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Live Music Venues Get Government Lifeline: Where Does That Leave Restaurants?

In the new stimulus package, $15 billion is set aside for live entertainment venues and theaters, while local restaurants and bars still have no targeted relief

A street-view of the outside of Neumos at twilight on Capitol Hill
Neumos and many other local concert venues have been closed since the pandemic first impacted Seattle.

There was some good news this week for fans of live music in Seattle. Tucked into the new federal stimulus passed by Congress was a provision known as the Save Our Stages (SOS) Act, which sets aside $15 billion to support live entertainment venues, theaters, museums, and other cultural institutions. Around $2 billion will be reserved for entities with 50 or fewer full-time employees, which may help bridge the gap for independent operations until it’s safe to go to concerts again. The act is a much-needed lifeline for the city’s entertainment scene — but it also highlights the enormous gaps still remaining in restaurant and bar relief, existing in the same nightlife ecosystem.

Steven Severin, who co-owns the legendary Capitol Hill club Neumos as well as the vinyl record-packed bar Life on Mars, was celebrating the passage of the SOS Act, with continued vigilance. He and other venue owners across Washington have been pushing state and federal lawmakers hard since March to construct such a relief package, and had been frustrated for much of 2020. Earlier this year, he and others formed the Washington Nightlife Music Association (WANMA) to help catalyze the effort. “We needed to put our heads together because we don’t have lobbyists or much influence in Washington,” Severin tells Eater Seattle. “There’s zero revenue coming in, and if this didn’t pass, I’d estimate 90 percent of independent venues [in the state] would have closed.”

But as a bar owner, Severin was also involved in pushing targeted relief for the hospitality industry, and he was disappointed such specific aid didn’t find its way into the new stimulus package. Instead, bars and restaurants are mainly left to scramble for what they can get through another round of payroll protection program (PPP) loans. They will be in the same $284 billion pool as other small businesses, and loans will again be capped at 2.5 times monthly payroll costs — or 3.5 times payroll for bars and restaurants — with a new limit of $2 million. To get the loan forgiven (so it becomes more of a grant), establishments must use at least 60 percent of the proceeds on payroll while maintaining staffing levels.

This, together with supplemental unemployment money at $300 per week and one-time $600 checks for each adult making up to $75,000 — half of what the original stimulus bill passed this spring offered — doesn’t sit right to many. And it tempered Severin’s enthusiasm about the SOS Act. “I don’t understand how [lawmakers] can think restaurants can get by on PPP loans,” Severin says. “And $600? That’s a slap in the face.”

It’s been estimated that there are around 12 million people across the country whose trades are tied to live events, and most of the industry’s workers have been furloughed or laid off in the past year as COVID-related restrictions continue. Meanwhile, the Washington Hospitality Association estimates that 100,000 restaurant jobs could be in jeopardy during the current period of COVID restrictions, with dining rooms closed until at least January 4.

For those wondering whether restaurants or bars that host live music can apply for SOS Act funding, that does not look likely. The language of the bill makes clear that music venues hoping to qualify must have a defined performance space, sound boards, lighting rigs, and staff that service performances. They must also show that their principal business activity comes from live entertainment (more details can be found around page 2124 of the bill here). So simply putting a piano in a restaurant or having the occasional cabaret night would probably not open up some sort of loophole.

For instance, Paragon in Queen Anne hosted live music several nights a week (and still offered some live stream concerts during the pandemic), but co-owner Kim Rogozienski says the venue will likely try to apply for a second PPP loan, rather than go for any SOS Act money. The first PPP round allowed Paragon to make it through October, and a new round may bridge the gap until summer, she says.

Rogozienski points out that applying for forgiveness for a PPP loan seems to be more streamlined now, if the amount is less than $150,000. And, though the SOS Act won’t help Paragon or similar restaurants, there are some potential benefits. One is that preservation of local live music should hopefully provide a longterm boost to those relying on nearby concert venues (proponents of the act estimated that for every $1 spent on a concert ticket, $12 goes into the local economy, including restaurants). Also, the framework of the SOS Act could be a good model to follow for any pandemic relief bills on the table in 2021, particularly when it comes to a focus on independent restaurants. Like PPP loans, publicly-traded companies (like LiveNation) are excluded, while venues that lost more than 90 percent of their revenue in 2020 are given first dibs on the money.

But the call for comprehensive restaurant relief from the government has been sounded for nearly 10 full months now, with no tangible results — and it’s unclear whether any will be coming soon. If it does, hopefully legislation such as the SOS Act can at least provide a touchstone and proof that something can be done to help struggling industries and their workers, if there’s enough pressure applied. “The food in Seattle is so good right now — it’s like, holy shit,” says Severin. “We can’t lose that.”