Owners Of St. Louis Music Venues Try Different Tactics To Survive In A Pandemic
The reality of the emerging coronavirus pandemic arrived for many people on a wave of concert cancellations. They came fast and furious last March, as it became evident that mass gatherings would be unsafe for the foreseeable future and local officials subsequently put restrictions on public gatherings.
Schedulers at some venues, like the Fabulous Fox Theatre, began by postponing events — kicking them down the road in hopes that it would be safe to reopen by May. Or by June. Or by September. The owners of the Ready Room, a prominent club in the Grove, simply closed up shop quickly and said they hoped to reopen at a new location sometime in the future.
After a few experiments with limited-capacity shows, many venues are closed again and bringing in no revenue. As many performing arts organizations and venue owners gear up to apply for a new round of federal funding, they say there is no single, one-size-fits-all solution to their ongoing pandemic problems.
Many applied for loans from the newly created federal Paycheck Protection Program but found that strict rules about how they could use the money made it less useful. After months of lobbying by the live music industry, Congress passed the Save Our Stages Act as part of a $900 billion COVID-19 relief package in December. But while the $15 billion directed to arts organizations could be a lifeline for venue owners, it appears to offer little for other professionals in the concert business.
'We’re just trying not to lose more money'
People who make a living from live music have tried different tactics to get back to business since local officials placed the first round of limits on public gatherings in March.
The Pageant launched a summer series of concerts, featuring local artists including Marquise Knox and Tonina performing onstage to an empty room. The production values were excellent, and the Michigan-based, nationally popular group Greensky Bluegrass even staged a concert series at the venue for web streaming. But those shows were mostly just a chance to pay some out-of-work musicians and keep up the club’s profile while it otherwise sat dormant, said Pat Hagin, managing partner of the Pageant and nearby Delmar Hall.
The same went for a concert series for limited audiences in the fall.
“They were successful for what they were meant to be. Does that translate to success in the normal world? No,” Hagin said.
The Pageant received a PPP loan of $585,800. Federal regulations require that most of that money go to salaries. But if it’s not possible to safely hold events that turn a profit, there’s little need to keep a full complement of staff.
At full capacity, the venue can welcome 2,000 patrons, and about 60 venue staff work the shows. The capacity was limited to 336 people for the fall concert series, with everybody seated and socially distanced. A staff of 25 worked the events.
“We’re still losing money” with that setup, Hagin said. “We’re just trying not to lose more money than we already were losing.”
The owner of the Old Rock House, a music venue in LaSalle Square, had a similar experience with a fall concert series. Tim Weber invested about $40,000 in safety enhancements, including an upgraded air filtration system, plexiglass dividers at the bar and contact-free payment methods.
The shows accommodated up to 10% of the club’s 500-person capacity.
“We just tried to do that in order to prove that we could do it safely, because there was no reasonable expectation that we could ever do it profitably,” Weber said. “It was meant as a steppingstone to get someplace else.”
Weber employed the equivalent of 20 full-time employees before the pandemic. That number is down to two: his talent booker, who stays busy rescheduling postponed events, and a special-events manager. A PPP loan of $86,605 last year enabled him to keep his full staff employed a bit longer, but with no shows possible there was little for them to do.
“It was relatively useless,” Weber said, “because I couldn't open. PPP loans are designed to be used for payroll. When you can’t operate, it’s difficult to have payroll.”
Cash for shuttered venues
Weber and Hagin each have their eyes on a soon-to-be-launched federal funding source known as Shuttered Venue Operators grants.
The program is created by the Save Our Stages Act and makes available $15 billion for cultural organizations that have lost most or all of their income because of the pandemic. The grants will come with fewer restrictions than the PPP loans.
Though the legislation is largely intended for performing arts venues, other eligible organizations include museums, movie theaters and talent agencies.
“There are a lot of venues,” Hagin said, “especially a lot of smaller venues across the country that wouldn’t make it without that [money] — and it’s still going to be tough, even with it. It truly is a lifeline for our industry.”
But even this program leaves out essential players in the live music business. Independent contractors who provide production support for concerts — and musicians themselves — are not included.
“If the artists don’t qualify for some of this, I think they’ve missed the mark on what the point of it is,” said Kyle Vogt, vice president of Klance Unlimited. The company supplies gear, stagehands and other production support for venues including Hollywood Casino Amphitheater.
He said venue owners need help too, but the grant program is too restrictive.
“I guess they don’t understand how our industry works,” Vogt said of the architects of the Shuttered Venue Operators program. “Because there’s all kinds of different suppliers and artists that help make those venues work.”
Klance Unlimited has shifted much of its operation to hauling equipment around the country in its fleet of trucks. It has cut 25 of the 45 full-time employees it had before the pandemic.
Nonprofits are on better footing
For venues owned and operated by nonprofit foundations that are able to rely on support from donors, last year’s PPP loans have been more helpful than for venues that have gone dormant.
St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, which maintains its own performing venue, Powell Hall, received a PPP loan of $3,637,200. The money helped it avoid laying off any of its 150 full-time employees, though hundreds of part-time employees whose jobs are strictly tied to live performances — like stagehands and ushers — lost work. Orchestra musicians have also agreed to substantial salary cuts.
In the absence of concerts for live audiences, other than a chamber music series for strictly limited crowds in October and November, the organization has moved forward with internet-only content and education programs. Many people who bought tickets to its 59 canceled events last season chose to forgo refunds, President and CEO Marie-Hélène Bernard said.
This, in effect, added them to the orchestra’s roster of donors.
“The way we pivoted and the way we were able to still serve our mission was through philanthropy,” she said. “The story of this pandemic is that fundraising, plus the draw from the endowment, has enabled us to stay in business.”
The organization also slashed about a third from its annual budget of $31 million. Bernard said she’s looking into the potential for a Shuttered Venue Operators grant.
Staff at the Sheldon Concert Hall and Art Galleries around the corner from Powell Hall have also proceeded with web streaming and education programs in lieu of live concerts. The organization’s PPP loan of $244,600 helped it continue with the work it does offstage. It has held onto 17 of the 20 full-time employees it had before the pandemic.
“Everybody here has different jobs than at a club. We’ve got people whose job it is to do the fundraising, other people whose jobs is to oversee our education programs,” President and CEO Peter Palermo said. “A couple of people are involved in running the building. So all that work continues.”
The Sheldon’s leaders are trying to determine if the organization is eligible for a Shuttered Venue Operators grant. As backup, it has a “nest egg” of a few hundred thousand dollars, Palermo said. He’d prefer to save that money for a building project or to seed an endowment.
“You don’t want to take that nest egg and spend it on just keeping the lights on. But it’s there. And if that’s what we have to do, that’s what we’ll do,” Palermo said.
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