The COVID relief bill passed by Congress in late December includes $15 billion that could aid eligible independent music venues and movie theaters in Montana that have been shuttered since March.
The passage was like “finally getting a sigh of relief,” said Sean Lynch, the owner of the Pub Station concert venue in Billings.
He helped the push for the Save Our Stages Act through the National Independent Venue Association, a group formed at the beginning of the pandemic. Its members estimated that up to a thousand venues could close without more relief.
Here in Missoula, Logjam Presents, the owners of the Wilma, Top Hat and KettleHouse Amphitheater, has supported the act as well. Its venues, except for the Top Hat’s restaurant, have been closed since March with the exception of a few small-capacity concerts at the Wilma. The company also postponed the opening of a new Bozeman venue, the Elm. Messages to Logjam were not returned by deadline.
Knitting Factory Entertainment, which puts on concerts at Big Sky Brewing Company Amphitheater, said the passage of the act is “a bit of a glimmer of light” in a terrible time, according to talent buyer Danny Glazier. “The concert business has never seen anything” like the pandemic, “and I hope we never do again,” he said, adding that it would be difficult to find an independent promoter in the country that doesn’t need relief.
Movie theaters can potentially receive much-needed assistance, too. The nonprofit Roxy Theater is eligible but doesn’t yet know too many specifics, said Mike Steinberg, the executive director.
“It will be huge,” he said, and could potentially provide “the support that will get us through the first half of 2021 before we can actually start earning some money.”
Until the weather warms up and they can resume outdoor screenings, the theater is only open for private rentals for parties or movie showings. The relief money could help with rent on its Roxy Annex theater, go to utilities and to pay staff who have had their hours reduced.
The National Association of Theater Owners, a trade organization that praised the bill’s passage, had estimated that “70% of mid-size and smaller movie theaters in the country could file for bankruptcy or close permanently within months” without federal aid. (The relief does not apply to large chains.)
The language of the bill doesn’t exclude operations like Missoula's MCT Inc., which believes that it qualifies and is looking at applying. MCT has paused its national tours that put on children’s plays, and has limited its community theater productions to very-small-cast productions for a limited or streaming-only audience at its own venue, the MCT Center for the Performing Arts. They are still “wading through the details,” but think they fit under the “shuttered venue” portion that will prioritize severely impacted businesses in a first-round opening of applications, according to Michael McGill, MCT’s executive director.
He said potential funding would help MCT when, “like so many other businesses, the future looks painful. Until there is an environment for people to gather in groups, including participating in live entertainment, such as on stage or being part of an audience, our hands are tied.”
The relief could “carry us to a time when businesses like ours become viable again. Every dollar counts and I have to thank the supporters that have kept us operating to this point. This funding would bring new hope for the future and community back to our stages.”
For music venues, industry-wide relief across the U.S. is critical. Lynch said the network of independent outfits, from small and mid-sized, are “a whole ecosystem.” While the concert industry in Montana has been rapidly growing, it’s still considered “fly-over country” rather than a destination, and depends on acts routing from large regional hubs like Seattle, Minneapolis and Denver.
In March, a grassroots group, NIVA, formed to lobby for relief and now includes 3,000 venue owners and promoters. Senators Steve Daines, Republican, and Jon Tester, Democrat, both pushed for the passage of Save Our Stages Act, Lynch said. Music is “bipartisan,” as he put it. It was written and co-sponsored by U.S. Sens. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, and Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat.
Now that it’s passed, NIVA is working with Klobuchar and the Small Business Administration on the implementation process.
Among the requirements, according to NIVA, applicants must have been open at the end of February, have fewer than 500 full-time employee equivalents, limited to ownership of venues in no more than 10 states, among numerous other restrictions.
They could be eligible for 45% of gross revenue from 2019, and a cap of $10,000,000. They can use it for payroll, rent, utilities and other facilities-related costs, again with many other restrictions in the fine print.
For Lynch’s venue, the relief funds have the potential of “basically getting us through all of 2021.” While there could be some concerts by the third quarter of the year, he thinks the fourth quarter is more realistic. A true return to business as usual likely won’t happen until 2022, he said, although it all depends on the roll-out of vaccines, artists’ desire to resume touring, and the comfort level of patrons in returning to crowded events.
Knitting Factory’s Glazier also said they’re “hopeful that we can have concerts in some fashion,” and the second and third quarters seems to be a consensus in the industry, although all estimates are subject to change.
Lynch’s Pub Station has been closed since March, the first quarter of what they had envisioned as a record year. He “bristles” at the term “bailout,” since it implies that venues weren’t operating responsibly, when they are were told they can’t operate and are voluntarily staying closed, rather than fighting restrictions.
The Pub Station received $544,000 from Gov. Steve Bullock’s Live Entertainment Grant Relief program, which was tightly targeted. Through requirements with the CARES Act, it had to be spent by the end of the year. Logjam, meanwhile, received $1 million.
The Pub Station used the money to bring back some employees, paid rent and utilities, and used it toward refunds. Paying back advance tickets for concerts that never happened compounded the financial difficulties.
Until they can reopen safely, music venues don’t really have options to “pivot” to other business models. Lynch opened their taproom for a limited time, not to make money but to maintain their beer and wine license, which required being in use a set amount each year. Small-capacity shows aren’t a stop-gap either. The current restrictions on the size of gatherings in Yellowstone County is 25, so a concert crowd, minus the artist and staff, is so small that it wouldn’t earn anything.
After nine months, the funding relief is “exciting” and “surreal,” Lynch said, but only a “first step.”