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The Madison area’s small venues get short shrift in state grant program

More than $1 million in COVID-19 relief funds will go to the city’s large corporate and non-profit players, not independent spaces.

The Wisconsin Department of Administration announced on Thursday that it has awarded $15,000,000 in grants to music and performing arts venues around the state, nine months into an almost total shutdown of live events across the country. About $1.5 million of that money will go to venues located in the city of Madison. However, the biggest grants will go to the city’s largest concert promoter, FPC Live, and to venues that already receive significant public funding and/or private philanthropic support: Monona Terrace and the Overture Center. The kinds of smaller venues that really make a local music scene tick will get relatively little, and the people who run them are getting frustrated. 

There are some bright spots here for small, independent, and/or unusual venues, including grants for the Stoughton Opera House, the Shitty Barn, and the Barrymore Theatre. All three attract impressive rosters of touring music, and create a sense of community, while resisting the greater music industry trend of corporate consolidation. But reading the list of grant recipients, it’s not hard to notice what’s missing: Crucible, Mickey’s Tavern, Café Coda, the Crystal Corner Bar, The Bur Oak, North Street Cabaret, Tip Top Tavern, BarleyPop Live, Communication, Bos Meadery—basically, most of the places that provide opportunities for local musicians to perform. The funding shakes out with a similar dynamic in Milwaukee: Major venues including The Rave, Summerfest, and the Pabst Theater/Riverside Theater/Turner Hall group got the lion’s share of the money, while beloved small venues like the Cactus Club were left out.

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Statewide, the program received 213 applications and awarded 96 grants, says Molly Vidal, a staff member in DOA’s Office of the Secretary. Here’s the full list.

Some of Madison’s small venues applied, and some didn’t. Some might not even have been eligible under the program’s criteria, which narrowly targeted a ticketing-heavy business model, but was also available to large spaces that aren’t strictly performance venues, like convention centers. The program also stipulated that applicants “must operate at a permanent Wisconsin location,” so it was really meant strictly for brick-and-mortar venues. Nonprofits that put on vital music events but don’t operate a physical space of their own, like the Sugar Maple Traditional Music Festival or the Madison Music Collective, wouldn’t have qualified. Money from an earlier state grant program for “cultural organizations” was spread out a bit more widely among local arts organizations big and small, but some music organizations in town didn’t find out about it in time and missed the window to apply.

Somehow none of the small venues mentioned above have yet announced that they’re shutting down for good. Jake DeHaven, co-owner of The Bur Oak, considered the venue grant program the “last glimmer of hope,” and is furious that not just his venue but several other small venues in Madison were passed over. 

“Once again, the big companies scarfed up massive takes, while the small businesses and organizations were completely ignored,” DeHaven says. “A theme of this year is big business gets bigger and the small locally passionate efforts are not as important and therefore are expendable.”

The pandemic has of course been brutal for venues large and small. Regardless of size and business model, there’s simply no revenue from events, and it’s much harder to sell drinks and food. Venues and promoters have spent the past nine months canceling, postponing, rescheduling, and re-rescheduling, all without knowing for sure when they’ll actually be able to hold public events again, and what kind of disposable income people will have to spend on entertainment after a massive economic slump. When a venue is shuttered and not making money, the fixed costs continue to pile up. Staying quiet isn’t cheap.

Even admitting that it’s horrible for everyone right now, the numbers in these grant awards are lopsided.

The two largest grant awardees in Madison are FPC Live and Monona Terrace, each of which is slated to receive $395,308. FPC Live operates several of Madison’s major venues, including The Sylvee, the Orpheum, the Majestic and the High Noon Saloon. Live Nation, the world’s largest concert promoter, owns a majority interest in the Madison-based company. FPC has laid off or cut back hours or pay for at least 39 employees during the pandemic. (Another Live Nation subsidiary, which operates the Alpine Valley amphitheater in East Troy, also stands to get $395,308.) Monona Terrace is operated and funded by the City of Madison, though like most city agencies it took a budget cut this year. 

The Overture Center Arts, which receives an annual subsidy from the City of Madison, was awarded $362,287.61. Overture also received $137,712.39 through the earlier round of grants for cultural organizations.

The third-biggest award in Madison will go to an actual independent, locally owned venue: $218,012.56 for the 971-capacity Barrymore Theatre, which hosts plenty of touring acts and works with larger promoters, but has so far resisted the tide of consolidation. (It’s technically a for-profit business owned by a nonprofit, but basically a free-standing entity.) 

For Barrymore general manager Steve Sperling, the grant money means that the venue can plan confidently for an eventual re-opening next fall. Sperling and three other staff members at the Barrymore have been on the state’s Work-Share program since September, earning partial unemployment and partial wages.

“It means being able to pay staff and to do things in the building and to keep things up,” Sperling says. “We still have a lot of monthly expenses—they don’t go away. We always felt like we would be able to survive even if it meant locking the building up, putting the heat on some minimal way, and putting everybody on furlough. But this makes it easier for us to keep the staff together and continue to work around the building, continue to get stuff done.” That includes some work on the historic theater’s roof, and completely redone floors for its stage. 

Segredo LLC, which operates the 720-capacity EDM club Liquid and the smaller Ruby on University Avenue, was awarded $111,924.35. The local-theater linchpin that is the Bartell Theater got $35,760.35. Garver Events, which puts on a variety of art shows, concerts (including quite a bit of outdoor local jazz over the summer), and food events at the east side’s massive Garver Feed Mill space, got $18,401.19. 

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A sponsor display for The Sessions at McPike Park.

Outside of the city limits, but still very much in the Madison audience’s orbit, the Stoughton Opera House (operated by the City of Stoughton and partially funded by a private non-profit) was awarded $136,354.38. Seasonal Spring Green venue The Shitty Barn was awarded $20,162.88 (it’s listed under the name Stercore Spectaculum, LLC). “We received a grant sizable enough to cover this year’s fixed costs and provide a comfortable start up for next season,” says Shitty Barn booking team member Allen DeSchepper. 

One reason that the grant program isn’t more helpful to small venues is that it’s not designed with those venues’ needs or business models in mind. The eligibility requirements for the grant include that a venue “generate 33% or more of its revenue through direct ticket sales or direct event charges for the production or presentation of live music, other entertainment or large conventions and meetings.” This makes sense for larger venues with a conventional business model, places that are mostly just open when there’s a show. These venues rely on ticket income, sell drinks, and maybe also make some money on things like wedding rentals. But local music depends on all sorts of other places—bars, coffeeshops, mixed-use art spaces like Communication and Arts + Literature Laboratory—where ticket sales or cover charges might not account for a third of the revenue. Consider Mickey’s Tavern, which is undoubtedly a crucial venue for local bands, but never charges a cover at all. (Some of these businesses may be able to get relief through another newly announced state grant program for restaurants.) A variety of business models is arguably a strength for the music community, but it’s a blind spot for the venue grant program. 

The DOA’s grant program also capped awards at “$500,000 or 25% of 2019 ticket or event sales.” (No one got quite that much, which possibly reflects an effort to spread the money around a bit more.) The math here clearly favors the biggest players that were selling the most tickets before the pandemic. DOA did factor in financial need when scoring the applications—it’s 60 percent of the application score—but it’s not clear how that accounts for the fact that a non-profit venue with deep philanthropic connections, or a publicly run venue with a city budget behind it, or a larger promoter controlled by a massive publicly traded company, might have more resources to fall back on than a small venue that relies on day-to-day bar sales or small grants. 

Bur Oak booker Toffer Christensen, who has also been working to organize local venues under the umbrella of the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA), is calling on Governor Tony Evers’ office to reconsider the funding decisions. “The state has passed over many deserving small businesses, including several in Madison that met all the qualifications for the grant program with no explanation: Communication, The Bur Oak, and Café Coda,” Christensen says.

While the DOA did provide a rundown of criteria for the grant on its website, some venue owners weren’t quite sure if they qualified or how the criteria would be applied. The Barrymore’s Sperling, while happy to have gotten a grant, says he still isn’t clear on how the program works. “I’m concerned for the people who are not on the list,” Sperling says, but adds that he doesn’t know who all applied or why some venues didn’t get funding. He notes that most of the recipients got about 79 percent of the maximum they’d be entitled to under the grant, and isn’t sure why that is. It may have helped to spread the money around a bit more. 

Other venue operators didn’t hear about the grant opportunity at all until it was too late, including Crucible co-owner Gregory Kveberg. “This wasn’t well-publicized at all, and the application window was extremely short,” Kveberg says. But Crucible might not have qualified anyway, even though the 325-capacity venue hosts a variety of local and touring music. 

‘Looking over the criteria, we likely wouldn’t have been eligible in any event, as we derive too little income from ticket sales, relative to bar income—which I suspect is the case with all the other small venues, too,” Kveberg says. Crucible has received some smaller emergency grants from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation.

Still, some unusual venues managed to meet the program’s criteria, including the undoubtedly unusual Shitty Barn. “Our ticket sales are about 66% of our total revenue in addition to bar and merchandise,” DeSchepper “Most of our ticket sales is used to pay artists, or just passed through in the accounting, but it really worked to our advantage in the application.” 

Operators of other venues that got applied and got passed over, including Café Coda and The Bur Oak, say they’re pretty sure they meet the criteria and don’t understand why they received no funding.

“It’s a shame that we haven’t received any support from the state yet,” says Café Coda owner Hanah Jon Taylor, who is particularly disappointed that the state passed over a Black-owned venue.

“We may not even be in the visual range of those who are giving money,” he added. “I mean, maybe they don’t even see us or maybe they don’t acknowledge us to be relevant.” 

However, Taylor credits jazz fans in Madison and beyond for supporting a GoFundMe campaign that has helped Coda repurpose its Willy Street space as a “soundstage” for streaming concerts and talks.

Communication, Tone Madison‘s partner organization applied but also did not receive funds under the venue grant program. Jennifer Bastian, the east side music and art space’s director and arts manager, says the grant process lacks transparency and shows a lack of concern for equity in the arts. “Especially for the small venues, we are here to serve a community that doesn’t get served elsewhere and that’s really important,” she says. Bastian is glad that venue owners in the local NIVA group are advocating for more relief at the state and federal level, and hopes they succeed. “If they don’t, I don’t know if we’ll be able to stay open through the Spring.”

The fact that large venues nabbed so much of the grant money just underscores the need for independent venues to band together to make their voices heard. It’s also creating an even bleaker mood.

“It seems that this process was arbitrary and in general gave preference to larger companies and facilities that already have large donor bases or receive public funding, when in reality it is the small venues that are in the most dire need of assistance and are in the most danger of closing,” Christensen says.


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