Save Our Stages Act Included in Stimulus Package, Promises Relief for Venues

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King Woman’s Kristina Esfandiari performs her solo project Miserable on night two of the 2019 Noise Pop Music and Arts Festival at Bottom of the Hill. (Estefany Gonzalez )

Help might be on the way for independent music venues, which have been in dire financial straits since the pandemic began. With no revenue coming in, some venue owners have called it quits and gone out of business. Meanwhile, others have dug into their retirements and amassed debt to hang on to their establishments until the vaccine arrives. Crowdfunding, selling merchandise or grants from philanthropic foundations have provided some relief, but not enough to cover an average San Francisco concert hall’s estimated $18,000–$35,000 monthly overhead costs.

The long-awaited Save Our Stages Act promises some help. It’s part of the COVID-19 stimulus package that Congressional Democrats and Republicans finally agreed upon on Sunday after months of stalling and debate. The House and Senate must now pass the bill, and President Trump must sign it, before it becomes law. If passed, $15 billion would go to grant programs for live venues, independent movie theaters and other cultural institutions, according to a statement from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. Each qualifying venue would be awarded a grant equal to 45% of its 2019 operating costs, or up to $12 million.

Dayna Frank, board president of the National Independent Venue Association, praised the compromise in a statement. She heads an advocacy group of club owners that includes over 100 members in Northern California. “We’re also incredibly grateful that this bill provides Pandemic Unemployment Assistance which will help the millions of people who lost their jobs through no fault of their own during this economic crisis,” she wrote. “We urge swift passage of this legislation, which will assist those in the greatest need and ensure the music lives on for generations to come.”

Timing is crucial for Bay Area music venues, which were already operating on thin profit margins due to high rent and mortgage costs. Recently, some club owners have said they’re weeks or months away from closing.

While pleased with the compromise, San Francisco Venue Coalition member Casey Lowdermilk says he’s cautiously optimistic. “There are a lot of steps still to be done—implementation, distribution and tracking all the venues in San Francisco to make sure they can get this money and survive this shutdown,” says Lowdermilk, who is also the assistant general manager of Bill Graham Civic Auditorium.

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He says the San Francisco Venue Coalition will continue its campaign in city hall, which urges San Francisco to set aside $48 million to allow around 50 music venues to survive 16–18 months of closure. “We’re kind of concerned that federal money might not be timely enough, so we’re still pushing forward in San Francisco as planned,” Lowdermilk says.

San Francisco Supervisor Matt Haney also emphasized the sense of urgency. “I think our concern now is how quickly that money can be disbursed,” he says. “Some of these venues are weeks or months away from going under. They can’t wait until next year or for the federal bureaucracy to figure it out.”

Last week, Haney proposed the creation of the San Francisco Independent Venue Recovery Fund. It doesn’t have a dollar figure attached to it yet, and the Board of Supervisors is set to discuss it at tomorrow’s meeting on Dec. 22.

Haney says that while this federal stimulus package doesn’t include funds directly for city and state governments—which San Francisco badly needs to avoid job and service cuts—his office is researching options for funding music venue relief. Those could include soliciting donations from the private sector, or a loan program that can provide relief in the short term until Save Our Stages money arrives.

“These venues have a lot of people who love them and want to support them,” Haney says. “The local funding is challenging obviously because we’re facing a massive deficit and are going to make a lot of cuts to our budget. But I think this should be prioritized, especially if it’s money that can be matched or reimbursed at a later date. ... If San Francisco loses these venues, the longterm impacts will be very severe.”

This story was updated to include quotes from Supervisor Matt Haney.