• January 23, 2021

Artists to Congress: We’re People, Too

 Artists to Congress: We’re People, Too

The Wu-Tang Clan celebrates 25th anniversary of their seminal album, 36 Chambers in 2019. Photo by Matt Laslo

WASHINGTON — Musicians, visual artists and other creatives know a little something about passing around the donation cup, having all performed at least a gig or two funded by the dollar bills or even change in the pockets of the audience.  

They’re probably less used to having to sing for their money in front of the U.S. Senate. 

But that’s exactly what a group of entertainment professionals had to do on Tuesday, making an emotional and personal case for Congress to pass direct aid for their industry, which has been one of the hardest hit, yet still utterly neglected of all of the hard hit industries. 

Coronavirus cases are again spiking, nationwide shutdowns are still keeping the entertainment industry sector largely shuttered, and Congress remains gridlocked over whether to even pass another relief bill, let alone one that includes any assistance to the nation’s venues. 

That’s why a group of professionals testified (some remotely, of course) in front of a Senate Commerce subcommittee on Tuesday. They were all trying to lend new urgency — as opposed to the urgency they already impressed on the likes of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell this spring — to the cause of saving the now-literally starving artists they represent.

“We don’t have an income stream. We have nothing that’s bankable. We can’t get a loan. We are literally here with our hat in our hand, begging,” Michael Strickland, the owner of a Tennessee entertainment lighting company Bandit Lites, told senators. “We have no lobby. We have no PAC. And to quote a friend and client of mine, Jackson Browne, we’re, ‘Running on Empty.’ There are ‘Lives in the Balance.’”

Senators seemed receptive, even sympathetic, to the speakers, some of whom were constituents of Subcommittee Chairman Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), the top Democrat on the subcommittee, along with other members of the panel, including Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.). 

Still, it remains unclear if Congress will pass aid for the artists, even if it succeeds in its goal of passing a coronavirus relief package by this week’s end. 

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have been trying to hammer out details behind closed doors this week, with the goal of attaching aid to a government funding bill that must be passed. Otherwise, the government, or at least the bulk of it, shuts down by the end of the week.

Klobuchar thinks there has been incremental progress in potentially attaching the Save Our Stages Act — which she co-sponsored with Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) — to the relief package, although she acknowledged certain changes need to be made to make that happen. The bill would free up the Small Business Administration to give $10 billion in grants to independent live music venue operators to cover their costs.

“We do not want to be the Congress that lets the music die, and we don’t want this to be the year that we let our cultural icons die,” Klobuchar said at the hearing. “We are working really, really hard to get it in the relief package. We’re feeling good about the work that’s going on.”

The bill would be life-saving, according to Adam Hartke, who with his wife co-owns Wichita, Kan., venues WAVE and the Cotillion — the latter of which he said his family has worked at in one form or another for three generations now. He said the SBA’s Paycheck Protection Program was helpful when it was passed this spring, but that money ran out long ago. By now, he and his industry colleagues are barely hanging on.

“The amount of these loans were insufficient, and within three months, the funds were depleted,” he testified. “This is now a debt we have to pay off for the next 30 years. Many of us have personal guarantees on our businesses. Without help we could lose our homes. Our children will not be provided for, and everything we’ve worked for will vanish.”

Nine out of every 10 independent venues could go under without immediate help, according to Hartke. That would be a tragedy beyond just the cultural importance some of these legendary venues have in their communities, he added. 

For instance, it would be impossible to spring up a venue with a storied history like First Avenue in Minneapolis again if it were to close because of coronavirus. More so, it would be an economic hit to their communities too, because venues like these contribute billions to the economy.

Still, some entertainment industry professionals told senators the Save Our Stages Act won’t be enough, because there are other entertainment-adjacent industries that have been hit, too. 

Pete Pantuso, the President and CEO, American Bus Association, singled out bus companies that transport touring artists. Pantuso said the CERTS Act, which would provide $10 billion for the transportation industry, would be a great help to touring entertainment focused motorcoach companies that are now left without work.

And Strickland advocated for his lighting industry, which he said is “at zero” revenue because there are no live events to illuminate.

Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.) promoted his RESTART Act, which would implement a modified version of the PPP program that would give loans to many kinds of small- and medium-sized business but give them more options for how to use the money rather than just retaining and paying workers.

“RESTART is the only vehicle that I have identified that holistically allows anyone that has been devastated to survive,” Strickland testified. “Save Our Stages is a great first step. I urge you to pass it as soon as possible. But we must go to the next step.”

Daniel Newhauser

Daniel Newhauser is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. His work has appeared in the Atlantic, Roll Call, VICE, National Journal, Politico and several other publications. He can be found on Twitter @DNewhauser

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