KSAT Explains: San Antonio live music and theater venues still wait for funding lifeline

Episode 29 examines recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic for artists and venues

SAN ANTONIO – The first to close and the last to reopen. Performance venues shuttered during the pandemic have been waiting for a lifeline for almost a year.

In December, we released an episode of KSAT Explains all about the push to save live music venues after COVID-19 forced theaters and arenas around the world to shut down. A lot has happened since then.

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The end to the pandemic seems to be in sight. More people are getting vaccinated every day. There are cars on the roads -- people out and about. Restaurants are starting to fill up again. And slowly, the lights are coming back on in performance venues here in San Antonio.

But the past year has taken a toll. Live music is typically a boon for our state’s economy.

A report by the State of Texas found that the music business alone contributes $440 million in tax revenue to the state, and helps support 210,000 permanent jobs. And live performances don’t just drive the economy, they also usher in tourism to many cities, including San Antonio.

And what ever happened to the Save Our Stages Act that was passed back in December? Turns out passing the legislation was just the first hurdle to overcome.

In this episode of KSAT Explains, we wanted to revisit the effort to save stages in venues across our city to learn what’s changed and what hasn’t in the past several months. (Watch the full episode in the video player above.)

‘It’s one thing to pass a law, it’s another to implement that law’

When city and state mandates forced venue owners to cancel shows and close their doors in March 2020, it meant immediate consequences for those working in the live music industry.

Jaime Ramirez is one of the countless musicians who lost work in San Antonio.

Pre-pandemic, Ramirez’s last gig was at The Lonesome Rose, a honky-tonk on the St. Mary’s strip.

“That was the last week before everything shut down,” Ramirez said. “I had my summer booked already and I lost three big jobs.”

Ramirez has been a local musician for 20 years. He plays keyboard and accordion for local singers and bands, including The 501s. He also plays piano for theater productions around town.

But last summer, he saw his work for the season disappear in a day.

He says he was able to get through the summer, thanks in part to a position playing piano at a church. He’s grateful that he kept his work, even as the church moved services online. But he knows friends who weren’t so lucky.

(Local musician Jaime Ramirez talk to KSAT Explains about pandemic's impact.)

About three miles northwest of N. St. Mary’s St., staff and performers at the historic Woodlawn Theatre have also been dealt a blow.

Like Ramirez, Woodlawn Theatre Executive and Artistic Director Chris Rodriguez has been a part of San Antonio’s arts community for the past two decades. And like Ramirez, he has a marker in his memory of the moment the pandemic wreaked havoc on the industry.

“We were going to open ‘On Your Feet’, the Gloria Estefan musical,” Rodriguez said. “When we shut down, the set stayed up.”

(Woodlawn Theatre set for "On Your Feet.")

When things shut down, Rodrigues said he went to work right away -- campaigning to raise $20,000 to get the theater through three months.

He wasn’t the only one quick to act.

Blayne Tucker is a local attorney and owner of The Mix, another St. Mary’s strip establishment. He became one of the lead voices lobbying on behalf of the National Independent Venue Association.

“A group of independent promoters throughout the country came together and realized we had no other option other than to start making a lot of noise, and at every level of government,” Tucker said.

Tucker was able to get U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, to sign on to the effort early and become a co-sponsor of what would become the Save Our Stages Act.

According to Tucker, Texas has played a big leadership role in getting aid to independent venues across the country. Both Sen. Cornyn and U.S. Rep. Roger Williams, R-Texas, wrote a letter to congressional leadership last May. In the letter, they urged immediate relief for performance venues.

But it would be another seven months before the Save Our Stages Act passed Congress.

“Things just continued to worsen,” Tucker said. “The longer time’s gone on, the more vulnerable venues that haven’t had any revenue have been, and more venues we’ve seen shuttered along the way.”

During that time, many venues across the city remained dark and empty. Some closed their doors for good. Including Limelight, another St. Mary’s strip venue.

Ramirez remembers playing at the venue, before it was Limelight, many years ago. It was the first venue on N. St. Mary’s that he played.

(Limelight on St. Mary's Strip)

Some venues have been able to bring in some revenue by getting creative.

The Woodlawn, for example, has held virtual performances. They’ve also partnered with small businesses and local restaurants for outdoor fundraisers.

“It’s been a great way to stay relevant, even though it’s not creating the finances we need right now,” Rodriguez said.

Watch the video below to learn more about how venues adapted to stay afloat:

In December, after months of waiting, Congress passed the Save Our Stages Act as part of a larger COVID-19 relief bill. Once the legislation was passed, the Small Business Administration was tasked with creating the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant.

Through this grant, more than $16 billion in relief is up for grabs for independent venues, movie theaters, small museums and independent music promoters and talent agents nationwide. But the road from bill approval to actually getting money to those in need has been a bumpy one.

The legislation was passed in December. But the application portal opened up for the first time on April 8. It crashed almost immediately. It reopened on April 26, but it could take months for those applications to be approved and for those in need of a lifeline to receive it.

As frustrating as the situation has been, those affected know firsthand that nothing about the past year has been easy.

“We’d hoped that it would go quicker, but the SBA has never done anything of this magnitude on such short notice,” Tucker said. “And that goes hand in hand with what we’ve seen throughout this pandemic.”

The application portal is now open. Those eligible can apply to receive a grant equal to 45 percent of their gross 2019 revenue, up to $10 million.

To read more about who qualifies, click here.

‘It’s going to take a toll on the city as a whole’

While some venues have been able to scrape by and stay afloat, those we talked to are worried about the effect even a few venues closing will have on our local performance industry as a whole.

“It’s all one ecosystem,” Ramirez said. “We all kind of depend on it.”

That ecosystem is important to a city like San Antonio. The live music scene thrives on local bands playing local gigs before moving onto bigger shows at bigger venues. If smaller venues close down, it leaves a void that can’t be easily filled.

“You could really see a lot of shows go by the wayside,” Tucker said.

The same goes for independent promoters and community theaters.

The Vexler Theatre closed indefinitely in March. The theater fell short of its revenue by more than $1 million last year, and is expected to lost another million this year.

“We just simply couldn’t continue to operate the way we had hoped,” said Saul Levenshus, CEO of the Barshop Jewish Community Center.

Intimate theaters like The Vexler already operate on shoestring budgets. For them, productions with social distance guidelines in place don’t make sense.

“Having 50 people show up to a show that normally seats 150 just isn’t going to be practical for us to operate that way,” Levenshus said.

Although there is no date set for a possible reopening, Levenshus told us they could reopen in the future under the right circumstances.

Those in the local theater and live music industry worry about the long-term effects of venues closing.

“People come to cities to see not just SeaWorld and Fiesta Texas,” Tucker said. “Nowadays people travel to see what the locals are doing, where the locals are eating, where they’re going out to see shows.”

The stress and unknown factors of the past year have also led some to leave the live music and arts industry altogether.

“It’s just really hard to have to be in fear that you’re going to lose your job, to have your income radically cut,” said Chad Carey, owner of Paper Tiger.

‘It’s trickling back’

In a lot of ways, we are in a much better place than we were back in December, when KSAT Explains first explored the state of performance venues. But it may still take some time for live music and theater to be as healthy as it was pre-pandemic.

“It’s trickling back,” Ramirez said. “It’s not going to be like a light switch coming back.”

The Paper Tiger has reopened for the first time in more than a year. But Carey says business won’t be as quick to rebound at the music venue as it has at the other bars and restaurants he owns. Venues pose unique challenges. One of those challenges: booking tours. Carey said it can take three to six months minimum when it comes to booking national acts.

Paper Tiger on the St. Mary's strip reopened this month. (Copyright 2020 by KSAT - All rights reserved.)

And when it comes to national tours, states rely on each other.

“We’re all interdependent on each other’s success,” Tucker said. “It’s not cost-effective for a band to fly across the country to Texas and then go back.”

On the other hand, venues that don’t book national tours, and instead rely on local talent, could reopen sooner.

“I think you’re going to see smaller rooms, jazz clubs, bars, all of these things are going to open sooner than the theater, which is going to open sooner than arenas,” said Aaron Zimmerman, Vice President of Programming at the Tobin Center. “It is going to be a ramp upwards toward bigger and larger events.”

The Tobin Center is currently operating at one-third capacity. They anticipate opening at full capacity in August. But Zimmerman acknowledges it could take some longer than others to feel comfortable in public spaces. He compares it to the way he felt dining in a restaurant with friends for the first time after getting vaccinated.

“I will say that fear went away very quickly,” Zimmerman said. “And I think the same thing is going to happen in the theater.”

This month, the Woodlawn Theatre will hold its first in-person show of 2021. And they’re working on rescheduling “On Your Feet” -- the show they were forced to cancel more than a year ago.

Though it could take a while to 100 percent bounce back, those we talked to see a bright future for live music and the arts in San Antonio.

“I don’t think that the world will be forever changed,” Carey said.


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