Major Attaway

Broadway performer Major Attaway performs during a 2018 Plaza Theatre Co. fundraiser. Plaza, like many other live entertainment venues, has been hindered by the COVID-19 pandemic as they’ve had to cancel several months of performances. A bill co-authored by U.S. Rep. Roger Williams, R-Austin, would provide relief for independent music venues.

The sound of music has given way to the sounds of silence at downtown Cleburne’s Songbird Live. Three blocks south Plaza Theatre Co. at Dudley Hall sits empty as well having twice shut down since the COVID-19 pandemic began. The owners of both said they do not know when live shows will resume though both added that they plan to do everything possible to ensure reopening becomes a reality.

Songbird brings artists spanning all musical genre categories Cleburne’s way and, with only 100 seats, offers an intimate, up-close interaction experience between performer and audience.

“With the social distancing and safety requirements in place right now we just wouldn’t be able to allow enough people in to cover costs or make it feasible to be staging concerts right now,” Songbird Owner Tom Burkett said.

Plaza stages plays, mainly musical though some dramatic, at two downtown locations and offers classes in acting and other performing arts. State COVID-19 related orders shuttering entertainment venues earlier this year prompted Plaza officials to turn to outdoor drive-up style and online events. The theater recently reopened for live performances with limited audience seating but closed once again after several associated with the theater tested positive for COVID-19.

The economic freefall in wake of the pandemic took a toll on Plaza and Songbird, Plaza Artistic Director JaceSon Barrus said.

“In times like this, with disposable income diminished for so many, entertainment providers like us are usually among the first things people cut out of their budgets,” Barrus said.

Hope may come, however, courtesy of a bill U.S. Rep. Roger Williams, R-Austin, introduced Monday aimed at providing relief for independent music venues. Dubbed the Save Our Stages Act, the bill, if passed, will provide grants administered through the Small Business Administration to independent music venues impacted by the pandemic.

“Live music venues have been uniquely affected by the government’s actions during COVID-19,” Williams said. “Unlike some businesses on the road to recovery, music venues that have been cultural staples for generations will continue to bear the negative impacts of the pandemic for the foreseeable future. 

“I’m proud to introduce the Save Our Stages Act to help preserve these iconic venues that define states like Texas and create thousands of jobs while generating billions of dollars into our economy. It’s my hope that with the help of Congress, our venues will once again be able to open their doors to thousands of concertgoers and welcome their next act to the stage.”

Adam Hartke, president of Hartke Presents and co-chair of NIVA’s Advocacy Committee, said the collapse of the $10 billion music venue industry is imminent absent emergency federal assistance.

Hartke added that music and other entertainment independent venues face a situation of no revenue coupled with “colossal” ongoing overhead costs of rent, insurance, taxes, mortgages and other costs.

“So, it’s no wonder that when NIVA members were surveyed they said if the shutdown lasts six months or longer and there’s no federal help, they’ll shutter forever,” Hartke said. “We’re incredibly grateful to representatives Welch and Williams for sponsoring the Save Our Stages Act, which will provide the assistance we need to get through the shutdown until we can reopen safely and once again become the economic generators for the communities that we’ve always been.”

The bill, while yet to pass, appears to have bipartisan support. Williams joined U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vermont, in introducing the bill in the House. U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, joined U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, in introducing the same in the Senate.

Under the bill, recipients will be eligible for grants of 45 percent of their gross revenue from 2019 or up to $12 million, whichever is less. 

Organizations eligible to apply include those that organize, promote, produce, manage and host live concerts, comedy shows, theatrical productions and other events by performing artists, Williams said. They also include those who represent or manage artists or entertainers.

The bill targets smaller venues.

“Eligible recipients must have fewer than 500 full-time employees, not be publicly traded companies and not own or operate venues in more than one country or more than 10 states,” Williams said.

Williams sent a letter to House leadership in May urging Congress to provide such relief for independent music venues.

County and western singer/songwriter Randy Rogers, a Cleburne native, called the effort crucial.

“As an owner of an independent live music venue, as well as a recording artist that has toured all over the country playing thousands of rooms, I know firsthand how much our industry is hurting,” Rogers said. “These small rooms, dance halls, theaters and amphitheaters are not only integral parts of their communities, but they are also the livelihood for countless road warriors.

“If these doors close forever, we may never discover the next George Strait or Jay Z. The time to support these small business owners and preserve our musical culture is now, before it’s too late.”

Burkett and Barrus said they hope the bill passes and plan to look into the grants if so.

“It could be the lifeline of staying open or not for us,” Burkett said. “And this is important for the industry as a whole. There are so many musicians that, this is how they make their living and support their families. Not being able to play, entertain people and do the thing they love is really hurting a lot of them right now. I’ve talked to several musicians who said they may just have to get out of it and do something else.

“As for my place, I have no idea when we’ll be able to bring live concerts back to Songbird at this point.”

For now, it’s a case of thinking outside the box. Burkett continues to partner with Cleburne’s Fly By Night Cattle Company Steak House to stage concert and dinner nights. Fly By Night’s larger facility makes social distancing requirements possible, he said.

Saturday brings a night of Texas Swing with award-winning singer Kristyn Harris and others. Beatles tribute band Me & My Monkey are scheduled for Aug. 22 and guitar phenom Rhett Butler comes to town Sept. 12. 

Visit songbirdlive.com for information on those shows.

“Those shows are a little more expensive than our usual ticket prices at Songbird because they include dinner,” Burkett said. “But the food is first rate and the one we already had the musicians were just overjoyed to be able to play in front of people again after so many months of not having that opportunity.

“I’m looking at other things too, possibly some online events. But I really look forward to being able to bring music back to downtown Cleburne at Songbird Live and I’m trying everything I can to make sure that happens.”

With no target date to reopen, Barrus said Plaza officials are scratching and clawing to survive and looking at radical ideas to stay afloat until that time.

“We’re thinking of maybe doing the outdoor drive-up events again only with staged productions this time instead of music concerts like we did a few months ago,” Barrus  said. “We’re talking to people about the possibility of staging outdoor events in several larger venues around the city.

“The good news is we’re all still alive and we’re determined to come back. To that end, I’m really excited to hear about Williams’ bill and hoping that it passes. I also want to add a word on our patrons and staff. They’ve been so unbelievably supportive and understanding through this whole COVID-19 crazy year and it’s just as important to us to bring live theater back to Cleburne for them as it is for us.”

 

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