An Arts Business? Or Just a Bar?

During the lockdown, Eugene’s smaller music venues find little relief

Music stages have gone silent in Eugene as they have across the country, cratering the concert industry at every level.

What’s more, small bar and restaurant music venues like Old Nick’s and Sam Bond’s Garage find themselves shut out of relief funding other arts organizations are eligible to receive.

In normal times, these places are often seen as nightclubs first and arts venues second, surviving on revenue from selling food and drinks. Because they are not nonprofits, they aren’t seen as true arts organizations despite the fact that those who work for such places consider what they do arts-related, and that these businesses provide an accessible space for art and performance in their community.

Now, in need of a bailout, these small venues are in a world of hurt.

Some are trying live streaming as a stopgap. Old Nick’s plans to move popular events like emo night online, according to Janys-Iren Faughn, the venue’s booker. These virtual events are usually free with suggested donation or some kind of virtual tip jar. Whether this produces badly needed revenue for the club remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, Old Nick’s is exploring relief grants and loans. It was awarded an emergency loan from the Small Business Administration (SBA). It also applied for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), assisted by the credit card processing service Square. But as far as any relief or aid targeted to arts organizations, Old Nick’s has had no success.

Brian Rogers, executive director of the Oregon Arts Commission, a governor-appointed body that allocates grants for artists and arts organizations across the state, explains why.

While OAC recognizes roughly 1,400 nonprofit arts organizations across Oregon and funds 140 of those on a regular basis, providing relief to the broad array of businesses that, while not technically arts organizations, fulfills an arts-related function would simply not be possible, Rogers says.

“Fourteen hundred is a big number,” he says. “But if you think about all the bars and restaurants, we’re talking thousands and thousands. If we were to try to fund those the funding amount would be extremely minimal.”

The OAC is not the only place where arts-related businesses can seek aid during this time, but it is certainly among the state’s largest sources.

A bright spot, Rogers adds, is that OAC hopes to make funds accessible to individual artists affected by COVID-19, including rock ‘n’ roll, hip hop and electronic musicians who commonly perform at bar venues.

In Portland, venues have banded together as the Independent Venue Coalition for increased lobbying power. The coalition is already working with several clubs in Eugene, says executive director and venue owner Jim Brunberg, and he hopes to grow local membership.

Closer to home, Lane Arts Council has also created the Lane County Artist Relief Fund to aid individual artists hit hard by the pandemic. While this money is vitally important to artists who’ve lost revenue during the forced closure, it does nothing for the bottom line of venues like Old Nick’s.

The outlook at other small venues in Eugene is similarly bleak. WOW Hall laid off its entire staff, but as a nonprofit, WOW Hall has different options for aid. So, too, does The Shedd Institute for the Arts, which is eligible for funding from the OAC. WOW Hall, however, is not eligible for OAC funding, according to Rogers. “Many organizations apply to us for events that take place at WOW,” he says.

Nevertheless, WOW Hall board chairperson Robyn Kelly says WOW Hall applied for emergency funds through the Oregon Community Foundation, as well as the PPP, but did not receive any federal relief in the first round. “We are working on other grant and funding options as we find them,” she says, as well as donations from members.

Meanwhile, Sam Bond’s Garage, another venerable local venue, has canceled everything indefinitely. “I’m not booking any future dates at all,” says Cindy Ingram, who books entertainment there. 

Running a venue right now is like putting together a puzzle where the pieces and the picture are changing all the time, says Danny Kime, owner of Sessions Music Hall. “It’s pointless,” he says. 

Shortly after COVID-19 hit, many of Sessions’ spring shows were rescheduled for fall. When it became apparent large-scale gatherings such as concerts would be prohibited all along the West Coast for the foreseeable future, especially in California, the bottom fell out for those shows as well. They’re all now pushed back to spring 2021. 

Whatever Oregon and Washington do, a West Coast music tour without stops in California doesn’t make any sense financially. The three states have said they are working together on a strategy for re-opening. Details of that strategy are just now beginning to emerge, and it’s more bad news for the concert industry.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown has barred large gatherings like big rock concerts through September, but a plan for re-opening some businesses announced May 7 will allow bars to open for sit-down service and in-person gathering of up to 25 people starting May 15 in counties that meet health standards. One small detail in the plan that could dampen music business: a requirement that on-site consumption of food and drinks be done by 10 pm.

It’s not just local music venues feeling the aftershocks of COVID-19. Doug Fuchs says he’s wondering whether Flying Ink Media, the Eugene-based advertising, marketing and publicity business he’s built over the course of two decades, will survive the pandemic. Fuchs has received aid for Flying Ink Media through the SBA.

Fuchs’ clients include McDonald Theatre, Cuthbert Amphitheatre and Sessions Music Hall. Sessions is currently closed with no events on its schedule, but some shows do remain on the calendar at both the McDonald and Cuthbert. 

“Most tours are canceling until 2021,” Fuchs says. Those shows left on the schedule, he adds, will most assuredly be moved to a new date or canceled entirely. 

Furthermore, the fact those shows have yet to be postponed, or abandoned entirely, has everything to do with the chaotic nature of live music’s new normal rather than some misguided optimism these events will actually take place. 

“Everyone working from home has not helped communication or timing,” he says. 

Additionally, the Oregon Country Fair has been called off for the first time in its 50-year history, as has the Lane County Fair. Two other big summer shows slated for Eugene — Bob Dylan and two nights with Phish at Matthew Knight Arena on the University of Oregon campus — will not take place under Brown’s plan for reopening Oregon’s economy. Matthew Knight Arena did not respond to Eugene Weekly’s request for comment.

What live music, already a low margin business, will look like post-COVID-19 is uncertain. In early May, Live Nation, one of the country’s largest concert promoters and event owners, announced plans for crowdless concerts and drive-in concerts.

That’s while live streaming performances on platforms like Instagram seem unlikely to go away, and artist guarantees — the paychecks agreed to be paid an artist by a venue regardless of ticket sales — will surely plummet, as a measure to share financial risk between venues and touring artists.

Adding to that, Faughn of Old Nick’s says some concert-goers may be hesitant to go out when social distancing measures loosen up. 

“We’re going to do our best to address all of those concerns by providing the safest post-COVID concert environment we can, as well as reasonably priced events to try to coax people back out,” Faughn says.

Fuchs says he suspects smaller clubs will open before larger venues, but he is beginning to believe reports that it could be a year or more before large gatherings are considered safe.

“No one knows,” he admits. “I do believe people are starved for entertainment. Live music should do well again, once safe to deploy.”