When Boot & Saddle, the legendary South Broad Street music venue, announced this month it was closing for good, the news hit like a dissonant guitar chord. If government relief for the region’s dozens of other small and midsized independent venues doesn’t come soon, many more will suffer the same fate, and a post-pandemic Philadelphia could be eerily quiet.
Independent music venues are our cultural lifeblood, and important economic drivers. Philadelphia’s creative economy has a $4.1 billion regional impact, and one recent study found that every dollar spent on a ticket has $12 in economic impact. Yet unlike restaurants, which have scraped by on takeout and limited seating, performance venues have had zero revenue since March, while hemorrhaging money for rents or mortgages, utilities, insurance and staff costs.
For an industry that doesn’t have an established lobbying apparatus in Harrisburg or Washington, calls for help have gone largely unanswered. Now Philly’s cherished independent venues fear a fate like Boot & Saddle’s could be weeks away.
» READ MORE: Boot and Saddle permanently closes due to COVID-19
The prospect of federal assistance once looked promising. In July a bipartisan group of senators introduced the Save Our Stages Act, which would authorize $10 billion nationally — less than one half of one percent of the CARES Act that passed in March — to keep independent venues afloat. The measure was included in the HEROES Act that the House of Representatives passed last month, but Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has refused to bring it up for a vote in the Senate. Meanwhile, the lauded Paycheck Protection Program does little for these venues, whose highest fixed costs are physical, not payroll.
State prospects appear even dimmer. Advocates were pushing for relief via the $1.3 billion leftover CARES Act money, which was intended for beleaguered industries like the performing arts, but the legislature just announced those funds would be used to fill holes in the state budget. Last month Allegheny County state Rep. Jake Wheatley introduced a bipartisan Pennsylvania Save Our Stages bill. But it has languished in the House Commerce Committee, where recalcitrant Republicans have rebuffed pleas for assistance, saying that instead, venue owners should lobby Gov. Tom Wolf to let them reopen. With COVID cases breaking records, this suggestion is the height of irresponsibility, and only the latest example of a legislature more interested in picking fights with the governor than in serving Pennsylvanians.
Other cities and states have figured out how to do this. Lawmakers in Oregon sent $9.7 million to support 78 venues. Nashville’s Metro Council approved $2 million in CARES Act funding to prop up that city’s independent venues. St. Paul, Minn., allocated $3.5 million. Indianapolis, $125,000. Pennsylvania and federal lawmakers should be jumping to approve the scant relief that will keep these venues from going under. It doesn’t take much, but the cost of forever losing these spaces is incalculable.
Concert venues were the first businesses to close in March, and they’ll be the last to reopen. It could take weeks or months of post-vaccine national coordination for performing artists to safely plan tour routes that bring them through Philly.
And that’s assuming there are any places left for them to play once they get here.