In a two-hour hearing on Tuesday morning, representatives for the concert industry, which has been ravaged by the pandemic shutdown, made a passionate and compelling case for federal aid before the U.S. Senate.
“We’re here before you with our hats in our hands,” said witness Michael Strickland, owner of the lighting company Bandit Lites in Knoxville, TN.
“Please don’t let the music die,” said Adam Hartke, who owns two independent venues in Wichita, KS. “Please save our stages.”
Several statistics that have been circulated in recent months by the National Independent Venue Association were aired, including the fact that 90% of the country’s independent venues will close within weeks without federal aid; and that musicians on average derive between 70% and 90% of their income from live performance, which has been virtually nonexistent since mid-March. Witnesses and senators also pointed to the economic activity connected to concert venues, noting that studies have shown that every dollar spent at a venue generates $12 in revenue for surrounding or connected businesses.
Witnesses also said that it will be summer “at best” before concerts and touring might resume even at a limited level.
Several acts are before Congress and are likely to be voted upon Friday, including the Save Our Stages act for independent venues — sponsored in the Senate by Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and John Cornyn (R-TX) — and the RESTART act, which would extend paycheck protection program for small businesses. All forms of federal pandemic aid have been tied up in Congress for several months, largely due to Senate inaction.
In the partially remote hearing — which was titled “Examining the Impact of COVID-19 on the Live Event Entertainment Industry” and convened by Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS), chairman of the Subcommittee on Manufacturing, Trade, and Consumer Protection — featured witnesses from several separate sectors from the live-entertainment industry, including venues, with David Fay, president/CEO of the Bushnell Center in Hartford, CT and Hartke, owner of the Cotillion and WAVE venues in Wichita, KS; artists, with Ron Laffitte, president of Patriot Management, who handles Pharrell, Usher, Backstreet Boys and Ryan Tedder and Onerepublic; transport, with Pete Pantuso, president/CEO of the American Bus Association; and operations and technicians, with Strickland.
Over the course of the hearing, during which witnesses and senators spoke in turn, several themes emerged. Most prominent is the fact that the PPP aid that venues and other business received in March was largely used up by June, and that payroll is just one of the rapidly mounting “core” expenses venues are facing.
Fay spoke of the economic hardship that inner cities will face if venues close down. He said that recent months in Hartford have felt like a “pandemic-induced time warp, it’s a ghost town like the 1960s,” and spoke of the hard work that was done to revitalize downtown centers. “It’s an existential threat not only to our industry, but to the businesses around it.”
Hartke set the scene by noting that one of his theaters, the Cotillion, was run by his grandparents decades ago, before delivering some grim statistics on the financial plight his businesses are facing.
While he had projected 2020 to be his venues’ best year, instead they were shut down on March 13; after PPP ran out in June, he was forced to furlough or lay off his entire staff and the venues are likely to be fully shuttered for 18 months.
“Other loans were insufficient — they were depleted in three months, and now we have debt we have to pay off for the next 30 years,” he said. “And we will have no [source of income] until artists begin touring again.”
“This is what will save us — we desperately need help now,” he concluded, pointed to the Save Our Stages act. “We are sitting before you, pleading with Congress to help those like us.”
Lafitte, who heads up the Live Nation-owned Patriot Management, spoke of working in the music industry since he was a 14-year-old selling merchandise and going on tour with rock bands.
“Live entertainment is largely an all-or-nothing proposition, and 95% of live events in 2020 have been cancelled or postponed and 70% of workers lost 100% of their incomes,” he said. “Everyone employed in this industry is hurting, whether they work in the small towns or big cities, whether they work in independent venues or the biggest arenas — no one has been immune.”
He also called for aid to extend beyond venues.
“Save Our Stages is a great start, but we can do so much more,” he said. “Congress needs to extend the retention tax credits, which enable workers who are still employed to maintain employment, and furloughed workers can receive continued health care.”
After BUS spoke of the reach of the bussing industry, noting that 40%-50% of the companies could be out of business within months if they don’t receive aid,
Strickland, who closed the opening statements, said he was “batting cleanup” because “I’ve got my arms around the entire industry – all of which is closed.”
He called the extended concert business an $877 billion industry that employs more than 10 million people. And, referencing an earlier comment where he’d called country superstar Garth Brooks “a good friend and one of my best customers,” he said, “To quote another friend, Jackson Browne, we’re ‘Running on Empty,’” and called passionately for the Senate to pass the RESTART Act.
Senator Amy Klobuchar referenced NIVA chief Dayna Frank, who runs Minneapolis’ legendary First Avenue, and the mural of Prince outside the venue. “He and so many others across the country could not get his start without venues,” she said, “So many of these venues are the heart of their community — we do not want to be the Congress that lets the music die.”
Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN.) spoke of the importance of music to her state of Tennessee and asked that Congress aid more than venues. “I appreciate what Senator Klobuchar has done with Save Our Stages, [but] that really is the front-facing part of the industry — that is what you see when the curtains open,” she said. “However, in order to make those shows engaging and exciting, there is an entire behind-the curtain that takes place,” and called for aid for the entire ecosystem.
During the Q&A session, Hartke was asked whether a partial reopening, similar to the ones used by restaurants, was an option. Like many venues, he pointed to the fact that a venues’ business model counts on a minimum of 80-90% capacity just to break even. After noting that is not an option at the moment “because there are no tours,” he said his venues tried reopening with 30-40% capacity and local acts early in the summer, but “we lost more money being open than being closed.” He said he’s aware that any future reopening will be at a limited capacity, it’s something they can weather and plan better for with federal aid.
In closing comments, Hartke said, “We’re not at the edge of the cliff, we’ve gone over the cliff. Without Save Our Stages, without SOS we won’t last six months. With it, we’ll hire staff back and start planning for reopening.”
Strickland noted that “30% of the industry is gone now, and if nothing done by February, 60% will be gone,” he said.
“No one has the ability to obtain a loan — the banks have turned their backs on us, and that’s understandable: we have nothing that’s bankable,” he continued. “Without RESTART we simply have no alternative.”