Rich Howells

Save Our Stages legislation moves forward as NEPA music venues await federal aid, among other small businesses

Save Our Stages legislation moves forward as NEPA music venues await federal aid, among other small businesses
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Since COVID-19 shut down music venues across the country, the National Independent Venue Association has been pushing legislation that will help those businesses stay afloat, including several venues and festivals in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Half a year later, it is finally starting to pick up steam in the state and federal government.

The Save Our Stages Act, which would create a “$10 billion grant program for live venue operators, promoters, producers, and talent representatives,” has received bipartisan support from more than 196 co-sponsors and was included in the Heroes Act, passed by the Democrat-led House of Representatives on Oct. 1. It is now in the hands of the Republican-controlled Senate and will require more bipartisan support to pass.

“It has been a brutal seven months as we’ve had to watch hundreds of independent venues shutter forever through no fault of their own. We have no revenue, crushing overhead, and no idea when we can reopen, which has set the stage for a mass collapse of our industry if we don’t get the help we have been requesting since the beginning of the pandemic. We’re encouraged to hear that the Heroes Small Business Lifeline Act, introduced by Senators [Chuck] Schumer, [Ben] Cardin, and [Jeanne] Shaheen, contains the same provisions in the bipartisan Save Our Stages Act,” NIVA Communications Director Audrey Fix Schaefer said in an statement issued on Oct. 20.

“The SOS Act has 49 bipartisan cosponsors in the Senate. We know there’s momentum and understanding in Congress that this industry is among the very hardest hit and needs emergency relief to be able to hold on until we can reopen safely and return to serving as the economic engines for our communities. Unfortunately, previous Payroll Protection Plans do not work for this industry because we’re shut, so sadly we’ve been forced to furlough about 95 percent of our employees. While nearly 90 percent of America’s businesses are operating, as gathering places, we are not.

“This is urgent. Our members cannot wait any longer for emergency relief. Once independent venues go under, they do not come back. We respectfully implore our elected officials to come together and Save Our Stages.”

Among NIVA’s over 2,900 members in all 50 states and Washington, D.C., are Stage West in Scranton and State College, the F.M. Kirby Center in Wilkes-Barre, the Sherman Theater in Stroudsburg, and ArtsQuest’s Musikfest Cafe and Levitt Pavilion at the SteelStacks in Bethlehem, as well as the annual Briggs Farm Blues Festival in Nescopeck and Musikfest in Bethlehem. From Pittsburgh to Allentown to Philadelphia to Lancaster, there are over 110 Pennsylvania members registered with the National Independent Venue Association, and many of them host theatre, stand-up comedy, and other events in addition to live music.

If venues like these remain closed through the end of 2020, which seems likely as COVID-19 cases continue to fluctuate, Pollstar estimates that $9 billion in ticket sales alone will be lost, not including additional revenue from food and beverages. According to NIVA, every $1 spent on tickets to small venues generates $12 in local economic activity, with an annual impact of nearly nearly $10 billion in surrounding communities. 90 percent of NIVA members said they could close forever if they do not receive federal funds after six months, and it is now past that point.

Last month, State Rep. Jake Wheatley of Allegheny County introduced a localized version of the Save Our Stages measure for Pennsylvania that would set aside $200 million of federal CARES Act funds for music venues and industry professionals.

“There are 225 independent live music venues in Pennsylvania, which generated $1.36 billion in business last year and employed over 10,000 individuals (almost every one of these employees is jobless). These venues range from a capacity of 100 to 2000 and sold 5.3 million tickets last year. Independent live music venues generated $238 million in direct economic impact last year and also help sustain restaurants and hotels,” Wheatley wrote in a Sept. 11 memorandum to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.

“My legislation would earmark CARES dollars so a fund can be created to get grants to these businesses. It is critical that we make an effort to preserve this industry which is a jewel of the Commonwealth’s Cultural Crown. It is also important to assist this industry as it is an important aspect of the live music ecosystem that includes dining and lodging.”

The bill is currently under review in the House.

“This industry also provides employment to over 10,000 people statewide, many who are now unemployed,” he added in a Sept. 14 press release.

“For all these reasons, it’s vital we provide this much-needed support to ensure their doors remain open for all of us to patronize once this pandemic ends.”

Both independent and corporately-owned NEPA venues have survived in various creative ways. Stage West produced a variety of drive-in concerts at the Circle Drive-In Theatre in Dickson City, which had never hosted live music before, as well as EDM shows in the parking lot of Montage Mountain in Scranton. The small Karl Hall in Wilkes-Barre joined up with the much-larger Mohegan Sun Arena at Casey Plaza in Wilkes-Barre Township to produce an all-day drive-in concert to benefit venues and nonprofits impacted by COVID-19, and the arena went on to host several more drive-in shows. The F.M. Kirby Center has been holding online auctions and hosting streaming shows with various national acts. Musikfest moved online this year, and the Sherman Theater has benefited from some community fundraisers.

NIVA has helped the public send over one million emails to all 538 members of Congress through and kept the conversation going on social media with #SaveOurStages. Prominent artists like Alice Cooper, Katy Perry, Slash, Jimmy Buffett, Mavis Staples, Quincy Jones, and Jim James of My Morning Jacket have publicly supported the national Save Our Stages Act, and last weekend, YouTube Music and NIVA held a virtual Save Our Stages Festival, which featured 35 acts recording live from over 25 independent venues and raised $1,247,155 for U.S. venues.

Foo Fighters, The Roots, Miley Cyrus, Dave Matthews, Jason Mraz, Macklemore, Marshmello and Demi Lovato, The Lumineers, Rise Against, and more performed across three days, and while this event was a big success, the fight to save stages of all sizes is far from over. The weather is growing colder, forcing outdoor and drive-in shows to end, and indoor crowds must be limited and socially distanced to follow state and federal health regulations. Major tours and events have been postponed until 2021, but the industry can’t wait that long.

“We have been sounding the alarm since April that if our members don’t get emergency assistance, they will go under forever – and it’s happening,” Schaefer emphasized in an Oct. 6 statement.

“This is real. We need help. We urge Congress and the White House to continue negotiations and reach a deal quickly or there will be a mass collapse of this industry. The Save Our Stages Act has already passed the House and has strong bipartisan support with more than 160 Congresspeople cosponsoring because they know independent venues can be part of our country’s economic renewal once it’s safe to welcome people back – if our venues can survive this pandemic. We’re also hoping for the sake of our furloughed employees that the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance will be extended, as people are suffering through no fault of their own.”

Photo by Rich Howells/NEPA Scene