co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle in the Senate (including 12 republicans), and 120 in the House. But it’s unlikely, Schaefer says, that SOS would be passed as a standalone bill. The hope remains, should the deadlock break on some sort of relief package, that provisions from Save Our Stages or Restart would be folded into the final bill.

In the meantime, NIVA organizers have been directing fans who want to support local venues to SaveOurStages.com, where they can send a letter to their congresspeople expressing support for the bill. (Schaefer says they’ve already had nearly 2 million emails sent to Congress, which is astronomically more than the 50,000 or so NIVA’s lobbyist said would mark a successful campaign.) Fans are also encouraged to buy gift cards, merch or even declining to take a refund on shows that were canceled because of the pandemic. NIVA has set up an emergency fund on its website that’s helping venues stay afloat as they continue to await federal assistance.

Without federal assistance, though, the coming months could be devastating for independent venues nationwide. Schaefer points to Birdland, the legendary jazz club on 42nd Street in New York City that celebrated its 70th anniversary last December.

“I was talking to the manager and he said if something doesn’t come through in the next month or so, they’re just not going to continue,” Schaefer says. “The owner is in his mid 70s, and this is his retirement. For him to pay the rent, on that street, for an empty building, to hold on for hope that we don’t know will come — he just can’t do it anymore. There’s no amount of history, of being legendary, beloved and iconic that will save you from the future. People naturally assume, ‘Oh, Birdland, how could that go under?’ Well, do the math.”

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