Robert Gehrke: We can’t let the music die. We need to bail out small concert venues.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

My heart sank Monday night when I read that The State Room — a venue that has given me and thousands of others so many incredible memories — hadn’t renewed their liquor license. Another victim of COVID, it seemed.

Fortunately, rumors of the venue’s demise were exaggerated. The state got the paperwork late and reported the license had lapsed, but later approved the renewal.


It was a reprieve, but you could understand why venues like The State Room and others might be suffering right now.

Where restaurants and even most bars have been able to operate with some reduced capacity, concert venues went completely dark since early March, with no idea when they might be able to open safely.

“Our last show was March 11,” said Darin Piccoli, co-owner of The State Room, “and once it hit I started delving into the science … I thought, ‘Wow, this is going to be a long time,’ because it really is going to come down to developing a treatment or vaccine for us to have consumer confidence and get people together again successfully.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The marquee at The State Room in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, April 21, 2020.

Earlier this year, the National Independent Venue Association surveyed its members and 90% said that without some sort of assistance they may have to close permanently.

Across the country, some iconic venues — like Great Scott in Boston and Lizard Lounge in Dallas — have already announced they won’t reopen. And it’s not just music venues. Comedy clubs and small theaters are also struggling to stay afloat.

So these venue owners are looking to Congress for a little extra help. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, have introduced Save Our Stages, legislation that would provide $10 billion in grants to small arts and entertainment venues.

“We’ve got to keep the music strong so the music doesn’t die,” Klobuchar said on a recent interview on the National Public Radio program 1A.

The bill would let venues apply for a grant up to 45% of their 2019 revenues. The grants are targeted toward small venues, not giant concert promoters.

The venue association touts a Chicago study that found every $1 spent on a concert ticket generates $12 of economic activity.

“This bill would be amazing,” said Will Sartain, co-owner of Sartain & Saunders, which owns Utah’s Metro Music Hall, Urban Lounge and Kilby Court and produces other shows. “With so much uncertainty, anything to help cover expenses is huge.”

S&S has sponsored a series of outdoor shows, billed as the Salt Lake City Concert Cruise, where cyclists travel between outdoor venues to hear live acts. Aside from those and a couple small events in the Urban Lounge’s parking lot, their business has gone quiet.

“As a company, personally, I’m not interested in doing anything inside. I don’t think it’s safe,” Sartain said. “Our goal is just to try to get by as long as we can and maybe lean on some government or community assistance.”

Piccoli said they can make it through the end of the year, but to do that they have had to furlough staff, they held a crowdsourced fundraiser and sold scores of signed concert posters. Their landlord at their second venue, The Commonwealth Room, has given them a deferral on their rent and their insurance company gave them a break.

On Monday, Piccoli said he had what he felt was a productive meeting with staffers from Sen. Mike Lee’s office to discuss the bill and he’s hopeful the senator will consider supporting the legislation, which now has 28 co-sponsors, nine of them Republicans.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York signed onto the bill a few weeks ago.

Utah Sen. Mitt Romney is a co-sponsor of another bill, the RESTART Act, which would provide loans and more flexibility to a number of the hardest-hit industries, including entertainment venues. On Tuesday, venues across the country lit red lights on their marquees to show support for the bill.

The hope is to add the Save Our Stages Act into the next big COVID recovery bill. That legislation, as you probably know, is jammed up as the House, Senate and Trump administration are locked in a high-stakes game of chicken, with the welfare of the American public on the line.

Some will dismiss the bill as another taxpayer bailout — and it is. But while we’ve all made sacrifices in the past six months, few have had their livelihoods completely wiped out in the interest of public welfare with no sense of when or if they’ll be allowed to open again.

Anyone who has caught that quintessential live show, some up-and-comer on stage in a cozy, intimate venue with a hundred or so die-hard fans, knows what we stand to lose.

The Save Our Stages Act would be a worthwhile investment in ensuring culture and the arts don’t fall victim to the pandemic and in keeping our communities vibrant and alive.