Live Music in Peril as Congress Leaves for Recess Without Covid-19 Relief Bill

The fate of the live music industry — along with that of millions of other small businesses and unemployed Americans — remains up in the air now that both chambers of Congress have left Washington D.C. for their August recess without passing a new Covid-19 relief bill.

After weeks of fruitless negotiations between Democratic congressional leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell adjourned the Senate on Thursday. That chamber is not expected to return until September 8th, while the House of Representatives, which had already left D.C., won’t return until September 14th. It’s only on the off chance that negotiators manage to break their deadlock could Congress be recalled for a vote before those dates.

The key impasse remains over just how much the next relief package will be, with the White House and Republicans refusing to go above approximately $1 trillion, and the Democrats seeking at least $2 trillion, per MSNBC. Without a deal, millions of Americans will go without enhanced unemployment benefits, while small and independent businesses — including those in the music industry — will be left in the lurch and in danger of closing for good.

Over the past few weeks, music industry organizations like the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) and the National Independent Talent Organization (NITO) — both of which sprung up in response to the pandemic — have been lobbying for two bills: the Restart Act and the Save Our Stages Act. The Restart Act, introduced in both the House and Senate, isn’t specifically tailored to the music industry, but broadly focuses on businesses with high overhead and no revenue during the pandemic — a category that includes live music. The Save Our Stages Act, introduced by Senators John Cornyn of Texas and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, would have specifically provided six months of financial support to independent venue operators, promoters and talent reps.

“While Congress is playing politics, Americans and American small businesses are suffering,” says Audrey Fix Schaefer, the head of communications for several Washington D.C.-area venues and a representative for NIVA. “This isn’t a game, we need help. We need Congress to step up now and come to a deal so our country can get through this. It’s excruciating. So many venues are on the brink of closing and making them wait for assistance could do them in. The government shut independent venues down when the pandemic hit since we’re gathering places — which we understand — but they need to do the right thing and help us now so we can get back on our feet and reopen when it’s safe.”

Without any kind of aid, many independent venues and talent businesses are in danger of shutting down completely, which would devastate a crucial sector of the live music ecosystem and open up the door to monopolization.

“If a promoter only has three options of agents to reach out to, that can be dangerous,” says Nadia Prescher, co-founder of the booking and management agency Madison House, and a founding member of NITO. “That can spike ticket prices, or force artists into venues they don’t want to play. Once you’re in a monopoly scenario, that can honestly change quite a bit of the dynamics. And it can take away freedoms that people don’t even realize they have right now.”

Hank Sacks, a booking agent at Partisan Arts and co-founder of NITO, emphasizes just how dire the situation is: “Concert venues have revitalized neighborhoods in American cities, and if they close and there’s a condominium building that’s put up in their place, the venues aren’t coming back,” he says. “Cultural institutions that are some of the most important places to all of us — where memories are made, where we make friends, where we see our bands, gather together — they’re gonna be gone. And the bands that I work with, this is where my bands start. Bands don’t start out playing in arenas. They start out at the 200-capacity club on the corner, and then they grow into the thousand-capacity room, the theater and then hopefully to arenas. When that ecosystem is gone, it’s going to do permanent damage to the music business that we’re not going to be able to get it back.”