Three Congressional Bills Could Help Save Independent Music Venues

Super Unison's Meghan O'Neil performs at Bottom of the Hill on February 26, 2018. (Estefany Gonzalez )

With no reopening date in sight and mounting overhead costs from rents, mortgages, electricity, insurance and other operating expenses, California music venues have found themselves in dire straits. On Aug. 1, Congress will vote on three new pieces of legislation that promise to offer financial relief during the pandemic.

The Save Our Stages Act (S. 4258) aims to provide six months of financial support to music venues shuttered due to COVID-19. The bipartisan bill, introduced by Senators Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and John Cornyn of Texas, has support from the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA), an alliance with 2,000 members that includes over 100 Northern California concert halls, production companies and promoters.

The Save Our Stages Act is intended to support small businesses, and offers a grant equal to 45% of a venue’s 2019 operating expenses or $12 million, whichever is the lesser amount. NIVA is currently running a #SaveOurStages campaign that implores music fans to write their representatives in support of the bill.

The act could provide relief for venues that were struggling to stay in the black even before the pandemic in expensive regions like the Bay Area. “All of us independent venues—we’re all hovering around breaking even, if not running at a loss or barely profiting,” Lynn Schwarz of Bottom of the Hill told KQED in April.

Some venues, like Bottom of the Hill, have launched crowdfunding campaigns to support their former employees. Others, such as San Francisco’s The Stud and Oakland’s Spirithaus and Stork Club, decided to cut their losses and move out of their locations with the hope of reopening after California ends its shelter-in-place orders. That would be after the arrival of a COVID-19 vaccine or therapeutics, which could be months or years away.

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Another piece of federal legislation, the RESTART Act (S. 3814), could also be a boon for venues. While not specifically geared towards the music industry, it’s a loan program for small businesses that have suffered at least a 25% decline in business since the start of the pandemic. Music industry giants such as Spotify, Sirius XM Pandora, the Recording Industry Association of America, Sony, Universal and others signed a letter to Congress supporting the bill.

And finally, the ENCORES Act (H.R. 7735) offers venues a tax credit for 50% of the value of tickets refunded during the pandemic. Eligible businesses include those that promote, produce, or manage live concerts, comedy shows, sporting events and live theatrical productions, and have fewer than 500 full time-equivalent employees.

“We’re in the final stretch in our battle for survival,” Dayna Frank, president of NIVA and CEO First Avenue Productions, said in a statement. “Without federal assistance like ENCORES Act, Save Our Stages Act and RESTART Act, 90% of our members say they will be forced to close forever by the fall. It would not only be the collapse of our industry, it would be devastating to our communities that rely on us as a magnet for commerce.”