By Mallory Cheng
Local independent entertainment venues are looking for a lifeline. When Governor JB Pritzker issued Illinois’s shelter-in-place order due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic earlier this year, their doors closed first, but will be the last to re-open.
“This has had a drastic impact,” said Bobby Ramirez, director of music operations at Thalia Hall at 1807 S. Allport St. in Pilsen. “We haven’t had a show since March 12. We usually have shows every single night.”
The Athenaeum Theater on the North Side is operating at five percent capacity. At full capacity, its four stage venues seat 985 people. Under the Phase 4 reopening guidelines, however, management can allow only 50 people at a time inside the building. Allen Chambers, general manager of Athenaeum, said, “Not a whole lot of artists want to perform for a 50-seat theater.”
While Thalia Hall remains closed, its adjacent restaurant, Dusek’s Board and Beer, is open for carryout. The hall also has collaborated with its neighbors, 606 Records and S.K.Y. restaurant, to bring outdoor live entertainment to the community and is running fundraisers to support Thalia Hall staff.
These meager remedies cannot address the larger financial challenge. Operating costs are fixed costs, not a sliding scale of expenses, Chambers emphasized, saying, “Opening at partial capacity is a losing proposition.” With canceled shows, partial re-opening, and zero revenue, overhead costs such as existing loans and mortgage payments as well as rent and utilities continue to pile up.
‘It’s been devastating’
“It’s been devastating,” Chambers added. “Every venue in the City of Chicago is trying to stay alive. The revenue streams have dried up. Some are predicting it won’t be until 2021 or even 2022 before we can get to full capacity again.”
Athenaeum, Thalia Hall, and many other independent Chicago venues belong to the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA), whose members comprise more than 2,400 independent live entertainment venues and promoters from all 50 states and Washington, DC.
The association formed in April 2020 in response to the cry for help from local venues. NIVA members knew that, with no additional governmental support, businesses would close permanently. In a recent survey of NIVA members, 90% of independent venues reported they will close permanently in a few months without Federal funding.
“We will lose almost every single independent venue and promoter in the country,” NIVA’s executive director, known as Rev. Moose, said. “More venues are closing and not coming back. Every single day I’m getting another message from venues saying, ‘This is as a far as we can go.’ We’re already seeing [permanent closures] happen.”
Many independent venues did not receive funding from the Small Business Administration’s Payment Protection Program, commonly known as PPP, because of its payroll guidelines. Each PPP recipient receives a lump sum and must spend at least 60% of the money on payroll within two months. If that guideline is not followed, the PPP grant becomes a loan with one percent interest.
Many venues could not find a way for the program to benefit them, said Shane Merrill, talent buyer and production manager at Reggie’s, 2105 S. State St. in the South Loop. “Most places don’t have payroll to begin with; the payroll they have is reliant on shows, but there aren’t any shows happening now,” Merrill said.
$9 billion loss
A Pollstar study estimated a $9 billion loss in national ticket sales alone if venues remain closed through 2020. That financial hurt extends to each venue’s neighbors, as independent venues help bring in revenue for all nearby businesses. According to estimates from the Chicago Loop Alliance, every $1 spent at a venue generates $12 of economic activity into the community “in the form of hotels, parking garages, restaurants, even parking tickets, and so on,” said Rev. Moose. “It’s every single place you can think of that you would go to before or after a show.”
Over the last few months, NIVA members rallied together, pushing Congressional representatives to support financially struggling independent venues. Merrill stated, “We’ve lobbied Congress that we had more specific needs, and we needed some situations that were more tailored to the live music industry.”
NIVA’s work pushed Congress to build legislation to fit independent venues’ longterm needs. The bipartisan effort resulted in two pieces of legislation: the Save Our Stages Act and The RESTART Act.
Spearheaded by Senators John Cornyn (R-TX) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), The Save Our Stages Act provides a lifeline for independent venues. This grant-based opportunity for funding may be used for payroll and benefits, rent, utilities, mortgage and other interest payments, insurance, PPE, existing loans, payments for 1099 employees, and other necessary operating expenses.
The RESTART Act, led by Senators Todd Young (R-IN) and Michael Bennet (D-CO), tailored the PPP program to work for closed businesses that have zero revenue, high overhead, and no clear timeline for re-opening. As a loan-based assistance plan, it expands eligibility for businesses with part-time employees, offers flexible use of loan proceeds, and allows for loan forgiveness.
Illinois congressional representatives have supported the acts. Congressman Danny Davis (D-7th) said, “I support the Save Our Stages Act and RESTART Act. I support cultural development, especially the endowment for arts and humanity.”
Senator Tammy Duckworth publicly supported the Save Our Stages Act and the RESTART Act, noting that live event venues are “the backbone of the rich arts scene in Illinois and across the U.S.”
A spokesperson for Senator Richard Durbin noted that he “is a co-sponsor of both the RESTART Act and the Save Our Stages Act. Congress has an obligation to those who have lost their jobs as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and should help unemployed workers keep their families together and meet their basic needs. We also have to help our small businesses survive so that they can re-open their doors when it is safe to do so.”
The RESTART Act was introduced to the House in early July and the Save Our Stages Act was introduced to the Senate in late July. There have been no legislative updates at this time.
From Oct. 16 to 18, NIVA partnered with YouTube for a three day virtual music festival to generate awareness, advocacy, and donations for the NIVA Emergency Relief Fund for the most vulnerable venues.
NIVA members recommend going to saveourstages.com to sign the petition to support the Save our Stages Act. The webpage includes a filled-out email template, so all an online visitor needs to do is provide contact information.
NIVA also recommends supporters call their U.S. senators and representatives to emphasize the Save Our Stages Act’s importance. Community members can find who their local representative is at: www.house.gov/representatives/find-your-representative.
As Merrill emphasized, “People have to believe their voice means something. If you’re persistent, you can make changes. Use your voice. Make your voice heard.”
To support local venues’ individual financial aid efforts through donations or purchasing merchandise, visit their websites.
For more on the Athenaeum Theatre, log on to www.athenaeumtheatre.org. For the Chicago Loop Alliance, call (312) 782-9160. For Davis’s office, log on to davis.house.gov. To contact Duckworth, call (312) 886-3506. To contact Durbin’s office, call (312) 353-4952. Learn more about NIVA at www.nivassoc.org, to donate to the NIVA Emergency Relief Fund, log on to https://www.saveourstages.com/#donate-now. For Reggie’s, log on to www.reggieslive.com. For Thalia Hall, log on to www.thaliahallchicago.com.