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Chicago theaters, music stages welcome ‘crucial’ funding in COVID-19 bill

$15 billion in Save Our Stages funding is allocated in Congress’ latest COVID-19 relief bill, which was signed into law Sunday night by President Trump.

Chicago’s iconic Metro is among the music venues that will benefit from the Save Our Stages Act.
Chicago’s iconic Metro is among the music venues that will benefit from the Save Our Stages Act.
Joshua Mellin

Live music venue owners and theaters, shuttered since March due to mandated pandemic shutdowns, are counting on their slice of $15 billion in funding allocated in Congress’ latest COVID-19 relief bill, which was signed into law Sunday night by President Donald Trump.

Venues in Chicago are competing with their counterparts across the country — from Broadway to Hollywood — for the bill’s Save Our Stages Act funding, which is seen by many in the industry as the light at the end of the tunnel for independently owned clubs, concert halls and theaters. Without these funds, it’s been estimated that nearly 90% of the country’s independent live music venues would close in the near future, leaving the state of music, tours and the industry at large in jeopardy.

“This has been an unsustainable predicament and position for any business, with no income, not a single ticket, not a single drink sold for 10 months. So that’s why the relief package is so important and why we are so appreciative and grateful it passed,” said Joe Shanahan, founder of Metro Chicago on the city’s North Side.

Shanahan has been a key figure in the Chicago Independent Venue League (CIVL), a coalition that even before the pandemic was advocating for nearly 50 member venues in and around Chicago. It’s headed up by co-chairs Katie Tuten of The Hideout and Robert Gomez, who owns Subterranean and Beat Kitchen, and includes the owners of Empty Bottle, Martyrs, The Whistler and more.

The $15 billion is intended to provide grants to, according to the legislation, “eligible live venue operators or promoters, theatrical producers, live performing arts organization operators, museum operators, motion picture theater operators, or talent representatives who demonstrate at least a 25% reduction in revenues.”

“It’s heartening to see Congress recognize the incredible value of arts in our country. I am grateful that so many venues may be qualifying for a lifeline during this devastating time, and it is thanks to the advocacy of our community that we have this package on the table,” said Markie Gray, managing director of Raven Theatre.

As part of the relief bill, the Small Business Administration will have a 21-day window to offer specific guidelines and applications for grants. The funding will be open to live entertainment venues, agents and cultural institutions such as theaters and museums with 500 or fewer full-time employees, with $2 billion allocated for venues with 50 or fewer full-time employees.

Joe Shanahan, founder of Metro in Chicago | Marc Hauser Photo
Joe Shanahan, founder of Metro in Chicago.
Marc Hauser Photo

“The financial relief earmarked for independent live music venues underscores the fact that small businesses are economic drivers which build and sustain our neighborhoods and that we are worth saving,” Tuten said. “We are endlessly grateful to our communities, fans and co-workers for all of their support.”

Gomez concurred, adding: “We are entering our 10th month of a mandated shutdown and finally see a glimmer of light at the end of this long, dark tunnel. It was unreasonable to think that a small business, which is what Chicago’s independent concert venues are, could survive without appropriate financial and legislative support granted elsewhere in federal relief efforts.”

Along with the like-minded National Independent Venue Association (NIVA), CIVL was successful in getting more than 2 million people to send letters and emails and make calls to their local legislators urging support of Save Our Stages funding.

“This really was a grassroots effort that grew from a conversation to a loud voice. … My job used to be talking to every [booking] agent and [band] manager all over the country, and now I’ve pivoted to talking to congressmen, senators and a mayor or two,” Shanahan said.

A key area for use of funds will be insurance costs, he said.

“It’s really a step in the right direction. That money will be crucial for rent, mortgages, utilities and the ability to take care of the necessities and hard costs of owning a venue,” Shanahan said. “You have to have general liability insurance whether you have people in the building or not; that’s not a cost you can forget even if you’re closed.”

Shanahan pointed to various other ways for the public to keep supporting live venues while the details of the funding bill are ironed out in Washington, notably CIVL’s SAVE Emergency Relief Fund, which is accepting donations, as well as GoFundMe pages set up by most venues.

“Buy merchandise! Every venue is selling T-shirts, candles, socks, bottle openers, posters, you name it. And that money is directly going to keep the lights on,” he added.

Shanahan hopes venue doors will be open in the second part of 2021 after the vaccine has been administered to the general public. “Because of the relief package and having our voices heard in Washington and Springfield, I feel that the conversation now can finally turn toward reopening.”

Selena Fragassi is a local freelance writer.