Live Venues Plead For Aid As Congress Returns To Session

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– Commitment to America
House Republicans gathered to introduce their proposed legislative agenda, called the “Commitment to America,” at the U.S. Capitol Sept. 15 in Washington, D.C. The Republicans promised the legislative plan would renew the economy, but venues across the country are pleading for immediate aid.
With its August recess officially concluded, Congress has returned to session and talks about potential aid packages – which could potentially save thousands of live industry businesses, particularly venues – have resumed. 
Sources tell that the “skinny” bill, a potential aid package that did not include language from the RESTART Act (instead emphasizing a continuation of the Federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program) was voted down, pushing back the timeline on any possible relief. The bi-partisan Problem Solvers Caucus, led by Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) left, and Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.) proposed a $1.5 trillion, loosely outlined series of recommendations on Sept. 15, but sources tell Pollstar that bill also appears to move away from the language detailed in RESTART Act, instead opting for more PPP. 
Rep. Mike Thompson (D-CA) told a collection of San Francisco Bay Area venues on a conference call on Sept. 15 that Speaker Of The House Nancy Pelosi communicated to the Democratic Caucus of the House that a COVID relief bill was sorely needed and the House will remain in Washington until a bill is passed. 
House Republicans put forth a “Commitment To America” bill on Sept. 15, claiming the bill will renew the U.S. economy, and Pelosi recently told media she believes a deal will get done. Congress is also under pressure to approve a budget to fund the government for the next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.
Even with promises of a deal on the horizon, the question of “When?” is on the minds of thousands of live business owners across the country. A coalition of groups representing U.S. agents, venues, production companies and other businesses wrote a letter to Congress on Sept. 16 imploring the representatives to provide federal aid immediately, coining the hashtag #DoNotAbandonUs.
Pollstar spoke with several independent venue owners who confirmed a need for immediate aid.
“From a political perspective, we get a lot of lip service, but no real action, especially from our local government or state governments,” Robert Gomez, owner of the venues Subterranean, Beat Kitchen and Underbar in Chicago, told Pollstar. “How many dead venues do you need before you act? Maybe that’s what they need to see before they do something. Even to get the mayor to sign a letter of support for the SOS act, just to send it to federal politicians, that should be easy right, but she took three weeks to do it. I don’t know how much noise we can make before we start losing businesses. It’s so unbelievably frustrating.”
Gomez and Robert Mercurio – bassist for Galactic and co-owner of Tipitina’s in New Orleans – told Pollstar at their current pace, they estimate a hard deadline of Nov. 1 before their own respective venues will require major influxes of funding from outside sources or potential changes in ownership.
“It’s amazing how many people are clueless to how Main Street is hurting right now. We’ve been closed since March 11 and have no reopening in sight. Zero income with high overhead is a lot to get around,” Mercurio told Pollstar. “Every day the government fails to provide relief is just one more day of worry and a day closer to closing. It’s becoming a very real possibility.”
Mercurio said  so many people reached out to express love and support for Tipitina’s during the pandemic that he believes it will find a way to go on with or without Galactic – and it has had multiple owners throughout its history. The club put on a season of Tipitina’s TV through and is planning a second one, but said those shows cost money to stage and are mostly for the artists and crew, as the profit margins on those would not be enough to cover fixed costs of rent, utilities, insurance and salaries. The venue is also taking donations and selling merch, as he says small contributions do help ownership during this period.
Gomez said PPP loans already provided and currently being considered by Congress will not help his current situation.
“I’ve done the math and if you start out in a bigger hole than you were in before (by retaining staff while unable to generate revenue) then it is not helping,” Gomez said. “We need some sort of window on property tax. … Also, if I can get funding then I can pay the bank or perhaps Congress can force the banks to at least work with us. If the local, state, federal government wanted to get creative, they could easily help – but they don’t.
“Do I have to refinance my home? Do I have to take funds out of my kids’ college fund? These are things that go through my head every day. How am I going to do this and for how long?”
A musician himself, Mercurio says not being able to perform has left a huge emotional and economic void in his life – but, “we know once it’s safe, Galactic will go back to touring. But with the club there’s much more on the line and it’s much more uncertain what the future holds.” He went on to explain that while Live Nation and AEG-owned venues would likely have the bankroll and resources to wait out the pandemic, independent venues fulfill an important role in the ecosystem and he would view venues selling to major promoters as a net loss for the industry.
Another musician who expressed concern about the lack of government aid is Bob Weir, who told the group of Bay Area venues he worried many industry workers will leave the field if they can’t be taken care of during this period. 
Bill Clark / CQ-Roll Call, Inc / Getty Images
– Problem Solvers
Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., left, and Rep. Tom Reed, R-N.Y., co-chairs of the bi-partisan Problem Solvers Caucus, speak outside the Capitol in Washington, D.C., Sept. 15. The Problem Solvers Caucus is an effort to drum up support for small businesses, though at press time it seemed to intentionally be omitting language from the RESTART Act in its proposals.

“The people who populate this industry – musicians, writers, crews, staff – all of these people that make the industry happen, they can’t just hide under a rock until this all blows over,” Weir said. “They are going to have to start architecting a way of making a living that may be more dependable if we can’t provide relief for them. And we may not get all of those folks back. 
Even if they found fulfillment in what brought them to this industry, if they can’t depend on it, they’re going to think twice about coming back once the COVID scourge goes away.”
Ryan Paternite, who has programmed music at Birdland Jazz Club & Birdland Theater in New York for 25 years, told Pollstar that despite the jazz club’s more than 70-year history as a cultural institution he has a hard time seeing it staying afloat without immediate aid. 
“We laid off 60 employees in March and we have some revenue from the streaming concert program ‘Radio Free Birdland,’ but we have no reason to rent 8,000 square feet in Times Square if we can’t do business. Our landlord has been pretty cool in working out a short term percentage rent deal but again, there’s no reason to stay in business if we can’t sell tickets,” Paternite told Pollstar. “We have no debt and could limp along for a while even though our PPP has just about run out – but the owner is 72 years old and can‘t see him investing his retirement savings in rent for a closed business. So, yes, Save Our Stages legislation is a requirement for us to continue.”
Ken Tesler, Managing Director of Blue Note Napa and JaM Cellars Ballroom, said on the call with Bay Area venues that his businesses are a major economic driver for multiple sectors and if rooms start to close (potentially in the next few months), it will have long-lasting consequences.
“We present over 200 shows per year,” Tesler said. “That’s thousands of musicians who benefit financially from playing in our small venues each year. These venues have also become somewhat of an economic engine for our community, bringing tens – if not hundreds – of thousands of dollars [into other businesses]. … These bills really could be the difference maker, not just for my business but businesses like it across the country.”
A NIVA representative told Pollstar there are several key House Representatives and Senators that have yet to sign onto the Save Our Stages Act and it is actively trying to lobby: Reps. Steve Scalise (R-LA) and Nydia Vélazquez (D-NY) and Sens. John Kennedy (R-LA), Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Ben Cardin (D-MD). 
A source told Pollstar at press time 56 Senators supported the RESTART Act and if it was put forth as a standalone bill, it would likely pass.