Local Music Venues Push For Federal Help

Lucy Gellman | April 24th, 2020

Local Music Venues Push For Federal Help

Cafe Nine  |  College Street Music Hall  |  Music  |  Arts & Culture  |  The State House  |  COVID-19


Trombone Shorty at College Street Music Hall in 2017. Photo Courtesy College Street Music Hall. 

A downtown music venue may have the best fall and winter it has seen yet—if it is able to open its doors in time to do so. In the meantime, it is one of four New Haven concert spots to add its voice to a national call for government aid.

Wednesday, College Street Music Hall joined the Space Ballroom, Cafe Nine and The State House in supporting a letter from the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) to Congress requesting federal help in the midst of COVID-19. The plea comes as both music venues and artists struggle under the financial weight of cancelled ticket sales, postponed shows, and COVID-19 closures.

In addition to its nine Connecticut members, NIVA includes over 800 venues in 48 states and Washington, D.C. In downtown New Haven, College Street Music Hall a non profit owned and operated by New Haven Center for Performing Arts Inc. Based in Hamden, Space Ballroom is owned and operated by Backstage Hamden LLC.

Cafe Nine is operated by longtime owner Paul Mayer. The State House is co-owned by Slate Liu-Ballard and Carlos Wells, who have launched a virtual tip jar in the wake of COVID-19 layoffs and furloughs.

The letter, from NIVA Board President Dayna Frank, was addressed to Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi, House of Representatives Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer. In part, it is a response to the growing fear that music venues, which were among the first spots to shut down during pandemic closures, will be some of the last to reopen.

“Each year, thousands of independent venues host millions of events, staffed by hundreds of thousands of employees, and attended by millions of concertgoers across all walks of life,” reads one excerpt. “Our entertainment hubs are important economic multipliers for our local economies and tax bases as employers and tourism destinations, and revenue generators for neighboring businesses such as restaurants, hotels, and retail.”

In the meantime, NIVA noted, many of the provisions provided by the U.S. Small Business Administration and $2 trillion CARES Act are not built for performance venues that rely on ticket sales and attendance. While they are large economic drivers when their doors are open—the letter pulled from the Chicago Loop Alliance’s findings that “for every $1 spent on a ticket, a total of $12 of economic activity was generated”—they have no profit margin with their doors closed.

Unlike restaurants with take out and delivery options, they can’t generate any sort of revenue, no matter how small. While halving capacity in the future is a possibility, there’s no blueprint for how that’s done with general admission—and no consensus that operating at 25 or 50 percent will be worth the cost.

“The current programs are designed for businesses that will potentially be able to open in the coming weeks,” Frank noted. “They fail to sustain an industry like ours. With your help, we will resume normal operations and our businesses and employees will come back stronger and more resilient than ever. But right now, without your help, thousands of independent music venues will not survive to see the day when our doors can open to the public again.”

Local musician Chad Browne-Springer performing at The State House  in 2019. Lucy Gellman File Photo.

For the New Haven venues involved, that news hits close to home. Before COVID-19, a report from the National Endowment for the Arts found that fine and performing arts generate $9 billion in revenue and 57,000 jobs per year across the state. That’s roughly five percent of the state’s economy. In 2018, a report from the New Haven Center for Performing Arts estimated that College Street Music Hall contributed over $16 million to the city’s economy and created full- and part-time 280 jobs.

At The State House, Wells and Liu-Ballard have been hustling for grants from their respective homes. Liu-Ballard said he has spent the past six weeks applying for support from both state and federal entities including the U.S. Small Business Administration, and has heard almost nothing in return. So far, the only external funding the space has received is $500 from the New Haven Creative Sector Relief Fund and an emergency loan that Liu-Ballard called "a drop in the bucket." 

The need for funding right now “is critical,” he said. In the weeks since mid-March, Liu-Ballard estimated that the State House has lost $20,000 in revenue, and has had to cancel or postpone almost 40 performances. If shutdowns continue through May, which he said seems likely, it stands to lose another $60,000.

“We were one of the earliest groups to get shut down and we're likely going to be one of the last to get but back online,” he said. “Performance venues have a special place in the community and the economy—large groups of people gather together and become part of a greater whole.”

Keith Mahler, president of Premier Concerts, echoed Liu-Ballard’s concerns. Premier promotes performances at both College Street Music Hall and Space Ballroom. 

In March, College Street closed its doors in accordance with statewide executive orders. Of concerts that were cancelled or postponed, several have been moved into the fall. Mahler said College Street has continued to book shows into next summer, with the outlook that it will survive the pandemic and continue to bring entertainment through the community.

“It's going to be a long reopening,” he said. “It is what it is. I can tell you that our entire fall and into winter is going to be the biggest year College Street has ever had if we can reopen.”

In the thick of it, he said he is also trying to stay calm. Because the state has designated construction as an essential business, work has continued on the Westville Music Bowl, plans for which Mahler said are right on time.

He doesn’t know if the bowl’s first concert, which was scheduled for early June, will still happen. But until the state declares that it is safe to reopen, there is only so much he can do.

“You know, most things are in my control,” he said. “None of this is in my control. You just gotta ride it out.”

To read the full letter, click here.