San Antonio venue owners can attest that the live performance industry has been among those hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic. Bans on large gatherings shut venues down in the spring, and when they were later allowed to reopen by state governments, it was under crippling capacity restrictions.

“You couldn’t have anything more dire,” Blayne Tucker said of the situation faced by live performance venues across the nation. Tucker owns The Mix music club and bar on the St. Mary’s Strip and is an active industry advocate.

Now, even as uncertainty continues to linger, performance venues, organizations, and individuals are eligible to tap into a new $15 billion grant program.

The first round of federal coronavirus relief included the employee-focused Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), but with performances still impossible in many cases due to a lack of the touring acts many venues depend on, it made little sense to keep people employed.

Tucker and other venue operators throughout the country recognized the specific problems faced by live performance venues early on and banded together to seek solutions as the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA). Their work produced the Save Our Stages (SOS) Act introduced to Congress in July, an emergency relief funding program with provisions specific to the live performance industry. Along with other potential relief, the SOS Act would languish in a stymied Congress.

Dec. 27, Just before the original CARES Act was set to expire, a new economic stimulus package was signed into law. The SOS Act was included as the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program administered by the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), which will dedicate $15 billion to help performance venues nationwide survive the uncertain months ahead.

‘Make or break’

A wide range of venues, organizations, and individuals will be eligible for the new grant funds, including live performance venue operators and promoters, performing arts organizations, theatrical producers, talent representatives, movie theater operators, and some nonprofit museums.

“This is really a make or break for the industry,” Tucker said, while lamenting venues that have already closed permanently including notable Austin music clubs and Margin Walker Presents, a promoter of touring acts for several San Antonio venues, that would have been eligible for relief funding.

Tucker pointed out that potentially months of uncertainty remain, with already-suffering venues nearing the brink. “We don’t really know necessarily when the finish line is here. This is a great step toward providing some relief to an industry that needed it, but I don’t think we’re out of the woods yet.”

Venues are eligible for funds up to $10 million depending on annual revenue, and range from small music clubs such as The Mix, Paper Tiger, and the Lonesome Rose, to black box theaters such as Jump-Start Performance Co. and the Classic Theatre, to larger concert halls, theaters, and producers including the Majestic Theatre and the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts and its resident companies such as the San Antonio Symphony.

Paper Tiger is located at 2410 N. St. Mary's St. The sign reads "Thank you Reps Doggett Cuellar Hurd and Castro for saving our stages."
Paper Tiger is located at 2410 N. St. Mary’s St. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Stipulations intended to focus on smaller, locally based venues include a limit of 500 or fewer full-time employees and locations operating in no more than 10 states. The amount of grant funds available to each venue will equal 45% of 2019 gross earned revenue.

Applications are not yet open, though the SBA is preparing workshops in advance of opening its two-tiered application process, expected to roll out in early- to mid-February.

Eligibility requirements are fairly strict, in keeping with the program’s goals of supporting venues that base most of their income and activity around live performance, Tucker said.

Working with NIVA President Dayna Frank, owner of the First Avenue music club in Minneapolis, Tucker helped advise on program provisions that define eligibility to ensure funds will be distributed first to those venues most in need and that set aside $2 billion of the $15 billion fund specifically for what he called “mom and pop” venues that employ 50 or fewer full-time employees.

Once the program officially opens, the first two-week application tier is intended for venues that have lost 90% or more of revenue between April 1 and Dec. 31, 2020, as compared to 2019 revenue for the same period, and the second two-week tier is for applicants that have lost revenues of 70% or more. After that, any eligible venue or organization can apply.

‘World of difference’

Mike Fresher, Tobin Center president and CEO, said the grant funds would make “a world of difference” to the performing arts hall, which he estimates has suffered $15 million in lost revenue during 2020. That amount would mean the Tobin could recoup $6.75 million from the program to help in “keeping all our employees employed and things moving forward,” he said.

Fresher is waiting to learn more specifics on what income qualifies as revenue for the program and whether the second round of PPP in the stimulus package would benefit the Tobin Center more than the Shuttered Venue Operators grants.

Tobin Center resident company the San Antonio Symphony also is waiting to learn more about the grants, according to Corey Cowart, its executive director. Venues cannot receive both a second round of PPP funds and Shuttered Venues grants.

Cowart said the fact that banks already have the experience of distributing one round of PPP funds makes that option attractive, but what will ultimately decide which program works best for the Symphony is “what the math looks like.”

Stations for testing temperature are placed at the entrance to Tobin Center for the Performing Arts. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

The Lonesome Rose honky-tonk will be applying in the second tier, according to co-owner Hillary Woodhouse. The venue has been able to open its large backyard patio for occasional music events but overall has lost in the range of 70% in revenue as compared to the previous year.

Previous small grants have enabled the owners to pay rent during the closure, but “any additional money is going to help us ensure that we stay open for the future,” Woodhouse said.

The club has had no break on rent, she said, and has stopped booking shows for the moment due to the uncertainties of winter weather. Earlier grants have helped keep the bar afloat, she said. “We’re really grateful to be still here. I think it’d be a shame [if we had to close], because there’s nothing else really like us,” Woodhouse said of her venue focusing on Texas music.

The ‘takings clause’ was key

Tucker said Texas played a key role in getting the legislation through Congress, despite a traditional resistance in the state toward government aid and bailouts. An argument for help based on the Fifth Amendment might have made the difference. The amendment’s “takings clause” stipulates “just compensation” when private entities suffer losses on behalf of the public good.

That approach in part won the support of key Texas Republicans Sen. John Cornyn and U.S. Rep. Roger Williams of Austin, who penned an initial letter of support in May, then ultimately co-sponsored the bill alongside Democrats Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and U.S. Rep. Peter Welch of Vermont, in a rare show of true bipartisanship.

“It was a nationwide effort, among all my colleagues in different states,” Tucker said. “But Texas really came through in taking the lead on making this happen.” Tucker also said the issue bridges the divide between traditionally Democratic-leaning cities and traditionally Republican-leaning rural areas, both of which depend on thriving music and performance venues for entertainment.

Now that the funding is on its way, Tucker said “it’s the difference between an entire industry permanently shuttering and giving it some relief.”

According to music industry magazine Billboard, venue operators interested in applying can prepare by “pulling together information about … monthly revenues and a list of how you would use funds if awarded them,” with a reminder to contact local SBA district offices for additional help.

A Jan. 14 SBA webinar, available for viewing on YouTube, also explains the provisions of the grant program.

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Nicholas Frank

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...