The thought of Milwaukee losing its music venues is incomprehensible for most of us because live music is an integral aspect of our city's culture, both currently and historically.
And yet, it's a real possibility at this point. It's believed that without immediate funding from the federal government, 90 percent of the country's independent venues will close. Including many of Milwaukee's beloved stages.
"Our industry is the perfect example of a business that has been 100 percent shuttered by COVID," says Gary Witt, the executive director of the Pabst Theater Group.
Aside from the entertainment value of local independent music venues, The Pabst Theater Group also contributes an extra $250 million dollars in revenue to Milwaukee’s bars, restaurants and hotels. Plus, a third of ticket buyers come from Illinois.
"From the outside, what you see of our venues may be only that we sell tickets and host concerts. But the fact is, The Pabst Theater Group, The Rave, Shank Hall, Cactus Club, Miramar and others do much more for our city than just host concerts," says Witt. "Our businesses are revenue drivers for the surrounding businesses in our city. Through our activities and the marketing surrounding them, the entertainment groups provide a soul and identity for our city."
OnMilwaukee recently checked in with Witt and asked him for specifics on the situation and to find out what can be done to literally save our stages.
OnMilwaukee: Why are music venues hit harder by COVID than other industries / businesses?
Gary Witt: We were the first businesses to close and we will very likely be the last businesses to open. Our main business is hosting large gatherings and large gatherings have specifically been targeted as assisting the spread of the virus. We have zero revenue coming in and we all have large expenses like rent, utilities, employee salaries, mortgages, insurances and repairs that have not stopped. Our industry is the perfect example of a business that has been 100 percent shuttered by COVID.
Three bills have been proposed recently to provide support for independent performance spaces. Can you break them down for us?
Absolutely. The three bills that have been proposed are the RESTART Act, which covers all kinds of closed businesses; Save Our Stages (#saveourstages) focuses on independent music venues; and the ENCORES act that allows music venues to recoup some of the massive losses we are experiencing.
Would all three of these acts directly help Milwaukee's indie music venues?
Each one would assist Milwaukee’s concert venues and promoters, but the Save Our Stages act and the ENCORES act are most focused on assisting the way that our industry has been impacted by COVID specifically. Most critical is that it has to happen soon and the funding has to recognize that our industry will likely not be operating again until sometime in 2021. Hopefully, no matter what our legislators approve for funding, it is informed by both the ENCORES act and Save Our Stages.
What is the best case scenario for the Pabst Theater Group venues at this point?
Funding is approved by Aug. 21 for small businesses and unemployment is approved to assist those without a job due to the pandemic. The funding recognizes that we are 100 percent shuttered and provides enough support to carry us through at least the first quarter of 2021.
What is the worst case scenario?
Without funding from our federal government, our studies show that 90 percent of all independent venues and promoters will close for good by the end of this year. We are not immune to that.
How many of your employees were furloughed?
We were able to hold out until May before having to do any furloughs. At that time there was a level of comfort knowing that each person furloughed was assisted by the unemployment support provided by the state and federal government. Those furloughed were mostly made up of positions related to night-of-show activities given that we no longer hosted any shows.
What does your job entail these days?
In the beginning there was a massive effort to move our existing 2020 shows, first to later in 2020 and then to 2021. Following that, we still are talking to agents, writing offers and looking at future shows. However, a large part of our focus has been divided into three parts:
- Managing the cash flow of our business so that we can stay in business and fighting to keep our team together.
- Pivoting our business away from live performances to private rentals. While we cannot host shows, we have beautiful, spacious venues and we can host elopements, weddings, meetings, dinners, and more. We need to do our best to drive revenue to our business and fight to keep it alive. We are competitive. We are fighters. This is what we always have done. This is what we do today.
- Working with the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) to assist in bringing needed funding to independent venues and promoters who need it.
How can people help?
Please go to saveourstages.com and enter your zip code and tell your legislator that you support assisting independent venues and promoters. It will take 20 seconds! Just 20 seconds and you will have helped Milwaukee entertainment businesses to stay alive.
We can’t take care of the rest of the state or the country. We can only take care of Milwaukee. For us, it all starts here in Milwaukee. So we must treat this virus as the tough opponent that it is and defeat it together. And while we're doing that, most importantly, be kind to and care for one another.
For more about NIVA and how to help Milwaukee music venues, go here.
Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.
Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.