Congress Tries to Keep Live Entertainment Alive

December 18, 2020 by Tom Ramstack
Foo Fighters performing at Download Festival Paris in June 2018. (Photo via Wikipedia Commons)

WASHINGTON — Congress is trying to make sure the lights don’t go dark on Broadway any longer than necessary as the coronavirus pandemic devastates the live entertainment industry.

Since quarantine shut down much of the industry last March, actors, singers, musicians and their support staff have been left with few alternatives but to find other professions or face financial ruin, according to witnesses at a Senate hearing Tuesday.

“When the pandemic struck the United States, live entertainment jobs disappeared overnight,” said talent agent Ron Laffitte, who represents musicians such as the Backstreet Boys and Usher from his base in Beverly Hills, Calif. “We were one of the first industries to bear the brunt of this pandemic and we will probably be one of the last to get back to normal.”

Rather than being limited to performers, the job losses spread to secondary workers, such as bus drivers who carry bands to performances, restaurants that serve concert-goers and stage hands who set up equipment.

Ultimately, live entertainment industry losses can contribute to depressing local economies, he said.

Lafitte estimated that 77 percent of live performance workers lost 100 percent of their income since the quarantine started in March. More than 90 percent lost the main source of their employment, he said.

“All live event workers are hurting regardless of their employer,” Lafitte told a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation subcommittee.

He described the legacy of the COVID-19 pandemic for the live entertainment industry as “the lives lost, the jobs destroyed and the social isolation.”

They are pinning their hopes on two legislative proposals that would extend a financial bailout to live entertainers.

One of them is the Save Our Stages Act, which would provide Small Business Administration grants of as much as $12 million for independent live music venue operators struggling under the pandemic. The grants are designed to provide six months of financial support to keep venues afloat and to pay employees.

The Senate version of the bill, introduced by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., in June, has more than 50 cosponsors. The House already passed its version of the Save Our Stages Act in October.

The other proposal that could offer relief is a renewed version of the Paycheck Protection Program that Congress is expected to approve soon as part of a second round economic stimulus package.

The Paycheck Protection Program offers loans as an incentive for small businesses to keep their workers on their payrolls. The Small Business Administration will forgive the loans if employers retain workers who otherwise would be laid off and the funds are used only for eligible expenses. The loans come with a 1 percent interest rate.

Unlike the Paycheck Protection Program, the Save Our Stages Act is intended specifically for the live entertainment industry.

Also unlike some industries, live entertainment has been hit harder than most by the pandemic.

“I think one of the things we have learned from this pandemic is it is not one-size-fits-all, that not every business and every group of employees are affected in the same way,” Klobuchar said.

Industry figures show that 90 percent of owners, promoters and bookers among small live music and entertainment businesses report they are at risk of closing without additional financial assistance. They project an estimated $9 billion in losses if the drop in ticket sales continues into 2021.

“We don’t want this to be the year that we let our cultural icons die,” Klobuchar said.

Several senators discussed economic forecasts showing that a failure to help the industry will have consequences far beyond a song and dance.

“There is a ripple effect on the economy when the live entertainment industry is out of work,” said Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., who chairs the subcommittee on manufacturing, trade and consumer protection.

But with sickness and death as the only other option, states are forced to order bans on large gatherings, “leaving these businesses without revenue or alternative means to replace it,” Moran said.

Even if live entertainment returns to its former prominence, industry insiders are saying it probably will be transformed forever.

Many stage productions will be replaced by streaming video, wrote Michael Barra, chief executive of Lively McCabe Entertainment, a global media rights packaging and live stage production company, in the Dec. 13 issue of Fortune magazine.

“With the recent successes of Hamilton on Disney+, American Utopia on HBO Max, and What the Constitution Means to Me on Amazon Prime, a business model for streaming currently or recently running theater productions has now become established,” Barra wrote in an editorial.

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