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Coronavirus All But Killed Live Music In Missouri, Leaving Venues Asking For Federal Money

The coronavirus pandemic has canceled many performances in venues around Kansas City like the Arvest Bank Theatre at the Midland.
courtesy: Arvest Bank Theatre at the Midland
Many venues around Kansas City, like the Arvest Bank Theatre at the Midland, have canceled performances due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The coronavirus pandemic has shutdown most live events, leaving venues dark and putting employees out of work. Now, a new organization is asking for a share of Missouri's CARES Act funding to help save the industry.

The Missouri Entertainment Alliance (MEA) sent a letter last week to Governor Mike Parson and state legislators asking for help keeping the state's live-entertainment industry alive.

MEA represents nearly 50 nonprofit and commercial businesses, including “live-music venues, comedy clubs, independent-concert promoters, festivals, and concert-production companies,” or, as the letter puts it, “the cultural lifeblood of Missouri.” The coalition is requesting a portion of Missouri’s share of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

Jeff Fortier, co-president of Mammoth, books events and partners with venues such as the Music Hall, Starlight Theatre, and the recordBar. He says the industry has been hard hit during the coronavirus pandemic.

“The live music business, we were the first to close, and will be the last to open,” Fortier said.

The request asks for $11.25 million for dedicated grants, or about one percent of the roughly $1 billion of Missouri's remaining CARES Act funds — required to be spent by the end of the year or returned to the federal government.

Several neighboring states have created similar grant initiatives for live performance venues, including $5.8 million for relief efforts in Kansas.

Keli O’Neill Wenzel owns O’Neill Events & Marketing and represents some of the largest non-profit festivals, such as Boulevardia — which was canceled this year.

“It’s once a year, but it’s a big impact,” she said. “We write checks to local vendors, suppliers, and the musicians all to the tune of $1 million dollars a year.”

Neill Smith served as a talent buyer for Midland AIG, including venues such as Midland Theater, the Power & Light District, and the Truman, as well as smaller clubs — until he was laid off in June.

“So I am currently just really trying to focus in on the efforts of getting some stimulus,” Smith said, “and the small clubs and such, trying to keep them on their feet right now.”

According to Fortier, the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) did provide some help for small businesses, but “unfortunately (it was) kind of ineffective for businesses like ours that are between 60 percent to 100 percent closed.”

An additional federal economic relief package has had new momentum in Congress in recent weeks, but there's no resolution yet, which is why MEA decided to seek state support.

"We've all been very creative on how to get through to the end of this year," said O'Neill Wenzel. "And the reality is we know we have at least six more months of really weathering the storm and that's where the dire need is starting."

She added, "So that's why this need and this push to do something has to happen."

The National Independent Venue Alliance, an organization of independent music venues, festivals, and promoters estimates that 90% of all independent venues and promoters will close without additional funding from the state or federal government.

"At this point in time, we have not allocated funding for this item; however, the arts (Missouri Arts Council) did receive direct federal funding through the CARES Act," wrote communications specialist Stephanie Whitaker, who works in the office of Gov. Parson, in an email.

"We are continuously evaluating how to best allocate resources, so we will continue to evaluate this request."

Other state elected officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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