Small concert venues, shut by pandemic, band together to seek federal aid

Mike Dougherty
June 29, 2020 - 4:00 am
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PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — While some businesses are reopening at limited capacity, others remain shuttered with no end in sight. Owners of small independent concert venues say they might never reopen if the government doesn’t step up to help.

For a lot of venues, 2020 was full of promise. Union Transfer, in the Callowhill section of Philadelphia, was primed for a record-setting year.

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"Back in early March, we were on pace to have our best spring ever," said owner Sean Agnew. 

But when the pandemic began, live music was the first industry shut down and forced to refund all the ticket sales. It was like someone took a vacuum cleaner to the bank account.

"In about three weeks time," Agnew said, "we had to cancel 143 shows for the rest of the year."

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Agnew said it was obvious that had to be done for people's safety, but his business isn't getting any support from the government.

The industry has never asked for or needed help until now, Agnew said, which is why thousands of owners joined the National Independent Venue Association virtually overnight.

"I believe 90% of music venues are likely to be closed by Thanksgiving if there is not federal assistance," he estimated.

NIVA spokeswoman Audrey Fix Schaefer said federal funding has mostly gone to cover employee costs, but that doesn't help venues which had to furlough staff and can't open anytime soon.

"What we're looking to do is have modifications on the (Paycheck Protection Program) so it can also cover our overhead expenses that are fixed costs like rent."

Schaefer said artists like Bruce Springsteen launched their careers in small venues, and many major artists, including Lady Gaga and Dave Grohl, have been advocating to Congress to help save the industry.

Agnew said a silver lining in all this is that one-time competitors among small venues are now banding together like never before to take on the fat cats like Live Nation. But that's a fight for another day. Right now, he said, they're just trying to pay the utility bills.