Finally, after months of what seemed unconscionable political jockeying amidst a global pandemic and economic crisis, this week Congress and the White House approved a long-awaited COVID-19 Relief Package. Beyond providing greatly needed assistance to many financially-strapped Americans, the omnibus legislation includes the Save Our Stages Act, which allotted some $15 billion for independent venues, promoters, managers and agents to be shared with movie theaters and cultural institutions. For those in the hard-pressed independent venue sector, the funding is a lifeline and great news for a vital and beloved part of the live industry; but for a majority of the larger live industry, they won’t see a nickel.
“Save Our Stages was like landing at the beach in Omaha, but we still have to get to Paris,” says Michael Strickland owner of Bandit Lites, a lighting company out of Knoxville, Tenn. “It does not cover the majority of our industry.” Many of whom are in as much of a dire need for financial assistance as the independents were.
Since the pandemic began last March, Strickland has cut something of a “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” figure, fiercely advocating for the industry, sending out daily updates on the progress and challenges facing the industry and meeting with Senators and Congressional representatives. On Dec. 15, he testified on Capitol Hill at a hearing entitled “Examining the Impact of COVID-19 on the Live Event Entertainment Industry” overseen by the Subcommittee on Manufacturing, Trade, and Consumer Protection in which he spoke of the great need facing the entire live industry.
“The independents venues, promoters and managers make up only a portion of the live industry,” Strickland told Pollstar the day after the legislation passed. “The majority of live event operators, promoters, talent reps and production companies don’t qualify for the Save Our Stages aid.” This primarily because the bill denies aid to independent contractors as well as businesses which meet any of the following criteria: they are a publicly traded company; have offices in more than one country; have 500 or more employees; received 10% or more of their funding from the federal government (which now can receive funding if a majority of the bookings are performances); or have offices in more than ten states. (Full text of the bill and Save Our Stages Act, which starts on page 201, can be read here.)
A “partial list” of companies and vocations part of the live ecosystem not eligible for Save Our Stages funding compiled by Strickland, include: “Artists, Performers and Musicians, Sound, Lighting, Video, Pyrotechnics, Lasers, Caterers, Rigging, Trucking, Busing, Staging, Wardrobe, Designers, Dancers, Festivals, Tours, Corporate Shows, Trade Shows, Conventions, Speakers, TV Studios and Stations, Radio Stations, Film, Theme Parks and attractions, Labor Companies, Freelance workers, Circuses, Fairs, Rodeos, Water Shows, Freight, Power, Radio Stations, Manufacturers, and many others.”
“For many in the live events industry this is a band-aid on a large cut,” stated Jeanne Moran, spokesperson for the Save Live Events Now (#SLEN) coalition which issued a press release following congressional passage of Save Our Stages. “It helps to cover a portion of the cut, but doesn’t stop the bleeding,” The live industry coalition #SLEN represents includes Live Nation, AEG Presents, WME, CAA, UTA, Paradigm and Feld Entertainment as well as SAG-AFTRA, Universal Music Group and The Grammys (as well as Oak View Group, Pollstar’s parent company).
Moran shared a “score sheet,” on the still-not passed aid packages that noted several deficiencies, which primarily noted that “Millions of live event workers are either directly employed or affiliated with?medium to small-sized?venues?that are not independently operated. This bill does not provide financial relief for those venues – and major employers –?which essentially?punishes workers based on where they work.”
Brad Mayne, President and CEO, International Association of Venue Managers (IAVM), says Save Our Stages is a “step in the right direction” but explains that the bill still leaves most of the industry out in the cold. “We appreciate that members of Congress have recognized the importance of venues,” Mayne says. “We’re grateful to the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) for spearheading and moving that forward and really grateful that we finally got members of Congress to recognize that public venues needed assistance as well.” This he says while noting that only “a portion of the venues will benefit from this new bill, not the majority.” IAVM represents of some 1,200 venues, including amphitheaters, fairgrounds, universities, stadiums, arenas, performing arts theaters and other venues. Those venues that have a majority of dates used for sporting events, as Mayne points out, are not eligible for assistance.
“In the last week I’ve received hundreds of calls from people who thought this bill would help them,” Strickland says. “This morning I took a phone call from the owner of a major live industry company who was literally crying—and I get a lot of those—because he’s gone from a company of 70 or 80 people to a company of three.”
Part of the concern stems from the larger relief package and PPP (paycheck protection program) which presents a quandary for some companies. “Why would a business bring people back who he can only pay for eight to ten weeks only to let them go again,” Strickland asks. “In most cases, these employees got other jobs at Home Depot or something and they don’t want to give that up for temporary employment.”
Additionally, part of the PPP program mandates that if 60% is not used for payroll and other specified uses it converts into a low interest loan, which many businesses now can’t afford to take on. Also, the PUA (the pandemic unemployment assistance) program, provides only another 11 weeks of help. “Those who are helped by PPP and PUA will again be out of money at the end of March, with 3 to 4 months still to go before a possible opening,” Strickland says. “These people are furious.”
– Senator Amy Klobuchar
When Senator Amy Klobuchar, co-sponsor of the Save Our Stages Act with Texas Senator John Cornyn, was asked about the bill’s shortcomings and the RESTART Act, the Senator told Pollstar that SOS “helps the whole industry and everyone, because they’ll stay alive and open, they won’t go under, so then the lighting operators have a place to work, eventually. But the RESTART Act would help the individual businesses associated and I’m a fan of that, though. It’s just that that bill, with this Congress and with this President and with some of the limits, we were unable to push that bill into the packet.”
The Restart Act was introduced last May by Senators Young and Bennett (when it was called Reviving the Economy Sustainably Towards a Recovery in 2020) and would allow U.S. businesses with under 5,000 employees obtain a seven-year low-interest loan of up to 45% of their 2019 revenue. Businesses wouldn’t have to pay anything back in the first year and would then pay 1% interest for the term of the loan. 90% of its forgivable if spent on payroll, rent, utilities, loan interest, PPE and other mandated uses.
“You always want to have a number of alternatives, because you don’t know how much money there’s going to be and what’s going to happen,” Senator Klobuchar said of RESTART. “It’s very obvious there’s going to be a second package next year. Joe Biden wants to do it. And that would be a great place to put the RESTART Act, depending on where the economy is. I have another bill for startups, because the startups have been in a huge slump. So you could do that, have more forward looking [bills] for the economy at that time, including some version of the RESTART Act.”
Meanwhile, many in the industry who were left out of this bill are hoping the broad coalition that helped pass Save Our Stages, which was spearheaded by the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) and which did a spectacular job advocating, enlisting artists, coalition building, grassroots organizing, fundraising and galvanizing public opinion, will continue to advocate for the larger industry in the same way that much of the rest of the industry supported Save Our Stages.
“We’re so grateful that independent venues, promoters, agents and managers have been given this lifeline, and PPP is available to all businesses and 1099 contractors,” said NIVA’s communications director Audrey Fix Schaefer when asked about those left out of Save Our Stages. “Of course we’re hoping others in the industry get the help they need, too, which is why we were one of the earliest proponents of RESTART and have pushed hard for PUA and continue to push for mixed earner unemployment compensation at the state level. It’s clear that all aspects of the music ecosystem have to be able to function when the world opens up again.”