High hopes for curtains up at concert halls

Will Washington's next stimulus be enough of a lifeline for Philly's live music venues?

Milkboy
Milkboy in Center City, owned by Tommy Joyner, is another club hit hard by the pandemic.

Live music venues like Union Transfer and the Fillmore came a drumbeat closer to reopening when Congressional leaders gave the green light to the Save Our Stages Act last week.

It offered a glimmer of hope to people like Mark Denino, owner of Chris’ Jazz Cafe, that he could one day see the seats filled in his longest and oldest continuously running jazz club in Philadelphia. 

As part of a long-awaited COVID-19 stimulus package, the Save Our Stages Act provides $15 billion in relief to independent music venues, movie theaters and similar cultural institutions that have been almost entirely shuttered since March.

For Kerri Park, general manager of World Cafe Live, as devastating as the pandemic has been on her industry, the news presents a rare opportunity. 

“We have the choice now to present ourselves at the center of recovery in Philadelphia. Creative economies do not get created overnight and we can decide to invest and expand what already exists and has taken years to build,” she said. 

“Once we get beyond the daily struggle for survival, we can focus our newly bonded collective efforts on a more equitable landscape throughout the industry and additionally focus on truly getting Philly the attention it deserves as a nationally recognized music city.”

It’s almost as if someone took a vacuum cleaner to our bank account while bringing in zero dollars.

– Shawn Agnew

An optimistic outlook, considering World Cafe Live went from hosting 17 events a week to zero and shrunk its staff from 90 people to 10 when COVID lockdowns forced concert venues to close. 

Park and other leaders in the industry shared their thoughts during a panel discussion hosted by City Councilman David Oh, a longtime lover of the local music scene, on Monday. 

He convened a panel of experts on Zoom to talk about how the pandemic has affected their businesses, possible solutions, and what everyone can do at the local level to keep pressure on city and state officials to support each other. 

Oh emphasized that although the bill passed and saw no reason it wouldn’t be signed into law, he said it doesn’t solve the larger problem, calling it a “hopeful promise” that that money would make its way to Philly’s struggling venues in a timely fashion. 

“You have to put pressure on your local and state government to do things now – to get things done now, and the money will make its way to Philadelphia and the state,” Oh said. 

“But for some people, they think this is going to solve things. It’s going to take time like anything else and has to be distributed.”

Brent Porsche has been a night and weekend DJ at 93.3 WMMR for the past 15 years. He said ad revenue has been down so much that he’s done shows lasting five or six hours and had maybe less than five minutes’ worth of commercials to read. 

“Those are the concerts and live events coming to Philadelphia,” he said. 

“They’re just not there.”

Shawn Agnew is co-owner of Union Transfer and – up until recently – Boot & Saddle on South Broad Street. Boot & Saddle was forced to close for good due to the pandemic. Agnew said it served as the first stage in Philadelphia for many national and international artists.

“Since March, we’ve had to cancel more than 250 concerts…It’s almost as if someone took a vacuum cleaner to our bank account while bringing in zero dollars,” he said. 

“Myself and my partners, we operated our business the right way. We were responsible. We did save for a rainy day, but when it became clear that rainy day would become a rainy year, I don’t think many businesses could survive that.”

Other advocates expressed their hardships like Ellen Trainer, president of the local musicians union and Maureen Malloy, program director for 90.1 WRTI, and even an entertainment lawyer offered future predictions and long-term solutions for bouncing back. But the same is true for each of them, live music venues can’t reopen the same way other businesses can. Hopefully, the federal stimulus relief will provide some kind of lifeline to keep the music going. 

  • PW Editor Jenny DeHuff

    Jenny DeHuff has been a part of the Philadelphia media landscape for the last 15 years on just about every level of journalism. She started out at The Bulletin, a conservative voice for Philadelphia, then moved through the region as she honed her career as the City Hall reporter at the Daily News, and later as an editor at Philly Voice. As Philadelphia Weekly's new editor-in-chief, DeHuff brings a viewpoint that constantly begs the question of a progressive-leaning Philadelphia. Say hello at jdehuff@philadelphiaweekly.com.