The ‘Save Our Stages Act’ could keep local music venues alive

Jul 29, 2020 at 10:51 am
Margo Price at Headliners.  |  Photo by Nik Vechery.
Margo Price at Headliners. | Photo by Nik Vechery.

The pandemic has the potential to be a nuclear bomb to the concert industry, leading to the closure of hundreds of small and mid-sized venues across the country, but last week there was a reason for optimism when the Save Our Stages Act was introduced to the U.S. Senate. The bipartisan bill, if passed, would establish a $10 billion grant program to help independent venue operators, promoters and producers pay for a variety of expenses that have stacked up during the COVID shutdown, including rent, utilities, mortgage payments, taxes and payroll.

The Save Our Stages Act could be the “Hail Mary” that the industry has been hoping for, according to Billy Hardison, co-owner of Headliners Music Hall and the Kentucky precinct captain for the National Independent Venue Association, or NIVA, a group of concert halls and industry leaders that have joined together to lobby Congress.

“The timing of this is great — we’re all sort of starting to run on fumes,” Hardison told LEO. “It’s getting scary. Every day more venues close, just like we see with other businesses and restaurants. It’s going to take a major relief package to get the job done.”

In March, the live music industry came to a halt with the outbreak of COVID-19, and the vast majority of concerts, festivals and tours remain shut down. Venue operators and promoters have been scrambling to reschedule shows amidst an ever-changing and unpredictable situation, which has sent many spiraling into major monetary losses. The Save Our Stages Act, in theory, would provide six months of financial support to businesses that qualify, which would hopefully get indie venues to the other side of the economic turmoil caused by the virus.

Dayna Frank, president of NIVA and CEO  of First Avenue Productions, said that without a stimulus directed at small concert halls, the entire landscape of the live music industry would be affected.

“Our members told us months ago that if the shutdown lasted six months or longer and there wasn’t federal relief to hold them over, 90% of them would fold permanently,” Frank said in a press release. “With no revenue and immense overhead, four months in, it’s already happening. The warning light is flashing red and our only hope is for legislation like Save Our Stages Act or RESTART Act to be passed before Congress goes on August recess. Otherwise, most businesses in this industry will collapse.”

Can the bill pass?

The bill was introduced in the Republican-controlled Senate by bipartisan sponsors — Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota. After a vote there, it would have to make it through the Democrat-controlled House and then to President Trump’s desk.

U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell did not respond to a request for comment.

Although on opposite sides of the political aisle, Cornyn and Klobuchar issued statements that echo each other about the importance of local music, because of its history and its future, in their respective states.

And Texas and Minnesota definitely have two iconic scenes with similarities. Texas has made invaluable contributions to country, hip-hop, psych-rock and other genres.

Cornyn said in a statement: “The culture around Texas dance halls and live music has shaped generations, and this legislation would give them the resources to reopen their doors and continue educating and inspiring Texans beyond the coronavirus pandemic.”

Minnesota boasts a deep and diverse indie scene, and, of course a giant in Prince.

Klobuchar said in a statement: “Minnesota’s concert halls, theatres, and places of entertainment, like First Avenue in Minneapolis, where Prince famously performed, have inspired generations with the best of local music, art, and education.”

Every state has a storied musical past, which is most likely why financial relief for indie venues has gained bipartisan support. In May, LEO obtained a letter that was circling among members of Congress, championing for action similar to what the Save Our Stages Act would provide, and it was sponsored by two members of the House and two members of the Senate — a Republican and Democrat from each chamber.

U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Louisville, said he supports the Act, but he also brought up recent, similar legislation that he feels has been stalled by McConnell.

“Independent venues that rely on ticket sales and a flood of people through their doors have not only been hit hard by COVID shutdowns, they likely will be one of the last areas of our business community to reopen and reopen fully. These venues are a critically important part of the Louisville economy and culture, which is why I have raised these concerns directly with House Leadership. There are provisions in the House-passed HEROES Act that would help, but Senator McConnell has blocked this legislation for more than two months. We must do more, including enacting the Save Our Stages Act, or Louisville’s thriving arts and music scene will be one of the biggest economic losses of this pandemic.”

Small venues build community and stars

Without small venues, it’s hard for a city to have a thriving music scene. And without a thriving music scene, it’s hard to get bands to the level where they can record and successfully release albums, tour and maybe even be able to achieve critical and financial success. A music scene is an ecosystem and different-size venues help artists build from the bottom up. The small, indie venues tend to act as cultural nerve centers, places for new scenes and bands to emerge and possibly grow.

That’s why hundreds of famous and rising musicians signed and sent a letter June 18 to Congress asking for federal assistance to be granted to indie venues. The letter, which was signed by Billie Eilish, Neil Young, Mavis Staples, Robert Plant, André 3000, among others, stated: “Entertainment is America’s largest economic export, with songs written and produced by American artists sung in every place on the globe. All of these genres of music, and the artists behind them, were able to thrive because they had neighborhood independent venues to play in and hone their craft, build an audience, and grow into the entertainers that bring joy to millions.”

Here in Louisville, there’s a vibrant and storied indie scene that spans decades and genres, one that still consistently delivers an incredible amount of original music for a mid-sized city.  Jim James, frontman for My Morning Jacket, a local band that achieved global notoriety around the turn of the millennium, said that has a lot to do with the city’s stages.   

“I cannot stress enough the importance of saving our local venues so that live music can continue and thrive once it is safe to do so again,” James said in a statement to LEO. “Local businesses are the heartbeat of what makes each town special and unique and, as a touring artist, local venues are so critical to the development and survival of art and music, not to mention all of the amazing service industry professionals who work in those venues’ restaurants and bars making those places so special and taking good care of us all. Local venues give us all a great place to share ideas and connect with one another. MMJ would have never made it outside of Louisville had we not had the wonderful small venues and business we had to perform in learning and growing up and still enjoy to this day. Let’s do all we can to get assistance to those who need it during these difficult times to keep hope alive.”