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Michigan entertainment venues helped by new state, federal aid packages

By Gary Graff
ggraff@medianewsgroup.com, @GraffonMusic on Twitte

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Some help is on the way for Michigan's music and entertainment venues thanks to new state and federal financial aid packages.

Both measures include monies for the national #SaveOurStages campaign spearheaded by the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) after clubs and theaters were forced to close by the COVID-19 pandemic in March and have remained largely shuttered since. The Michigan package includes $3.5 million earmarked specifically for those venues, while the federal government's COVID-19 Relief Bill includes $15 billion "in dedicated funding for live venues, independent movie theaters, and cultural institutions" -- along with $300 per week in enhanced unemployment insurance for workers.

"They were the first to close and probably will be the last to open...and without help it's clear they probably won't survive," Michigan state Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr. said by phone on Monday, Dec. 21, who helped spearhead aid for the venues in the package. "Even what we did will probably only barely cover the cost of a few months for them."

Hertel added that the venues "have a real economic impact in their communities and they add to our culture opportunities" and therefore need to be assisted as the pandemic shutdowns continue. He also noted that the venue operators have largely been complaint with state health restrictions and protocols during the past nine months and haven't tried to defy or dodge those edicts like some of their counterparts in the restaurant and movie theater industries.

"What struck me is they weren't arguing to open; They knew that wasn't right," Hertel said. "These are people that did the right thing. They want to continue to do the right thing. They're not asking to do the wrong thing. They just care about their business and their staffs, and they won’t' exist if we don't step up and do something. I thought (aid) was the most appropriate thing to do."

The aid packages are expected to be signed in short order by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and President Donald Trump.

Hertel was joined in pushing #SaveOurStages by fellow senators Jim Stamas, Winnie Brinks and Jeff Irwin and representatives Lynn Afendoulis, Rebekah Warren and Rachel Hood. They were assisted by the recently formed Michigan Independent Venue and Promoter Association (MIVPA), an offshoot of NIVA.

"We're unbelievably happy that the state has decided to do something," said MIVPA co-founder Scott Hammontree, who owns the Intersection and other clubs in Grand Rapids and is the Michigan precinct captain for NIVA. Though MIVPA had been pushing for $10 million, Hammontree acknowledges that $3.5 million "was basically all we could get at this time...We will continue to push further along."

Cary Denha, owner of the Magic Bag in Ferndale, said he was "absolutely thrilled" with the #SaveOurStages aid, adding that the legislators "really listened, and helped tremendously. I know now we are going to make it to the other side of this thing." Marianne James, executive director of The Ark in Ann Arbor, noted that the funding is "a welcome start and much-needed for the continued survival of live music in Michigan. It's also a tribute to our colleagues across the state who have been working so hard to be heard, and the legislators on both sides of the aisle who have listened and responded.

Mark Ridley, who owns the Comedy Castle in Royal Oak, added that, "The timing of this aid will assist...venues such as mine to hang on and reopen safely. With the vaccine on the horizon, the comedy and music-loving public are more than ready to go back to their favorite venues when they reopen. This really helps."

The touring trade magazine PollStar recently reported that the U.S. live music industry will lose more than $30 billion this year due to the pandemic, which has impacted more than 147,000 related business -- including venues of all sizes as well as support services such as staging, equipment and transportation. Some state venues were able to open intermittently, using outdoor stages and, in the case of Pontiac's Crofoot complex, holding drive-in concerts. Others have used virtual, online programming to present concerts and raise money.

Several other small funds have been set up around the state to help both venues and artists affected by the shutdowns.

Though some concerts are scheduled already for 2021, any sense of restarting remains speculative at this point, although executives with Live Nation, the world's largest promotion firm, have predicted a "robust" return during the summer.

Reacting to the federal aid, Dayna Frank, NIVA's Minneapolis-based board president, said in a statement that, "We're thrilled that Congress has heard the call of shuttered independent venues across the country and provided us a crucial lifeline...We're also incredibly grateful that this bill provides Pandemic Unemployment Assistance which will help the millions of people who lost their jobs through no fault of their own during this economic crisis.

"This legislation...will assist those in the greatest need and ensure the music lives on for generations to come."

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