Thanks to the hard work of the National Independent Venue Association and their allies, it looks like some stimulus relief is finally coming to small venues, theater operators, bars and restaurants. The NIVA effort began with the Save Our Stages Act that 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 pandemic on certain live venues. It appears that Save Our Stages will be included in the new COVID stimulus bill. The stimulus bill text will be released sometime this morning (Dec 21) and will be voted on later today by both the House of Representatives and the Senate in Washington, DC.
If SOS Act is adopted whole into the COVID stimulus legislation, the SBA will be authorized to 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% 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. I haven’t seen the final language of the COVID stimulus bill, but I would imagine it will be carried over.
Many people pulling together have helped to deliver a miraculous Christmas present for music cities like Austin, Texas and the country. The bi-partisan Save Our Stages Act was carried by two members of the huge Texas Congressional delegation, Senator John Cornyn and Austin Representative Roger Williams alongside their outstanding colleagues Senator Amy Klobuchar and Representative Peter Welch. As we saw in the CLASSICS Act and later in the Music Modernization Act, Senator Cornyn is a strong advocate for the Texas music industry which needs him more than ever.
We also have to thank Governor Greg Abbott and the Governor’s Texas Music Office for their efforts in getting SOS passed and in supporting the local music economy–tireless is an overused word, but the Governor has never forgotten Texas venues in the State’s plans to open in the middle of the 25/8 whole of government response to the pandemic. I’m sure there are many others to thank in many other states and cities, but I know these folks have been white-knuckling the express train for months.
The lobbying effort to pass SOS was a heartening example of our business pulling together with the artist community in the vanguard. That extensive lobbying effort led by NIVA highlighted the importance of live music and music tourism to the local economies of cities across the country. I don’t know if it’s even possible to measure the global economic impact of the lockdown approach on our business, but given the pre-COVID economic impact of the festival business alone, it’s got to be over a $1 trillion loss. As Universal’s Michael Nash said at the University of Georgia Artist Rights Symposium earlier this year, the label was very concerned about keeping live music alive even though labels might not be directly involved. According to MusicAlly, Nash said “The reality is that the health and welfare of our artists is central to everything we do, and so we do have a stake in what’s happening in the broader ecosystem.” That view was reflected in the broad support for SOS from RIAA and other industry groups as well as Universal’s commitment to major investments in live music destination hotels.
It appears that the limitation on liability for businesses like venues that reopen is not going to make it into the stimulus bill. That’s unfortunate because the liability issue is a critical piece, and the situation cries out for a federal solution when there’s a lawyer behind every cough. You may ask why such a crucial aspect of reopening is still a question mark at this late hour? Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.), a member of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, summed it up: “I am frustrated to be part of an institution that is so dysfunctional that it doesn’t even work until the last minute.” Well, frankly, no surprise there. The liability issue will have to be dealt with in the new Congress.
The question has always been if you lock down the venues without protecting that investment, will we have an live music infrastructure to reopen? Austin is an all-too-perfect example. We have no idea what Austin will look like when we get past the pandemic. SOS is too late to save Margin Walker and many others. But with this cash infusion we have a better chance that post-pandemic Austin will bear some resemblance to what it was and can hopefully help get some people back on their feet in Austin and around the country, which is the point. The team is moving in the right direction and will attract others. Universal’s investment in the future is an example of leadership and optimism for the survival of our live music venues and all the wonderful people who run them. Optimism is also contagious, and is more likely to accelerate with Save Our Stages.
The good news is the bad news is wrong–our work is not over, but we live to fight another day–or another 300 days. And that is a Christmas miracle in many households.