Local Current Blog

‘We need help’: Minnesota should step in to supplement federal grants, music venues say

The Garage, photographed in 2017. (courtesy The Garage) Below: the Cabooze, photographed in March 2020. (Lucy Hawthorne for MPR)

The music industry let out a sigh of relief when the Shuttered Venue Operators grant program (f.k.a. Save Our Stages Act) passed in December after months of nationwide grassroots activism. Included in the latest federal COVID-19 relief package, the program will bring $15 billion in grants to live entertainment venues and promoters who saw a majority of their revenue vanish last year.

However, plenty of Minnesotan venue owners and promoters feel apprehensive about the lack of state support and the ambiguity still surrounding the SVO grant’s distribution.

“It’s a lifeline,” said Ashley Ryan, First Avenue marketing director. “We’re still waiting to understand exactly how the program is going to roll out, which is tough because there are a lot of venues on the brink of closing, but we’re really thankful that it did pass.”

First Avenue’s own CEO, Dayna Frank, sparked the fight for federal funding as president of the National Independent Venue Association. “Dayna stepped up in a huge way and said not only do we have to do something, but we have to do something for the entire ecosystem,” said Ryan. NIVA launched last March and now represents over 3,000 independent music venues, promoters, comedy clubs, and performing arts centers across the country.

“For the first time, the music industry banded together and raised awareness of how things work.” said Jack Kolb-Williams, head of Catalyst Music which operates all-ages venues like The Garage in Burnsville. “It was a herculean effort.”

Though the start date is unclear, the Small Business Administration will distribute SVO grants first to those who saw their revenue drop by over 90% from April 2020 to December 2020 compared to 2019. This includes local organizations whose revenue relies almost entirely on ticket sales, from First Avenue to Moorhead-based promoter Jade Presents, which issued more refunds than tickets sold last year.

In lieu of live shows, First Avenue has streamed sets, sold creative merch (including parts of the 7th St Entry stage), and hosted in-person shows at less than 1/30th of the Mainroom’s capacity, but none of that makes much of a dent in the financial loss faced in the past year.

The Cedar Cultural Center lost at least 70% of their revenue, according to their marketing and communications manager, Aida Shahghasemi, which places them in the SBA’s second tier with others facing a 70-90% revenue decline in 2020. The Cedar Public Access Channel, an donation-based online stream spotlighting local artists, doesn’t make up for that lost revenue but has kept them connected to the community.

After those priority tiers, the SBA will direct remaining funds to other qualified applicants, such as The Garage. Catalyst moved much of their usual after-school youth programs online this year, but when live music halted, “Half or so of all of the money that we would generate as an organization disappeared basically overnight,” Kolb-Williams explained.

As of now, all future applicants anxiously await a timeline, a finalized list of rules and procedures, and insight into how competitive the process will be. “We’re really just in a holding pattern until we are given more information,” explained Ryan.

Nonetheless, venues are trying to plan for the money. “We have to pay mortgages and insurance even though the doors aren’t open, so those are huge expenditures on an ongoing basis with no revenue, and payroll as well,” said Ryan.

Similarly, Shahghasemi expects the Cedar to send the money towards general operations and payroll for their staff of six, all of whom are already working part-time. The SBA will track how each recipient spends their grant over the next three to four years to ensure compliance with spending guidelines.

As NIVA’s national effort swelled, the Minnesota Independent Venue Association (MNIVA) and other state chapters formed simultaneously to organize around challenges, relief packages and restrictions unique to each state.

So far, the State of Minnesota has not given financial aid to the live entertainment industry, but MNIVA has urged the government to follow in other states’ footsteps. Last year, Wisconsin directed $15 million in grants to 96 venues, and Michigan just announced a $3.5 million grant program for live music and entertainment venues. Oregon set aside $50 million of their CARES funding, and Montana directed $10 million in relief funds to support arts and culture venues and organizations. Other states are considering tax credits or aiding in pandemic-related venue updates.

Shayna Melgaard, talent buyer at Sue McLean & Associates, as well as Minnesota’s NIVA Precinct Captain and Chair of MNIVA, explains that some MNIVA members won’t survive the pandemic without additional local and state government support.

“While the federal Save Our Stages Act passed successfully and Minnesota’s own Amy Klobuchar was its fierce champion,” she said, “It’s a stopgap — not a payday.”

“When we heard the state was working on its own COVID-19 relief package in December, we sent state officials a grant program proposal that would directly correspond to the losses of our small businesses,” said Melgaard. “In the end, the state package completely skipped over our industry again.”

Although she’s happy to see funds sent to other struggling industries, she notes that live entertainment, unlike some of those industries, can’t financially operate at 50% capacity, and will likely be the last businesses to reopen.

Minnesota’s arts and culture industry is the state’s third largest, accounting for 3.5% of the economy and employing nearly 100,000 workers. Melgaard said any financial support from local and state lawmakers “would communicate to our industry that we are a valued sector of the economy.” Beyond their own walls, music venues also generate economic opportunities to nearby restaurants, hotels, and neighboring businesses.

“We’ve been out of work for almost a year,” said Kolb-Williams, who was recently elected vice chair of MNIVA. “[The SVO grant program] is going to help stabilize some things, but now we really need the State of Minnesota to come to our support. We need help.”

Looking ahead, there are plenty of plans in place to uplift the music industry and its ongoing requests for support. SVO grants should start rolling out some time in the second quarter of the fiscal year, with more specifics likely to arrive soon.

Broader pandemic relief is on the horizon too, possibly even aided by venues themselves. Recently, 12 organizations representing venues, including NIVA, sent President Biden a letter offering assistance for vaccine distribution. MNIVA is currently drafting a legislative bill which will request direct financial relief for independent venues and promoters.

“When this is all over, we want to be the places our communities can gather again, to celebrate, to heal. Our community, and especially Minneapolis, has been through a lot this year,” Melgaard reflected. “We have a lot to process and reconcile. Live music and safe community spaces are going to be needed more than ever.”