Quad-Cities Live Music Venues Look Forward to Federal Stimulus Funds
Though long-awaited funding for live-music venues is part of the federal Covid stimulus bill recently signed into law, several Quad-Cities entertainment spaces are taking a “wait and see” attitude regarding the reality.
Scott Mullen, executive director of Moline’s TaxSlayer Center, said the $15-billion “Save Our Stages” act that was approved had included language noting some venue owners and arenas like his “don’t qualify due to a requirement they put in that says that 70% of the venue’s events must be artist performances, so buildings with sports tenants are excluded due to the number of games they play.”
Mullen has worked over the past year with the International Association of Venue Managers as their director of arenas, to get Congress to include more venues included in the relief bill.
“We have a lobbyist and have appealed to elected officials to include public entities and municipal corporations like the Illinois Quad City Civic Center Authority in their legislation,” he said around Christmas. “I have heard that there is now language in the relief bill that would include venues like ours and we are hopeful that it will remain in the final approved version.”
Mullen said Tuesday said that the 70-percent threshold was in the final bill, but it refers to revenues, so TaxSlayer may or may not be eligible for that new funding, since about half its public events are hockey, arena football and basketball. Mullen said he still must clarify if the 70 percent represents gross or net revenues of entertainment events, and whether it includes concession sales.
“Save Our Stages” was created in part to prohibit major league teams from getting involved in this, he said. “There are not a whole lot of buildings like ours, that are municipal corporations, but we are self-supporting, and we have been since day one.”
“We’re talking to all our elected state and federal officials; they all assume we’re under the city’s budget, you don’t need the money,” he said. “It’s been a real challenge trying to get them educated. There’s so many different ways buildings are set up. They don’t know anything about our business.”
“This was made on purpose to keep venues with sports teams out of it,” Mullen said of Covid relief. “The nightclubs really do need help; kudos to them for leading the charge on this, getting in front of elected officials. It was a good organized effort, we tried to piggyback on it.”
The federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans would not help the arena, because his staff is on unemployment and not working. The TaxSlayer Center did benefit from $486,000 for Covid-related improvements, from the state of Illinois Coronavirus Urgent Remediation Emergency (CURE) economic support program, through the first federal CARES Act.
The arena made building improvements like putting in touchless sensors for sinks and toilets; electrostatic sprayers, UV sanitizing lights for handrails, and a new Wi-Fi system to enable a mobile ordering platform, so customers can order concessions from their seat and not have to wait in line, Mullen said.
“What I’ve been working on constantly through the pandemic, with IAVM, our elected officials, here’s our situation — we’re a municipal corporation,” he said. “A lot of senators said, municipalities cannot be included in this, this is for private businesses, not funded by government dollars. We’re an independent authority, we’re not a line item in the city’s budget.”
“You try to get through, it’s not over yet,” Mullen said of getting another round of federal relief for arenas, convention centers, performing arts centers, and other large venues represented by IAVM. “When you look at facts, we’re going to be the last building to open in Illinois, one of the last in the country.
“By the time we open, we’re not going to be allowed to open until things are safer,” he said. “It makes it so hard to book an event. You can’t scale it; you can’t put tickets on sale when you don’t know if you’re going to be half the building. We keep kicking the can down the road.”
The 28-year-old TaxSlayer Center usually generates $80 million to $100 million annually in economic impact to the community and “plays a vital role in quality of life for the Quad-Cities,” Mullen said.
“A lot of it’s going to depend on how long this lasts,” he said of the pandemic. “We want to make sure we’re top of mind with people, we’re losing millions of dollars. We have no income.”
The Moline arena has lost $6 million in revenues so far due to the pandemic, and is down to $1.2 million in reserves, he said. The TaxSlayer has a rescheduled Michael Buble concert for Feb. 20, but Mullen said that will be rescheduled again later this week, likely to the fall. Other rescheduled shows up in the air are One Night of Queen in March and Frankie Valli in June.
Many venues eligible for funding
The $15 billion approved by Congress isn’t meant just for live music venues, but will be set aside for independent venues, Broadway theaters, movie theaters, talent agencies and museums, according to Rolling Stone.
Save Our Stages, as it was introduced and remains in the new bill, allows venues to apply for Small Business Administration grants to cover both employee pay for six months and big overhead costs through the end of the year. And while the grant amount is 45 percent of a venue’s 2019 earned revenue (with a $10 million cap), the bill includes language that allows newer venues and businesses to apply, too, so long as
they were operational by Feb. 29, 2020.
Additionally, some of the most vulnerable venues will get first access to grants: Applicants that have lost more than 90 percent of their revenue will be allowed to apply first during a two-week window that starts after the bill becomes a law. The law also calls for $2 billion to be set aside specifically for entities with less than 50 full-time employees, which includes many struggling venues nationwide.
“Some of the basic info has started to get released about the newest legislation, which looks promising. But as you know, so much depends on the actual rollout and the specific regulations of the relief programs,” said Tyson Danner, executive director of the River Music Experience, Davenport.
“We’re closely watching for details on the Save Our Stages portion of the bill, which is the piece we expect to have the biggest positive impact for not only RME, but for our nonprofit and for-profit music partners throughout the region,” he said recently. “We are glad that lawmakers listened to advocates like NIVA, and included music and performance venues for designated aid dollars. Venues have been hit the hardest, and it’s good to see Congress recognize them as economic drivers that are a key building block to the country’s financial recovery.
“I can tell you that in a typical year, more than half of our revenue is generated by in-person programming and events,” Danner said.
NIVA, or the National Independent Venue Association, was formed in spring 2020, in response to the pandemic and represents roughly 2,800 (typically smaller) venues from all over the U.S. It lobbied Congress to pass the Save Our Stages Act without delay.
According to a study commissioned over the summer, 90% of NIVA’s members said they would eventually be forced to cease operations permanently without federal support.
In the interim, NIVA sought to raise money for independent venues through corporate donations and other initiatives, including the digital #SOSFest.
“We’re thrilled that Congress has heard the call of shuttered independent venues across the country and provided us a crucial lifeline by including the Save Our Stages Act in the Covid relief bill,” said NIVA board president Dayna Frank, who is also owner and CEO of First Avenue Productions in Minneapolis.
In a fall two-month campaign, RME raised $32,236, including a $10,000 matching grant from campaign chairs Rusty and Doris Unterzuber, and KV Dahl III, to help make up for lost revenue, Danner said.
“A goose egg, zero revenue”
“No one expected nine months, laying a goose egg, with zero revenue,” he said late last month. “I think it gives you a little hope, which is what we’ve been missing lately. We were just getting things rolling at the beginning of 2020, with a series of shows coming through.”
In 2020, they were only able to host two concerts before being shut down March 13, Peters said, with half of shows rescheduled and half just canceled.
“We didn’t know how long this was gonna be,” he said of the pandemic, noting the Illinois restrictions on indoor gatherings are stricter than Iowa.
“We’re really hoping, if we can get some kind of capacity, give me something we can work with,” Peters said. “All businesses have been impacted by Covid, been creative, unique, and carved out a new way of doing business. With the state of Illinois, we haven’t had the option or opportunity to get creative, to have indoor live events.”
The nearby Murphy Park at The Bend canceled its summer 2020 concert series, but Peters organized an outdoor country concert there in October, with Joe Nichols (attracting about 500 in attendance, in an area that can hold 9,000 people).
“People really responded very well for that,” he said. “There’s some stuff we learned from that, socially distanced pod type seating, we might implement in the future.”
Peters is glad for the federal funding bill – “the biggest thing, it gives you hope to turn this baby back on and rolling,” he said. Of The Rust Belt, which just opened in early 2019, “It’s a cool unique venue; I really want it to have its fair shot,” Peters said. “We were just getting
started. Things will come. It won’t be like this forever. We need to get things moving forward again. We’re willing, we need an opportunity to turn the lights on.”
Terry Tilka, owner of Rock Island Brewing Co., which also shut down live music for most of 2020, said he couldn’t say much about federal aid until he actually saw the application and sees what’s all involved.
“Some bars and taverns are doing some sales, but live music venues and clubs are in another category,” he said recently. “No DJ’s, no dancing, no bands, it’s horrible. I truly hope it fits clubs of all sizes with a history of live music, as well as big venues like the TaxSlayer.”
Rick Palmer, executive director of the RiverCenter/Adler Theatre, said his 2020 revenue was almost half the prior year, with further loss expected this year (the fiscal year started July 1, 2020) as events continue to be postponed or canceled.
He got a $306,000 Paycheck Protection Loan for payroll, and was hopeful with the “Save Our Stages” funding.
“The process is in progress as we analyze which route is best, more than likely via PPP loans as impacts to RiverCenter can also be included,” Palmer said by e-mail.
The Adler has hosted some limited capacity events in recent months, including a Quad City Symphony October concert and a Maddie Poppe December concert. In its 2021 calendar, its first event is the rescheduled touring musical “Waitress,” which is planned for March 23.
Brian Baxter, executive director of the Quad City Symphony Orchestra, said recently that they “do not know what to expect in funding through either a second round of PPP or SOS as the final details around each program (especially SOS) remain to be fully approved and finalized.
“At this moment, it looks like we qualify for either option and we plan to apply for support from one of them when those applications open, so we are watching it closely,” he said late last month. “We’ve seen a drop in our total earned ticket revenue from March through December by
75% in 2020 as compared to 2019. We continue to aggressively pursue all options to continue to mitigate these challenges as best we can.”
The Black Box Theatre, Moline, is down two-thirds in revenue in 2020 compared to 2019, said co-owner Lora Adams.
“We have had some donations through Birdies for Charity, private donations and we did receive a Business Interruption Grant, which reimbursed two months of rent/utilities. I don’t anticipate any funding through PPP because we are a volunteer based non-profit,” she said, noting they also did benefit from QC HIVE and Giving Tuesday, “but most government programs except for BIG we have not been able to access.”
Jen Sondgeroth, new board president for Quad City Music Guild, Moline (which was completely closed in 2020), said their real financial impact won’t be known until we are into 2021.
“With few exceptions, season tickets purchased for 2020 were held over for our patrons into 2021,” she said. “That obviously means we won’t be selling as many season tickets in 2021, as they were already purchased. The few single show tickets that had been sold when the pandemic closures started were also held over. Once the shutdown began, we really did not have any new ticket revenue to speak of.”
“Obviously, without productions in 2020 our expenses were lower, and we were fortunate to receive pandemic-related grant funding during the closure as well,” Sondgeroth said. “We should have final numbers for 2020 at our January Board meeting. But, again, 2021 will continue to tell the story.”
Concert promoter John Taylor of Cambridge said fundraising activities and revenue sources for all the organizations he oversees have been impacted by Covid.
“Some have already received significant aid from outside sources and others have received very little or none,” he said. “The more grassroots organizations are receiving the least or no help. Across the board, I have seen the full spectrum.”
Taylor’s businesses — Heartland Connections, Bishop Hill Creative Commons, and Ca D Zan Media — have mostly not been eligible for emergency funding, noting he did get some small grant funding from other sources. “I was able to host limited outdoor concerts, but revenue is down and looks like it will be for the
foreseeable future,” he said.
Circa faces 80-percent revenue loss
Circa ’21 Dinner Playhouse, Rock Island, will definitely apply for the new federal funding, business manager Diane Laake said Tuesday.
“We were able to get PPP, and we did get some help from the Illinois economic disaster fund. But one thing about the PPP loans, they have criteria of percentages you have to meet with payroll and utilities,” she said. “For a theater, there was nothing for our employees do but be laid off and go on unemployment. We could not get the full amount unless you were able to keep your employees, and it’s not going to be forgiven. It is going to be a loan.
“Circa ’21, as long as we’d been here, we had no loans,” Laake – who’s worked for Circa 38 of its 43 years – said. “It’s really sad, to work this many years to get to this point, and pretty much start all over.”
For the Save Our Stages funding, she’s not sure how the application process will work, but they hope to recoup some of the 80-percent revenue loss Circa experienced in 2020 compared to the prior year.
“The day we got the order to shut down, we were ready to go into ‘Saturday Night Fever’,” Laake recalled of mid-March 2020. “We had all the expenses to put in the show, and we kept those people, delayed two months, and that didn’t happen. We kept those employees until July 1. We kept thinking it was going on.”
Overall, of all Circa subscribers and single-ticketholders, about 20 percent sought refunds, with the rest donating their cost back to the theater or keeping a credit on their account for future shows, she said.
“Another bad thing about this, because people pay in advance for their tickets, when we shut down, those who took in credit, that was great, but once we get open, there’s going to be no new money coming in,” Laake said. “And our gift certificate sales alone were just pitiful.”
The shows Circa was able to do, at The Speakeasy, two months on the main stage with a 50-person cap in the audience, and streaming online have not been big money-makers, she noted.
“For the most part, the people were great, as long as we can give them a quality show,” Laake said of their audiences. “You don’t always want to watch someone in their living room doing a show. It’s coming up with fresh ideas.”
Circa owns a lot of property on 3rd Avenue downtown, and they have big utilities expenses, she added.
“It’s just a huge building to maintain,” Laake said, noting their utilities from April to October alone were $30,000.
“I’m being very optimistic. We’re hoping to open up in March with ‘Church Basement Ladies,’ but I don’t think we will be at full capacity,” she said. “I hope with Illinois, knock on wood, we hope to open. But 50 people doesn’t help us.”
Before Nov. 20, theaters in Illinois were able to open with a maximum capacity of 50 patrons (not including cast and crew); Circa has a total seating capacity of 334. Since Nov. 20, Illinois returned to Tier 3, and banned indoor dining, and closed casinos, theaters, performing arts
centers and indoor museums and amusement centers.
With the financial cushion Save Our Stages provides, venues can turn their attention to the difficult process of re-opening, according to the Dec. 22 Rolling Stone piece.
Estimates on when that will be vary, though experts hope that scattered outdoor shows may be feasible by the summer, and something close to full touring will be possible by the end of 2021, the story said.
“Most importantly though, venues can’t survive on scattered shows or gigs at limited capacity — real sustainability depends on that national network of touring artists safely returning in full, and that may not happen until 2022,” Rolling Stone said.
At saveourstages.com, NIVA says it has an Implementation Task Force and is working with the Small Business Administration as they promulgate regulations – “we are working hard to make sure that NIVA members receive the help they need via this program,” the site says. “We seek to ensure the emergency relief is dispersed as Congress intended, that the instructions and process to apply for grants ensure that the process is implemented accurately, fairly and as expediently as possible.
“Since it could take many weeks, even months for the funding to flow, the NIVA Emergency Relief Fund, with The Giving Back Fund as its 501(c)3 fiscal sponsor, continues to raise money to assist the venues at greatest risk of permanently going under as we wait for the grants to be issued,” the site says.