WASHINGTON — As the year comes to an end, Congressional lawmakers are facing immense pressure to break the deadlock and respond to the deepening economic crisis.
While there are a few holdups, there is something members from both sides of the aisle agree on. Lawmakers want to establish a new, federal grant program to operators of live music venues and theaters. Supporters believe this relief is critical to those who contributed so much to the culture and economy
Alan Moe Monsarrat has played music his entire life and it is also how he makes his living. As the lead singer for the reggae band Mau Mau Chaplains, his live performances this year look much different.
“It's difficult for people who've worked their whole lives to suddenly be told that they can't work, and there's nowhere to work, and there might not be anywhere to work after it's over,” Monsarrat said.
His band’s usual spot, Flamingo Cantina in Austin, where they have a residency, has been closed since March. For now, the Mau Mau Chaplains have been live streaming performances every week through Flamingo Cantina’s Facebook page.
Angela Tharp, the owner of the venue said the streaming is one way they can continue serving patrons, as they have been bringing people together since 1991. She said she believes the Flamingo Cantina more than just a music venue.
“We’re kind of a community center, if you will, for like-minded people and people who love reggae and world and latin. It gives them a place to be themselves and celebrate life with other folks, and I think it's got a healing factor to it, as well. I think after these last nine months of being closed, it's been really a challenge for people to not have that live music aspect,” Tharp said.
Tharp said she hopes to keep the business running, but she has had to file for unemployment benefits herself.
“This is my main source of income, and so without that I was unable to make my mortgage. I’ve gone into a great amount of debt just to keep the business here so that we can reopen,” Tharp said.
While Congress has struggled to reach a compromise on a new coronavirus relief bill, several lawmakers seem to agree that the package should include a provision to assist live music venues and theaters.
In the summary of the latest bipartisan COVID-19 relief bill, lawmakers included an unspecified amount of funding for independent live venue operators, which would include eligible independent movie theaters and museums. Separately, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s latest revised stimulus bill proposal set aside $15 billion to establish a grant program for venues by the pandemic.
Texas Republicans have rallied behind the idea. Earlier this year, Rep. Roger Williams (R-TX) of the 25th Congressional district and Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) introduced the Save Our Stages Act in their respective chambers. The bill would create a grant program within the Small Business Administration to aid independent live music venues affected by the restrictions.
“During the pandemic, these venues have been hardest hit as they were the first to close and will be among the last to reopen due to safety restrictions and government mandates. They generate billions of dollars into our national economy and create thousands of jobs every year. They are a cultural staple in Central Texas, and the 25th District, unlike any other place in our nation,” Wiliams said on the House floor last month.
Audrey Fix Schaefer is the director of communications for the nascent National Independent Venue Association, which did not exist prior to the pandemic and aims to lobby Congress for emergency assistance.
“The elected officials understood that if they helped us survive this thing, that we can be part of the regeneration of their towns and communities economically. On the flip side, if they allow us to go under through no fault of our own, when our buildings get boarded up, the buildings near us get boarded up too,” she said.
Republicans and Democrats cannot agree on one line item, and they have to agree on the whole bill before time runs out. A number of relief programs are set to expire by the end of the year, and the deadline to fund the government has been extended to this Friday.
Until a deal is reached, artists like the Mau Mau Chaplains continue to find creative ways to make music and stay afloat financially. Even amid the uncertainty of the music industry, Monsarrat remains positive. He said he was able to complete another album.
“This is going to change things permanently at least in some respects, hopefully it can become better than it was,” he said.