An outdoor limited-capacity show this summer held in Jammin Java's parking area.

An outdoor limited-capacity show this summer held in Jammin Java's parking area.

It was almost a year ago to the date that theaters and live music venues in our region shut down. And while some industries have been able to gradually reopen, that has not generally been the case with live entertainment. That’s where the National Independent Venue Association came in, a coalition started towards the beginning of the pandemic which is now made up of 3,000 independent venues in all 50 states and D.C. The group advocated for the Save Our Stages Act, a part of the end-of-year federal relief package. This allocated a historic $15 billion in grant money to independent arts and culture venues.

But the federal government has not yet accepted applications for this funding, meaning none of the funds have been distributed. Advocates worry it may soon be too late for some venues that have been barely holding on since the start of the pandemic. On top of that, there is continued confusion around which independent arts venues will qualify for these grants.

We’re catching up with local theaters and live music venues to discuss their experiences this past year, and hear about their continued efforts to make ends meet until the day live shows can once again resume.

Produced by Inés Rénique


  • Molly Smith Artistic Director, Arena Stage; @msmitharena
  • Jon Weiss Head Talent Buyer, Union Stage and Jammin Java; @unionstage
  • Rebecca Medrano Co-Founder and Executive Director, GALA Hispanic Theatre; @TeatroGALA
  • Mikaela Lefrak WAMU Arts and Culture Reporter; Host of WAMU's "What's With Washington" podcast; @mikafrak
  • Audrey Fix Schaefer Board Member and Communications Director, National Independent Venue Association (NIVA); Communications Director, I.M.P., which owns The Anthem, Lincoln Theatre, Merriweather Post Pavilion and 9:30 Club; @audreyschaefer


  • 12:00:14

    KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, welcome. It's been a year now since local theaters and concert venues were forced to shut their doors due to the coronavirus pandemic. For some it's been a year since they've sold a single ticket. And others have had to pivot to virtual performances. Today we'll explore how live entertainment might come through this and whether the $15 billion in the recent stimulus package dubbed Save Our Stages will help. Later in the broadcast we'll be talking about these initiatives in local music, but first we want to check in with local theaters. Joining me to discuss is Mikaela Lefrak. Mikaela is WAMU's Arts and Culture Reporter. Mikaela, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:00:59

    MIKAELA LEFRAKHi, Kojo. Great to be here.

  • 12:01:01

    NNAMDIMikaela, this past you've seen up close the effects of the pandemic on our local arts and music scene. How are local artists and venue owners feeling a year into the pandemic?

  • 12:01:14

    LEFRAKFrankly, I think like all of us are, they're feeling weary, Kojo. This past year as you can imagine has been incredibly difficult on the arts economy. We can start with venues. Venues are relying almost entirely on government grants and loans and private donations and cash reserves to stay open right now. The ones that own their buildings or have sympathetic landlords are obviously in a much better place than venues that have had to pay rent throughout the past year without bringing in any revenue from events. And many venue owners that I've spoken to have become experts in grant applications and getting their employees on unemployment benefits, and some have closed. You know, there's everywhere from East Street Music Hall to Twins Jazz, lots of places are shutting down permanently.

  • 12:02:03

    LEFRAKBut at the same time on the flip side there's been a lot of really amazing innovation that I've seen. Two quick examples that have come to mind. I spoke to a painter in Hyattsville the other day who's been growing this following on TikTok. She has nearly 60,000 followers now who watch her doing home craft projects, and she started making money off that social media following.

  • 12:02:25

    LEFRAKAnd then other artists have turned to side gigs. I spoke to a local jazz musician the other day, this bass player named Chris Fun and he says he's been doing web design for the past year. And he says a lot of people he knows might, you know, unfortunately not ever go back to working full time as musicians. You know, their side gigs will become their full time gigs, but at least for Chris, he says the second D.C.'s jazz venues reopen, he's going to be right back to playing bass.

  • 12:02:53

    NNAMDIMikaela, this week President Biden said that by May every adult in the country will have access to the coronavirus vaccine. Could decreasing COVID rates and warmer weather mean a reopening for live event spaces or is it too early to tell?

  • 12:03:08

    LEFRAKI mean, that's what a lot of folks are really, really hoping for right now. And I do think there is a renewed sense of hope. A big part of that is not just the vaccines, but the warmer weather finally coming back. Venues that have access to outdoor spaces are certainly thinking about ways to host concerts or plays outside, but I think the big fear right now is that a lot of artists and arts organizations haven't received much guidance yet from local governments on what's going to be allowed. So no one wants to make too firm of plans.

  • 12:03:44

    LEFRAKThere's this group, for example, called the DMV Music Stakeholders. They're musicians and music venue owners, etcetera. And they've been holding these weekly organizing calls for the duration of the pandemic. And their main objective right now, you know, in these next couple of weeks is urging local governments in D.C., Maryland and Virginia to put out clear policies and guidelines around live events, because these things, you know, they take time to plan.

  • 12:04:11

    LEFRAKAnd then lastly in terms of vaccines, I know a lot of potential audience members are getting vaccinated, which is great. In terms of prioritization of whose getting the vaccine, you know, musicians and performers aren't really at the top of any list unless they're in an older age group or have preexisting conditions. So that's something else to keep in mind.

  • 12:04:30

    NNAMDIJoining us now is Rebecca Medrano, the Co-Founder and Executive Director of the GALA Hispanic Theatre in Columbia Heights. Rebecca, good to talk to you again. Thank you for joining us.

  • 12:04:41

    REBECCA MEDRANOWonderful to talk to you, Kojo. I'm here because I hear you're never leaving your show.

  • 12:04:45

    NNAMDIThat's right. Only for a part of the show, I'll be here for another part of the show. For those of our listeners who may not be familiar, Rebecca, tell them a little bit about the GALA Hispanic Theatre.

  • 12:04:59

    MEDRANOGALA Hispanic Theatre has been here 45 years now. We hope to open our 46 season in the fall. And we're located in Columbia Heights. We're the group that took over the old historic Tivoli Theatre and made it a permanent home. And actually, we were one of the few venues fortunate enough to have that wonderful magical window of opportunity in November of four weeks of live performances, but as a previous speaker just said, Mikaela, that it took a lot of planning. We actually hit the ground running as soon we were shuttered in March. We were fortunate with the timing to receive a capital grant through the city for the upgrade of the facility including, of course, the HVAC, which is key.

  • 12:05:47

    MEDRANOSo, we had a whole overhaul. We got MERV 14 filters. We captured point three particles and turned over the air eight times, which enabled us to get approval from the Stage Directors and Designers Union, which I also think helped our situation in terms of the safety for actors, directors and audiences. So we did have that opportunity, which as I say, was wonderful. We got fantastic feedback. We did COVID tracking. And then boom, the spike occurred and we're shut down again in end of November, which shut our Flamenco Festival down causing a great loss of revenue to us. That's our big money maker as you know, Kojo. The flamenco is very popular.

  • 12:06:30

    NNAMDIOf course.

  • 12:06:32

    MEDRANOSo we did not do that. And now we're back to planning. We're doing virtual and hoping and praying that by our next goal is late April for a show that we've had to cancel three times since last year. We still have the artists, but after that if we can't open we lose all of those artists. They have other commitments and we just can't keep paying them. So I don't know what's going to happen. We are waiting and planning. In the meanwhile, continuing to upgrade our safety.

  • 12:07:01

    MEDRANOWe had a Plexiglas installed. It was interesting. The set design for the show in the fall, the actors were all inside a Plexiglas house, which happened to work. It was a 17th century Spanish comedy about class division and social tension. And so that just sort of highlighted that theme and reinforced it. And they were all performing behind Plexiglas. Now what we're doing is creating a sneeze guard, they call it, across the whole front of the stage as well as around our bar and lobby area. So a lot of investments and planning.

  • 12:07:35

    NNAMDII am familiar with both your determination and innovation. Joining us now is Molly Smith, the Artistic Director of Arena Stage. Molly, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:07:45

    MOLLY SMITHKojo, I just want to say it's an honor to be on your program. I know you will only be doing this for another month or so, but you have been such a brilliant person in this community, really sharing the news of the day and the news of the future. You are truly a treasure for us in this city. Thank you.

  • 12:08:13

    NNAMDIThank you very much, Molly. You are like Rebecca also a treasure in this city. Like many theatres Arena Stage pivoted towards digital programming. Tell us about your current season.

  • 12:08:25

    SMITHYeah, big time. It is called the Looking Forward season. And we have a number of really fascinating projects that are happening. One is called Indigenous Earth Voices and this is all with indigenous artists and storytellers and directors and also composers. It will be a film and our six writers are speaking to six storytellers that are from different parts of the United States and Canada from the Cree people to the Lakota people to the Zuni people. And they are interviewing them about their relationship to the earth. And this will be put together in a film with indigenous actors. And it will have imagery from Western Alaska, because one of the interviewees Earl Aject comes from Chevak, Alaska.

  • 12:09:30

    SMITHSo you'll see imagery from different parts of the country and from Canada. And it will be stories about subsistence, people's family, people's rituals and we have 10 different pieces of music that will be woven through the project from composers like Buffy St. Mary and traditional music coming from the Dakota people as well.

  • 12:09:59

    SMITHAnd then we're doing something called Dear Jack, Dear Louise, which is a series of these absolutely beautiful love stories. Some audience members may remember seeing it at Arena about a year ago, but we're doing it through the mail. And one of our wonderful staff members, who is our casting director and also is our line producer, thought of this idea because she said, everybody wants to get letters at home. And so what she and Ken Ludwig, the writer, have done is created a story through a series of nine different letters that will go out to people's mailboxes.

  • 12:10:45

    SMITHOne day you'll get a letter from Jack, and four days later you will get a letter from Louise. And it all takes place during World War II as these young people fall in love and it's completely based on Ken Ludwig's parents. And it will also include things like telegrams within the letters or photographs of each one of them. And I think it's really exciting.

  • 12:11:14

    NNAMDISounds like it.

  • 12:11:15

    SMITHAnd it's going out to people's mailboxes. And the third one I just want to tell you about is called Arena Riffs. And we have commissioned three extraordinary composers to write pieces of music about this moment in time and create films out of them.

  • 12:11:37

    NNAMDIAnd I got to tell you those three composers Abigail Bengson and Rona Siddiqui and Psalmeyene 24 -- I met Psalmeyene 24 first when he was an intern at Arena Stage and have followed his career closely ever since.

  • 12:11:56

    SMITHAnd the pieces are just starting to come in, Kojo. And they're extraordinary. They are extraordinary. What people are doing in the middle of the pandemic as artists is incredible.

  • 12:12:09

    NNAMDIAnd what you all are doing is incredible. We're going to have to take a short break. We're talking with Rebecca Medrano, Co-Founder of the GALA Hispanic Theatre in Columbia Heights, Molly Smith, the Artist Director of Arena Stage and Mikaela Lefrak, WAMU's Arts and Culture Reporter. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:12:38

    NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about live events a year into the pandemic and what's happening with theaters and music venues. This time I'd like to start with Kathy in Foggy Bottom. Kathy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:12:51

    KATHYThanks. A few months ago, I participated virtually in a Synetic Theater performance. So I was an audience member. And with your paid ticket you got in the mail a bunch of props that were wrapped in brown paper. And during the performance they would say, Now unwrap prop number one. Now unwrap prop number two. So they really involved the audience it was so fun. Of course, those people are so creative at Synetic. So like the first prop I think was a pair of white gloves. And they taught us a little bit how to be like a mime. One of the props was a red balloon and at one point we all had to blow up our balloons and let them go in the air.

  • 12:13:35

    NNAMDIWell, I'm really glad you had that experience, Kathy. But Kathy mentioned tickets. Rebecca Medrano, how much of your revenue is dependent on ticket sales and how would you say that compares to other theaters?

  • 12:13:47

    MEDRANOWell, culturally specific theaters, Spanish language, we don't -- we are not highly reliant on ticket sales. We have not been unfortunately. However, losing any amount of earned revenue hurts us, because that's the unrestricted funds, Kojo. As you know, a lot of the grants are restricted either for capital or for our education purpose, which we're absolutely grateful for because it enabled us to keep our Paso Nuevo program that serves LatinX, low-income immigrant and Black youth in the city year round.

  • 12:14:19

    MEDRANOThe interesting thing, we did pivot with Paso Nuevo in March and April and we discovered that a lot of these kids were sneaking out instead of Zooming, going to the Zoom classes. They were sneaking out to be together to Zoom. So at that point we implemented a hybrid program where six to eight of them would come in in shifts with two teachers. So there were never more than 10 people and that's worked beautifully. We're still doing that with about 75 percent of them still doing it online.

  • 12:14:48


  • 12:14:49

    MEDRANOAnd they managed to do an amazing podcast that have gone as far as Pakistan, Great Britain, Columbia, Venezuela, in Spanish because there is a real scarcity of, first of all podcasts and in general online material in Spanish, which we're discovering as we have pivoted the youth programs and the GALita programs, which actually reached about 20,000 kids with artists that we pay to read books, illustrated, Spanish language, books online. We had no idea that there was that much need for that. So we're doing that, but it does not replace, of course, a ticket revenue. We are fortunate that we have the contributed income. But as I said, we don't make -- you know, we don't sell products. We don't charge for our classes. They're all free.

  • 12:15:33

    NNAMDIMolly Smith, when you talk about actors, a lot of people are employed in the theater world. What has the pandemic meant for the actors, stage hands and technical staff?

  • 12:15:46

    SMITHIt's been absolutely devastating. You know, the city of Washington D.C. 150,000 people work in the arts. That's a $10 billion arts industry, which is -- I think it's over eight percent of the city's economy. So artists, actors, technicians we had to furlough 70 percent of our staff, because we're no performing. Unlike GALA, we are dependent on tickets and so we had a loss of about $14 million last year in a one year period of time, because 70 to 75 percent of the funding for Arena Stage comes through earned income not contributed. Although contributed is very important too.

  • 12:16:37

    SMITHBut what's so horrible in terms of what is happening, Kojo, is so many people are talking about leaving the field of the arts. And we need the arts, because the arts about imagination. And people are moving into other professions. They are feeling hopeless and it's a really, really awful situation.

  • 12:17:06

    NNAMDIMikaela Lefrak, the $15 billion in the most recent stimulus package known as the Save Our Stages Act is giving some hope to local independent venue owners. Tell us briefly about this bill, which now that it's approved is named the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant.

  • 12:17:24

    LEFRAKYes. So a little bit less catchy that new name, I would say personally. So this bill was signed into law at the very end of December as part of Congress's COVID relief package. And as you said it's this massive $15 billion aid package that's aimed at supporting everything from theaters and performing art centers to independent cinemas to non-profit museums, even some zoos. And it really is this huge show of support for the country's arts and culture economy and also a testament to how the arts community has organized itself over the past year and really become a lobbying force in a way that, you know, I wasn't seeing before the pandemic.

  • 12:18:05

    LEFRAKThe issue is that, you know, it's federal funding. And when you put the word federal in front of anything you know that there's going to be a little bit of a delay. A lot of these businesses, these venues that are counting on these funds are still waiting for the disbursement process, the application process even to start. So the clock is ticking for them to get this money that they're really going to rely on.

  • 12:18:31

    NNAMDIRebecca, do we know what types of theaters and what expenses qualify for the stimulus funding? Is the legislation clear?

  • 12:18:38

    MEDRANOI don't think it is, Kojo. I've talked to fellow theater owners and directors in the field and the sense I'm getting is that it's too -- the qualifications are too unclear. We were competing against for-profit business that was originally designed for for-profit. And there's a sense that if you have to choose between PPP and this people are going, I think maybe it's 50-50, 50 percent, 50 are going to the PPP, because it's a known entity. And people were successful. We were able, for example, to keep our staff on only because we got a PPP over the summer. We were able to keep ours. We have a smaller staff, of course, than Arena's, but we're able to because of that. So I think there's still questions in people's minds about the timing, how it will be disbursed and what the qualifications are.

  • 12:19:30

    NNAMDIHow about you, Molly Smith? How do you regard this legislation?

  • 12:19:34

    SMITHWell, I think the legislation is a brilliant piece of legislation and exactly right. The arts have really kicked in to a big lobbying force. Part of the Shuttered Venues Act has is you're able to receive or apply for 45 percent of your lost income in the first year. And there's a $3 billion set aside for not-for-profits because the for-profit entities, of course, would be able to apply for the money, as well, and may end up taking the majority of the money. And so the not-for-profits formed together to get this $3 billion set aside for organizations like GALA and Arena and Woolly and all of the theaters that you think of in the Washington D.C. area all the way over to places like Signature, Ford's Theater will be able to apply.

  • 12:20:33

    SMITHBut you're absolutely right. The portal has not yet opened yet. So even though we have a lot of information, they aren't ready yet to accept applications.

  • 12:20:44

    NNAMDIHere is Dale in Bethesda, Maryland. Dale, your turn.

  • 12:20:49

    DALEThank you, Kojo. My first time on the air, I'm really sorry to hear that you're going off in a month. Anyway, I was ushering for about seven local theaters. I really, really miss the sensory experience of live theater, although, I have tried to go online. I want to highlight like the first speaker a very imaginative approach that Rorschach Theater has taken where every month one gets a box and the box contains -- and one instructions, which includes going to an obscure place in D.C. And then there are letters from various characters and you don't understand them at first. And some photos and maybe a little trinket.

  • 12:21:37

    DALEAnd I'm now on my fourth box. I've discovered parts of D.C. I never knew existed that are fascinating, and we're trying to put the pieces together. It's called Distant Frequencies, which I think it's because Alexander Graham Bell's building is involved, which I didn't know was in D.C.

  • 12:21:58

    NNAMDIGot to interrupt you, because we only have about a minute left. Mikaela, do you have any idea when District regulations could allow for indoor performing arts? What does the timeline look like now?

  • 12:22:08

    LEFRAKWell, honestly we really don't right now. In D.C., Mayor Bowser shut down live indoor events during the winter as COVID cases spiked. The city had also started a live entertainment pilot at six venues. But that was also put on hold. Outside of the District, there are some live indoor arts events going on. The Birchmere, for example, has been hosting concerts with limited capacity. And I imagine that that's going to increase as more people get vaccinated.

  • 12:22:33

    NNAMDIMikaela Lefrak, thank you for joining us. Rebecca Medrano and Molly Smith, thank you for joining us and for everything that you do for this community. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll talk about music venues. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:23:02

    NNAMDIWelcome back. As we mentioned in the previous segment, live arts and music venues recently got promising news. Congress passed the Save Our Stages Act as part of the end-of-year federal relief package. Once passed, this bill became the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant which will allocate $15 billion in grant money to independent arts and culture venues nationwide, more than ever in history.

  • 12:23:25

    NNAMDIBut some are concerned about the time it's taking to distribute the funding and what that delay will mean for music venues trying to stay afloat a year into the pandemic. Joining us now is Audrey Fix Schaefer, board member and head of communications for the National Independent Venue Association, also known as NEVA. She's also the communications director of IMP, which owns The Anthem, Lincoln Theater, Merriweather Post Pavilion and the 9:30 Club. Audrey, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:23:56

    AUDREY FIX SCHAEFEROh, my goodness. Kojo, thank you for putting a spotlight on this. And I have to join the other guests here to say that we took a vote. It's 700,000 to zero, we want you to stay.

  • 12:24:07

    NNAMDIWell, I must admit, now that I'm leaving the daily broadcast that, you know, Seth Horowitz is a friend of mine, so I'll continue to be in touch with you guys. So -- but, Audrey...

  • 12:24:17

    SCHAEFERI hope so.

  • 12:24:19

    NNAMDI...but, Audrey, tell us about Save Our Stages and the National Independent Venues Association.

  • 12:24:24

    SCHAEFERWell, the National Independent Venues Association didn't exist before the pandemic. But when we were shut down -- our last show was March 11th, as a matter of fact, at the 9:30 Club. So, it's 358 days since we've had any type of revenue. But we joined with other independent venues across the country for the very first time to form this organization, because we realized that there's absolutely no way for small businesses like ours to exist with no revenue and the enormous overhead that we have. And that is universal.

  • 12:25:00

    SCHAEFERAnd we also realized that the only way for us to get to the other end and to, once again, become the economic drivers of our communities, in addition to being the arts centers, is to get federal relief and emergency relief. So, we came together, we fought really hard, we did the unthinkable and got the Save Our Stages Act passed. And, as you pointed out, it's got a new name and it's $15 billion. But although it was signed into law December 27th, the Small Business Administration still has not issued rules, regulations or application forms.

  • 12:25:40

    SCHAEFERAnd we understand that it's got to be a very difficult and complicated process to launch a grant program like this. So, we want them to get it right, as I'm sure they do, too, but there's also the expediency that is -- it is devastating, and it is dire. And hundreds of members of NEVA have gone under as we've waited for this relief. And it's been assigned to us. It just -- we are waiting for the application forms.

  • 12:26:13

    SCHAEFERAnd, in the meantime, you can only imagine the loss for businesses like U Street Music Hall and Twins and 18th Street Lounge. But, you know, jazz is being especially hard hit here in D.C. and across the nation. And those are places that -- the precious art forms that were created in the U.S. And nobody gets into this business to become rich. You get into this business because you love the music. You love to watch people enjoy it, and then you really work hard and struggle to be able to make ends meet and hopefully do well and expose people to new artists. But we really need the help now.

  • 12:27:00

    NNAMDIYes, indeed. You want the Small Business Administration's Office of Disaster Assistance to get it right, but you want them to get it right soon. Joining us is Jon Weiss, the head talent buyer for Union Stage in D.C. and Jammin Java in Vienna, Virginia. Jon, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:27:17

    JON WEISSYeah, Kojo, thank you so much for having me. I've been a fan since, basically, I've grown up in D.C. to you.

  • 12:27:23

    NNAMDIOh, so I've known you since you were a -- or you've known me since you were a child, huh?

  • 12:27:27


  • 12:27:28

    NNAMDIJon, like other local live music venues, Union Stage and Jammin Java could benefit from the $15 billion in stimulus funding allocated for live entertainment. Do you know if you're eligible and how much grant money you might be able to apply for?

  • 12:27:43

    WEISSWell, I know we're definitely aiming to try to get the full 45 percent of -- you know, the maximum amount of the gross revenue that we made in 2019. I believe we qualify, because the major source of income for us is ticket sales. But, as Audrey mentioned, there hasn't been much information about when the money will come through, when we can actually apply and just basic communication on it.

  • 12:28:08

    WEISSI mean, we were waiting for this to happen for so long and working so hard to make it happen -- largely in part to NEVA and Audrey's work -- but, you know, it would be great to have some sort of communication. I mean, the fact that it passed in late December was a milestone and, you know, helped us get a breath of fresh air, but there hasn't been much communication since then, and it's worrisome. And we're still losing independent music venues every day.

  • 12:28:33

    NNAMDITell us about your operations, this far. How have you been making ends meet this past year?

  • 12:28:40

    WEISSYeah, so I've been one of the lucky ones that's still on the team. I mean, you know, we had to furlough 90 percent of our staff. One thing that we did at Union Stage was introduce a live streaming setup, so we could still host, you know, streaming concerts through a multi-cam set up. At Jammin Java, we pivoted to have outdoor concerts in the parking lot, when the weather's nice. So, we did that starting in June, you know, obviously socially distanced with people wearing masks and, you know, being smart and, you know, six feet apart and making sure that bands are comfortable and that there's only one band performing, so no one's sharing equipment, and that sort of thing.

  • 12:29:17

    WEISSBut, you know, it's been very difficult. I mean, there's no comparison to going to a concert and being in the front row or, you know, seeing something live and feeling that sense of community. I mean, that's something that I think is the best part about this job, is all the work coming down to actually seeing the concert occur. And although you can still host streaming concerts and be able to have bands perform, you're still watching it from a screen. And the effect just isn't as powerful. I mean, it's still great to have something.

  • 12:29:46

    WEISSAnd, you know, I watched the stream at Union Stage last weekend. That was a story district, which is like a storytelling sort of show. And it was amazing. It was great to have something to watch on a Saturday night. But it doesn't quite compare to, you know, being at a concert. And, yeah, it's been very difficult. It's been very hard for me and for, you know, my friends and colleagues who no longer have work right now, and potential loss of careers. But, you know, there's a big question mark about what concerts are going to look like in a post-pandemic world.

  • 12:30:18

    NNAMDIAudrey, what were some of the difficult staffing decisions your team had to make at IMP Venues?

  • 12:30:25

    SCHAEFEROh, my God, it's just absolutely crushing. When you're not permitted to put on shows and you're not allowed to have people in the venue, we couldn't even assign them other work to do, like painting or any type of mechanical changes that we would normally not be able to do because we had shows going on. But we still couldn't bring people in because of the state of emergency.

  • 12:30:50

    SCHAEFERSo, we have about 97 percent of our employees have been furloughed, which is heart-wrenching. One of the things that we did immediately is to start what's called the IMP Family Fund. And it's a 501C3 that, if people make donations to that, it becomes a grant fund for our employees that are furloughed. We started off by matching a gift card program with that. And that has been just so wonderful to see how the community has (word?) to help.

  • 12:31:27

    SCHAEFERAnd it's not like our employees have other jobs they can get right now, because there is no other music venue or other bar or restaurant. And it's not like you can go to a different region of the country to get a job in that field, either, because it's all closed. So, the other thing that we've done is to fight really hard for unemployment assistance to be extended. So, while we were fighting for NEVA, we were looking to also have unemployment extended in the pandemic unemployment assistance.

  • 12:32:00

    SCHAEFERAnd then the other thing that we do for our employees is we have a food pantry every two weeks. But -- my boss is really very generous and is paying for everybody's healthcare, all of it, for furloughed employees, because we want them back. We wish that healthcare was not tied to unemployment, like so many others. So, we wanted to make sure that they did not lose that kind of care, especially in the pandemic.

  • 12:32:33

    NNAMDIHere now is Ed in Rockville, Maryland. Ed, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:32:39

    EDThank you for your call, Kojo. And thanks for this opportunity to speak on this important topic. And I wanted to mention that, as president of the Federation of Musicians in Washington, D.C., the musician's union, this pandemic has absolutely devastated the music community here. People have been out of work for over a year now, no opportunities whatsoever to perform live. And that situation has been a precarious one for many years.

  • 12:33:13

    EDBut this venue relief legislation which has passed, there is no guarantee that any of that money will go to those musicians who populate the stages, who actually bring those stages to life. And I just want to point that out, because as the discussions happened through the summer as the support for this legislation was going forward, many musicians were contacted by independent venue owners and others asking for their support. And I think it's important to know that many musicians did sign on.

  • 12:33:48

    EDIn the conversations I had with them, I wanted to ask them, where is the support -- what are you going to get from the owners in return for the support that you're offering here? And I say that because over the years, my experience has been, there have been -- I've heard many complaints about treatment of musicians by venue owners in the D.C. area. And, basically, it's the lack of a fair wage.

  • 12:34:15

    EDAnd I think now is the time to understand that our musicians need help going forward. They need to have a living wage paid for them. They do not have access to unemployment benefits, because these were mostly under-the-table jobs. They weren't being -- they weren't having taxes, employer's tax obligations paid or unemployment contributions made. So, it was...

  • 12:34:37

    NNAMDI(overlapping) In the interest of time I have to ask for a response to this. Jon Weiss?

  • 12:34:42

    WEISSYeah, I mean, it's very difficult for everyone, I think especially the musicians. I mean, everyone here is just trying to survive in an industry that's been hurt extremely hard. I mean, you know, you think about restaurants and bars that are still able to offer takeout, but people aren't exactly going to music venues, you know, to get dinner. I mean, it's not really why you go there.

  • 12:35:02

    WEISSAnd, you know, our venues can't really succeed without sort of alternative income. I mean, you can pivot to do things to, you know, have streaming shows or have outdoor events at a limited capacity, but there's only so much you can do. And it's kind of just a struggle, you know, for survival for all of us, for the musicians who are out of work, for the gig workers who are out of work, for the venues that are shut down.

  • 12:35:25

    NNAMDIHere now is Anthony in Annandale, Virginia. Anthony, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:35:32

    ANTHONYYeah, absolutely. So, a few things that I think are actually not being addressed as much, unless you're in the younger age category, is live streaming on major platforms and DMCA. So, for example, Metallica, at BlizzCon, they were streaming that to Twitch, and Twitch actually played other music on top of it because of a threat from DMCA. So, I think that's something for independent artists that are signed to small indie labels is something that's really struggling for them.

  • 12:36:05

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Audrey, while live music venues await federal grants, we talked about the emergency relief fund that the National Independent Venue Association -- no, we have not. We only talked about what IMP is doing. Can you tell us about the emergency relief fund that the National Independent Venue Association has created? How is that money raised, and how has it been distributed?

  • 12:36:31

    SCHAEFERYes, thank you for asking. Well, we were a couple months into the lobbying and got the bill written, but then we were realizing that this is taking longer to get passed because of Congress not being able to agree with each other on everything else having to do with COVID relief. As you know, it didn't get passed until December, but venues were starting to go under. So, we thought we've got to work on two tracks.

  • 12:36:57

    SCHAEFERAnd we started the emergency relief fund. We've been able to raise $3 million and distribute it to more than 150 venues across the country that were at the greatest risk of going under while they waited for the federal relief, because that's what's going to be required. And while that sounds like a lot for a brand new organization to raise that much, the need was so much greater, that we got applications for $14 million for this help. So, we're still continuing to try to raise funds.

  • 12:37:29

    SCHAEFEROne of the first big boosts for it was we did a (unintelligible) with YouTube, the Save Our Stages Festival, which was a three-day live streaming fundraiser where we had 35 major acts in 25 venues to raise money. But if people want to support their local venue, they can either go directly to that venue and buy merchandise or see if they have a fundraiser or a GoFundMe, or go to NEVA's website, And you can see how you can donate to the emergency relief fund.

  • 12:38:11

    NNAMDIAnd is there anything that venues can do for musicians outside of employing them?

  • 12:38:19

    SCHAEFERI could say -- you know, at this point, the pain is so extreme in every single direction. These venues are getting eviction notices and they're getting electricity cut off. And their insurance is getting pulled and their licenses aren't getting paid. So, they're fighting for their survival. Of course, we want the artist to be able to be able to come back to us when it's safe to reopen, which means that we're going to have to be able to reopen. And we're going to want them to still want to be artists.

  • 12:38:56

    SCHAEFERBut that was why I was saying also that we were working really hard with NEVA while the COVID relief package was being considered -- the last one, and now this one, too -- is to extend unemployment and to get those people who get W-9s and W-4s to be able to get funding, because they can now. And I don't know about other organizations, but our Ts are crossed and our Is are dotted. And every time we have an artist come through, there's a record of it, so they can submit for unemployment.

  • 12:39:42

    NNAMDIYeah. You know, when we talk about the $15 billion allocated in the Shuttered Venue Operations Grant, there's been reports about how historic this is, that it's the largest federal backing of arts and culture in the nation's history. Audrey, how did the grant manage to get so much bipartisan support?

  • 12:40:03

    SCHAEFERBecause we took the time to explain our industry to them in a way that they've never had to know before. And it came to, not necessarily couching ourselves as in the arts, but as small businesses. And we're in so many communities across the country, and we are the drivers of economic activity for the area business around us.

  • 12:40:24

    SCHAEFERSo, there was a study that showed for every dollar spent at a small music venue on a ticket, $12 of economic activity resulted for area businesses. And that's something that is neither blue or red. It's green. And every legislator got the fact that, oh, if I want economic activity to come back to my community when it is safe for everybody to be open, I'm going to have to make sure that that driver of food traffic and renewal is still there. So, it was about being small businesses, not necessarily about being the arts.

  • 12:41:04

    NNAMDIHere is Sid, on Capitol Hill. Sid, your turn.

  • 12:41:09

    SIDHi, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. You were talking about before anything positive, so (laugh) I thought I would inject this small amount of positive news. I live near Lincoln Park on Capitol Hill, and there has been informal jazz-in-the-park sessions that just started up a couple weeks ago. They're on Wednesdays from 3:00 to 5:00 and Saturdays from 1:00 to 3:00 p.m. And so, yesterday, a bunch of neighbors and people saw Elijah Jamal Balbed, his group performing there. And so, it was just a nice way to get together with the neighbors and, you know, people walking their dogs and bringing their kids to the park and get to see each other.

  • 12:42:02

    NNAMDI(overlapping) Is it something that's going on every Wednesday?

  • 12:42:06

    SIDIt's informal and, you know, I thought maybe it was affiliated with the Capitol Hill Jazz Foundation, but it's not. But the Capitol Hill Jazz Foundation is also doing its part. They're affiliated with Mr. Henry's, a longtime jazz venue on Capitol Hill.

  • 12:42:26


  • 12:42:28

    SIDAnd so, they're offering small grants and creating opportunities for musicians to play. And they're advocating for the D.C. Council in Congress to invest in venues. But in the meantime, come to the park. And I understand they're going to go to different parks around the city, too.

  • 12:42:49

    NNAMDIOkay. Good. Thank you very much for sharing that with us, Sid. Here now is Brad, in Mount Pleasant. Brad, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:42:57

    BRADThanks very much. We, in Mount Pleasant, have also been blessed by porch concerts. (unintelligible) has been having Wednesday evenings and Saturdays, so folks should come by (unintelligible). But I was calling to ask the venues, they better look ahead a little bit. My last show was at Union Stage on March 11 of last year (unintelligible) archives. And, you know, speaking about what bands might actually come through in this new world, we are blessed to have an amazing, you know, team in D.C. and the region.

  • 12:43:28

    BRADAnd so, you know, in six and 12 months, the concerts of local bands would be more than welcome. But it's hard to imagine a band in California or even, you know, Ohio getting on the road for a six-month tour, you know, in the next year. I'm curious what the venues are hearing in terms of, you know, what acts might actually be on the bill once the doors are open again.

  • 12:43:51

    NNAMDII'll ask both Jon and Audrey to respond. First you, Jon.

  • 12:43:55

    WEISSYeah, I mean, that's a great question. You know, it's the same kind of issue that we have with a pilot program, where you can't just snap your fingers and have artists ready to perform the next week. I mean, you have to put shows together in advance. You have to make sure that there's time to promote it. You have to make sure that there's time to schedule staff for it. So, you know, I hope that once we are able to open, that we'll be hosting as many local artists, you know, as many as possible. And that people will be eager to go to concerts again.

  • 12:44:22

    WEISSBut I think it's -- I don't think it's going to be that simple. I think it's going to be kind of a slow-moving process and that we'll have a small capacity at first that will open up. And some artists will be excited to just be able to perform. And some artists will be more skeptical. You know, it's a big question mark, and it's something that we hope we'll have more insight into soon. And hopefully, things will come together safely and smoothly, but, yeah, it's tough.

  • 12:44:48

    WEISSAnd, you know, also with Union Stage and also with 9:30 Club and Anthem, I mean, these are national venues. So, a lot of the artists that do come through are on, like you said, large tours, where they'll play New York and then they'll play D.C. and they'll hit Philly or North Carolina. They can't just come to D.C. just for one show. So, there's, you know, a question mark, and also a lot of anxiety building around that. At least for me, where it's like, hey, you know, if we are able to host concerts next month, you know, who's going to be able to play and what's that going to look like? So, yeah, it's a great question.

  • 12:45:24

    NNAMDISame question to you, Audrey. We only have about a minute-and-a-half left.

  • 12:45:29

    SCHAEFERYeah, we're going to need a national reopening for our tours to be able to come through. And when I say national, I mean, it's got to be pretty much full capacity, all over the country. Otherwise, it's not going to happen for our venues, because we rely on national tours. And that could take three to five months to plan, once we've gotten the go-ahead, because of having to advertise tickets, all the intricacies of, say, having 3,000 bands say on your mark, get set, go, plan a tour. But the one really bright spot we have in the last couple of weeks is more vaccines are coming, and that is what we need is vaccines in everybody's arms. And that will be crucial.

  • 12:46:19

    NNAMDIIndeed. The recent announcement is that all adults in the U.S. will have access to the coronavirus vaccine by May, that coming out of the Biden administration. We'll have to see what happens. Audrey Fix Schaefer, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:46:33

    SCHAEFERWell, thank you, Kojo. Miss you already.

  • 12:46:36

    NNAMDIJon Weiss, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:46:38

    WEISSThanks so much, Kojo. It's been a pleasure.

  • 12:46:40

    NNAMDIToday's show on the local arts scene a year into the pandemic was produced by Ines Renique. Coming up Friday, on The Politics Hour, we get the latest on the vaccine rollout in Anne Arundel County from County Executive Steuart Pittman, and an update on his push for more progressive taxation in the state. Then D.C. Councilmember Vincent Gray talks about how the pandemic has affected Ward 7, gun violence in the District and prospects for a hospital east of the Anacostia River. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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