Collective sigh of relief

CHICAGO (AFP) – The Stone Pony in New Jersey’s Asbury Park has hosted dozens of musicians on their ascent to stardom – including none other than Bruce Springsteen – but for months it’s sat dark due to the coronavirus pandemic.

And like hundreds of other cultural institutions across the United States (US) its owners are hopeful relief is finally on the way: the latest COVID-19 bill recently signed into law by US President Donald Trump includes USD15 billion for beleaguered arts venues to survive the ongoing crisis.

The funds – part of a USD900 billion coronavirus relief package – aim to support institutions from dives to Broadway, and come after months of efforts as part of the Save Our Stages campaign.

Caroline O’Toole, who manages The Stone Pony, voiced hope that the money would offer a lifeline to the music world, calling the fervent efforts from the industry to get the bill passed “outstanding”.

“It just makes you so proud to be part of something like this. To get Washington to move on something like this is amazing,” she said.

Independent entertainment venues and theatres as well as many cultural nonprofits can apply to the grants geared towards supporting rent and maintenance.

Co-owners of The Hideout live music venue, Katie and Tim Tuten, pose for a picture outside of their business in Chicago, Illinois. PHOTOS: AFP
ABOVE & BELOW: Joe Shanahan, owner of the iconic Chicago concert venue Metro, poses outside his venue ; and a look into the Metro concert venue that sits empty

Eligible applicants include those who’ve lost at least 25 per cent of their revenue, with those who’ve lost more than 90 per cent tapped as the first in line.

Qualified businesses can receive up to 45 per cent of their gross revenue from 2019, with a cap of USD10 million.

“We’ve already started to pull together our documentation,” said co-owner of The Hideout Katie Tuten, a 150-person Chicago music venue.

Tuten was among the industry leaders campaigning for the bill, which was co-sponsored by Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar and Republican Senator John Cornyn.

The bill’s passage comes at a desperate moment for many in the music industry: some 90 per cent of independent venue owners, promoters and bookers said they would soon close permanently without targetted government funding, according to a recent survey from the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA).

Owner of the iconic Minneapolis venue First Avenue Dayna Frank – where Prince’s Purple Rain was filmed – is the president of the NIVA and called the legislation a “lifeline our industry so desperately needs to emerge from a devastating year”.

“Careers came to a standstill overnight, and people continue to face personal hardships, which is why legislation like this and extending pandemic unemployment assistance is essential.”

Also as part of the relief package, lawmakers agreed to reboot an extra federal benefit for the unemployed of USD300 through March 14, half of the USD600 a week distributed in the early days of stay-at-home orders.

“I’ve never worked harder in my life than this year,” said owner of Chicago’s 1,000-seat Metro Joe Shanahan, credited with fostering the success of alt rockers The Smashing Pumpkins.

“I’ve spent the last 10 months banging on congressmen’s doors, governors’ doors, and mayors’ doors – just as aggressively as I would go after an agent or a manager for a band,” Shanahan said.

“It’s a grant that helps provide a backstop until the vaccine is administered and public confidence is back. Then we can pivot from a survival mode to strategising how we will re-open.”

Venue owners said the relief can save their facilities while also supporting many more jobs within the arts ecosystem.

“The arts are critical to our social and emotional development but also as an economic driver,” said Director of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Brooke Flanagan.

“It helps the restaurants around us, the Lyft drivers, and generates parking revenue.”

Along with music venues, theatres and museums, the legislation also grants managers and talent agents application opportunities.

Publicly traded companies and larger institutions are restricted – an effort to be sure relief goes to those who truly need it.

Greg Kot, who co-hosts the nationally syndicated radio show Sound Opinions, pointed to fears that the Save Our Stages funds would go the way of the Payment Protection Plan (PPP), which saw some aid directed towards large corporations instead of small businesses.

“I think the concerns are the same now,” Kot said. But co-owner of Sleeping Village Billy Helmkamp – a 500-seat Chicago music venue – said the legislation prioritises those venues that have suffered the most.

“It also makes sure that the money is helping mom-and-pop, independent businesses,” he said, describing “safeguards” like the tiered priority to those who’ve lost nearly all their revenues.

Eligibility requirements also include employing fewer than 500 people and operating venues in 10 states or fewer.

Tuten, of Chicago’s Hideout, said it was vital to protect those smaller venues, many of which have already closed nationwide, including Washington’s U Street Music Hall and Los Angeles’ mainstay The Satellite.

“American music is one of our greatest exports, but bands don’t just start playing the United Center,” said Tuten, referring to the enormous Chicago arena.

“Bands make their way up through small clubs,” she said.

“Take any of us out of the equation and the whole ecosystem gets upset.”