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Music Venues Are Struggling, But Congressional Help Could Be On The Way — Maybe

Courtney Barnett performing in January at the Iron Horse. (Courtesy Bryan Lasky)
Courtney Barnett performing in January at the Iron Horse. (Courtesy Bryan Lasky)

The Bella Luna & The Milky Way, the Cantab Lounge and Great Scott are gone for good, but every live music club and theater in Massachusetts has been shuttered by COVID-19 and will likely remain so well into 2021.

And by no means are venues that existed prior to the pre-COVID-19 shutdown guaranteed to re-open if and when a vaccine is created and widely distributed. The big guys, venues owned by Live Nation (House of Blues, Paradise Rock Club, Brighton Music Hall) and AEG (Royale, The Sinclair), have deep pockets and are likely to weather the storm, however battered.

The indies? Many of the independent clubs and theaters of Massachusetts, like those in the rest of the country, are barely hanging on, even those that received initial Payment Protection Program money from the government.

“I can’t think of a business worse than this,” says Bill Blumenreich, who owns The Wilbur and Chevalier Theatre.

“Not being able to put on a show is death,” says Michael Dorf, CEO of the national music club chain City Winery. And, he notes, that for the people who provide the music, they’re stuck, too. Royalties in the streaming age are a drop in the bucket — unless you’re Taylor Swift or Jay-Z — and, Dorf adds, “The live industry is one of the only avenues for musicians to earn a living, an incredibly valuable aspect that is at risk of extinction.”

A musician performs during the Rock and Roll Rumble at ONCE Somerville. (Courtesy Coleman Rogers)
A musician performs during the Rock and Roll Rumble at ONCE Somerville. (Courtesy Coleman Rogers)

Is there help on the way? Potentially. Right now, there are three bills in front of Congress, all with bipartisan support, which could help the live music industry survive the catastrophic crisis. Congress’s last scheduled day in session is Aug. 7.

The bills are designated as RESTART, Save Our Stages (aka S.O.S.) and ENCORES and have the support of an organization comprised of nearly 2,000 independent music venues across the nation, including more than 50 in Massachusetts, called the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA). (All the venues mentioned in this story are NIVA members.) It was formed in the wake of the massive shutdown with the goal of lobbying Congress to find a way that would allow clubs to stay solvent.

There are various components of the proposed packages, but, essentially, they’re a mix of loans and grants. NIVA spokeswoman Audrey Fix Schaefer explains RESTART as a loan program where a lot of the funds can be forgiven, with S.O.S. being an out-and-out grant program.

“Both have components that would fit our needs,” she says. “Congress goes and negotiates what goes into the overall bill. This is when the sausage-making on the Hill happens. I can’t predict what will happen and people who’ve made law for last 25 years cannot predict what will happen.” The ENCORES Act proposes providing a tax credit for 50% of the value for refunding tickets to customers.

The Middle East Restaurant. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The Middle East Restaurant. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

If none of them — or no Frankensteined permutation — passes, is there another way that independent American music clubs can stay alive? A plan B?

“There are no other plans,” she Dayna Frank, who runs Minneapolis’s First Avenue club and heads NIVA.

“We looked at it, we brainstormed and tried to come up with a plan B, C, or D, but no,” says Frank. “This is a $10 billion problem and the only way to save the industry and ecosystem as a whole is through the federal government.”

For now, it’s a waiting game on whether or not Congress will take up the bills. But how much longer can venues hold on?

“We’ve been closed four months and I’m afraid,” says J.J. Gonson, self-described “proprietrix” of Somerville’s ONCE Ballroom. “I lie awake at night. What am I gonna do?”

Nabil Sater, co-owner of the Middle East Club complex and Sonia, says, “We don’t know what’s going to happen with the clubs and we’re all in the same boat. We wait and see how long we can wait.” Pre-COVID-19, “People would come here, help the neighborhood. We were the attraction for people to this part of Central Square. Now, it’s deserted here, a ghost town.”

Club Passim’s Matt Smith says, “It’s bleak.” They’ve been doing livestreams of shows for 10 years and on July 25 did one with Lori McKenna, virtually alone in the club, that attracted 1,100 viewers. But livestreaming has its limits. “People are dying to go out and can’t. People need music.”

Lori McKenna and Matt Smith play for a livestream at Club Passim in July. (Courtesy Club Passim)
Lori McKenna and Matt Smith play for a livestream at Club Passim in July. (Courtesy Club Passim)

Jim Neill, marketing director of the Northampton club complex that includes the Iron Horse, says, “I think [music clubs are] way off their radar and visibility and it doesn't pertain to their lives very much. I think there’s a danger they will stereotype it as a bunch of hipster bars looking for handouts, but it has to happen soon or there will be a lot of places that drop dead.”

But there are those that are looking to the future with cautious optimism. Patrick Norton, executive director for the Narrows Center for the Arts in Fall River, says, “The light at the end of the tunnel for me is the promise of a vaccine. I envision a post-pandemic live music world as a little beat and battered but the want to present and the desire to see live music will slowly return.”

With the congressional recess scheduled to begin Aug. 10, the time for action is rapidly dwindling.

“Let's hope the collective voices of NIVA and its supporters are heard and Congress gets their head out of their a-- and provides some much- needed relief,” says Norton. “Congress recently gave the airlines a $25 billion bailout. We are asking for $10 billion and for many of us, live music is an essential part of our being. I am like most: cautiously optimistic that Congress will do something to aid live music venues.”

Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey is co-sponsor of the Save Our Stages Act. The ARTery reached out by phone and email to Sen. Elizabeth Warren, but we did not get a response by the time of publication.

Related:

Jim Sullivan Twitter Music Writer
Jim Sullivan writes about rock 'n' roll and other music for The ARTery.

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