“We were the first to close and will be the last to reopen.”
Maggie Stevens, PR and marketing director for the Sheridan Arts Foundation, speaks for countless independently owned and operated performance venues across the country and in Colorado. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March, gathering indoors was among the first of many things ruled verboten by public health departments working feverishly to control the spread to the virus, which is transmitted primarily via respiratory droplets. Since live music and other performing arts events bring people into close contact in indoor venues, those venues were forced to shutter. Just shy of a year into the pandemic, many will never reopen. But now, there is hope with the recent passage of the Save Our Stages (SOS) Act.
Within weeks of the abrupt halt to live performances, the National Independent Venue Association was formed. The group began what would be a successful and concerted lobbying effort to support struggling performance arts venues and organizations or as NIVA describes itself, it was “formed as a trade association to lobby on behalf of its members and funding currently comes from corporate and business support.” Those efforts have resulted in the SOS Act, legislation that SBG Productions (Telluride Blues & Brews and Telluride Jazz Festival) Director of Operations Courtney McClary said was a “lifeline.” The bill — part of the Congressional Covid Relief package — according to the Congress’s website, “authorizes the Small Business Administration (SBA) to make grants to eligible live venue operators, producers, promoters, or talent representatives to address the economic effects of the COVID-19 (i.e., coronavirus disease 2019) pandemic on certain live venues.”
While application specifics are pending, McClary and others are thrilled.
“This is very exciting,” she said. “We’re waiting to get the paperwork and fill it out.”
According to NIVA, those eligible are live performance venue operators and promoters; performing arts organizations; theatrical producers; talent representatives; motion picture theatre operators; and nonprofit museums.
Eligibility requirements include: The business entity must have been “fully operational” on Feb. 29, 2020; the business entity must be able to demonstrate 25 percent gross earned revenue loss in any one calendar quarter of 2020 compared with than the same calendar quarter of 2019; and the business entity must be operating or intending to resume operations in the future.
Unfortunately, it’s too late for many venues, including Denver’s storied jazz club El Chapultepec, which called it quits in December after 87 years in operation. The owners cited the pandemic as a large part in their difficult decision to call last call. Fortunately for SAF, SBG and others, the passage of SOS came just in the nick of time.
“This benefits the local community as a whole,” McClary said. “We’re the little guy. We wouldn’t be around without this help.”
Stevens gave full credit to NIVA’s efforts.
“They knew how important it was to get a national movement going,” Stevens said. “They’re really on it. They really hounded them (Congress).”
McClary represents the Mountain West region on NIVA’s Colorado branch (CIVA). With the status of summer’s events still unknown, having an advocacy group like CIVA and NIVA has given promoters and venue operators a “collective power.” That voice is being employed to help get the word out to qualified applicants. She described the application protocols as a “tiered process,” one that takes into account the size of the company, its losses and other variables.
According to Congress’ website, “the SBA may make (1) an initial grant of up to $12 million dollars to an eligible operator, promoter, producer, or talent representative; and (2) a supplemental grant that is equal to 50 percent of the initial grant. An initial grant must be used for costs incurred between March 1, 2020, and December 31, 2020, but a supplemental grant may be used for expenses incurred through June 30, 2021.
Such grants shall be used for specified expenses such as payroll costs, rent, utilities, and personal protective equipment.”
A hoped-for rollout date is sometime later this month, as specifics are still being ironed out, McClary said.
For Telluride Bluegrass Festival’s Craig Ferguson, the SOS Act is very good news.
“I have been expecting it and I think most have,” Ferguson said. “There are some real tricks to it, but it’s serious money.”
Ferguson is realistic when it comes to the notion of putting on his annual summer solstice event in Telluride Town Park this summer, but instead floated the notion of smaller, more intimate event with limited attendance.
“In the worst case, and thanks to SOS, a plane flies from Nashville to Montrose with anyone Sam (Bush) wants and he gets picked up and driven to the Ice House,” Ferguson posited. “A few backstage, 175 customers and that’s the 48th … ”
SOS could not have come a moment too soon. Though arts organizations and music venues have thrown all their creativity at ways to stay afloat, the revenue is nowhere near pre-COVID levels, if it hasn’t already utterly dried up.
“We’ve been trying our hardest to provide something for people, but it’s hard” Stevens said. “It’s not as electric or exciting as if it was live.”
Passage of the SOS Act is a relief — for not only venue operators, promoters and arts organizations — but also for fans starving for live performances, weary of the pandemic and of fractious politics.
Ferguson puts it succinctly. “Music is medicine and society is sick.”
Now, as McClary said, “There is a light.”