- Courtesy Of David Barnum
- Clem Snide at the Stone Church
Much in the same way a political reporter might not be the most qualified person to write an album review or preview a festival, I'm not especially suited to political reporting. But the December 27, 2020, passage of the Save Our Stages Act, or SOS, a $15 billion chunk of the gargantuan Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 (H.R. 133), compels me to wade into the murky waters of politics this week. While passage of that bit of legislation would be news to local music reporters in any market, it's especially relevant to Vermont. That's because our own U.S. Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) introduced the bill last July.
Last Friday, interested parties from around the state gathered for a virtual information session about the spending package. The Vermont Arts Council put on the talk, which included representatives from the Vermont District Office of the U.S. Small Business Administration. The biggest takeaway: Help is on the way, but not without a bit more thumb-twiddling until the Small Business Administration can assess the influx of applications and subsequently make it rain.
Two avenues are available for struggling venues. The first is the Paycheck Protection Program, which was established in March 2020 by the CARES Act. The PPP is specifically intended to cover payroll expenses for operating businesses, has a shorter window of time to be used and may need to be repaid. Another round of the PPP is coming with the Consolidated Appropriations Act.
The other option, this one specific to SOS, is the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant, or SVO. It offers more flexibility in terms of how and for how long it is used. There are plenty of other nitty-gritty criteria that venues must meet and consider, some of which we'll get into shortly.
"[SOS] is the biggest key for us," said Robin Johnson in a recent call with Seven Days. He owns the Stone Church nightclub in Brattleboro and serves on the membership committee of the National Independent Venue Association, a nonprofit that emerged in the early days of the pandemic and has been instrumental (sorry for the bad music pun) in the creation of SOS.
- Courtesy Of Josh Steele
- Pete Bernhard of the Devil Makes Three at the Stone Church
Johnson said it became clear to him early on that the CARES Act, and the PPP specifically, "wasn't designed for businesses like ours."
That's because, with the PPP, at least 60 percent of the money has to be used on payroll expenses. But for venues like the Stone Church, which have already shed staff, keeping up with overhead costs is a much greater priority right now than maintaining payroll. SVO grants have much more flexibility than PPP loans in how they can be applied.
The Stone Church has managed to stay afloat partially because of an Economic Injury and Disaster Loan and some grant money from Vermont's slice of CARES Act funding. The SVO grant "should give us up to 45 percent of our 2019 revenue," Johnson estimated, which should carry the 300-head capacity space through to the fall.
The venue opened in its current form in 2017 after years as a DIY space. Despite relaxed state guidelines that allowed for some indoor live music last summer, the Stone Church hasn't offered live music since before the pandemic. It did, however, present some livestreamed shows from its stage — until Vermont's positive COVID-19 case counts began surging last fall. Johnson said that if case counts decrease, the concert hall might begin livestreaming again, potentially with an extremely limited in-person audience.
Johnson explained that SVO grant funds would enable his organization to do some work on the Stone Church building. Those projects include a structural renovation that would allow performers to go directly from backstage to onstage. Currently, artists have to walk from the green room to the stage at floor level, putting them in close proximity, however briefly, to the crowd. That renovation is primarily a pandemic-era safety precaution and will keep artists at a safe distance from the audience from start to finish.
Johnson said that, despite the pandemic's overwhelming challenges, the past year has brought his community together like never before.
"Traditionally, [live music] is a business that's friendly but competitive," Johnson said. "The pandemic has really brought [independent venues] together and allowed them to do so much work."
- Courtesy Of Lyric Theatre
- Lyric Theatre performing at First Night Burlington in 2008
Not everyone hoping to get a slice of the SOS money is currently feeling hopeful, though. Erin Evarts, executive director of musical theater company Lyric Theatre (and, full disclosure, an old high school friend of mine), is fairly certain the volunteer-run organization isn't eligible, despite sharing some of the same criteria as entities that are. Lyric's spring 2020 production of Matilda the Musical was canceled due to the pandemic, a first for the 47-year-old institution.
"We're waiting on confirmation [from our lawyers]," Evarts said by phone, noting that what likely precludes Lyric from access to the SVO grant is that its performers are volunteers. Venues hoping to nab some of that cash must either pay their performers a percentage of ticket sales/door fees or a pre-agreed-upon amount.
Evarts is hopeful that funding better suited to her organization, which did manage to present a handful of virtual events in 2020, is on the way. She also said that, though the SVO grant probably doesn't directly affect an organization like Lyric, it does help the brick-and-mortar venues Lyric needs to be able to produce its shows, such as the Flynn, where Lyric's mainstage productions are held.
"No arts organization in Vermont works in a bubble," she said. "We want the Flynn and Higher Ground to be successful and get the Save Our Stages money so that we can get back in."
If I were a superhero, my superpower would be the ability to get songs stuck in other people's heads. Here are five songs that have been stuck in my head this week. May they also get stuck in yours.
Young Galaxy, "Fall for You"
Audio Bullys, "Eq-ing"
Creme Blush, "My Statement"
Grizzly Bear, "Two Weeks"
Action Figure Party, "Action Figure Party"