Editor's Note: This version of the story was published in the August issue of Cleveland Magazine. We've updated the story with latest news, including that Northeast Ohio music venues have received federal funding since the original writing of this piece and how the delta variant might affect music venues, at the bottom of this page.
In a late-June Saturday at the Happy Dog, high-piled hot dogs fly out of the kitchen and PBRs slide across the bar. A not-quite mosh pit sways in front of the stage. Even the most ardent listeners excuse interruptions as longtime friends greet each other for the first time in months.
In the corner of the room, co-owner Sean Watterson grins from behind his iPhone, which records dueling guitar solos from Oregon Space Trail of Doom’s Nolan Cavano and Ryan Fletterick. Along with the previous night’s Herzog and Red Devil Ryders and tonight’s opener Arms and Armour, the psychedelic two-piece band is among the first groups to grace this stage in over a year.
And while Happy Dog’s capacity is capped at 150 tonight rather than the typical 250, both nights of the venue’s opening weekend have been sold out for weeks.
“It feels like Christmas morning,” says Watterson. “It feels like it’s all been worth it.”
In December, Congress passed the Save Our Stages Act, which allocated $16 billion of pandemic relief funds to America’s independent theaters and music venues. For context, that sum is 100 times larger than the entire annual budget for the National Endowment of the Arts. Passage of the largest arts funding bill in history marked a victory for the 2020-formed National Independent Venue Association after a nearly yearlong, bipartisan campaign.
Meanwhile, civic leaders on the local level stepped up, too. The state of Ohio awarded $20 million to theaters and entertainment venues through the Entertainment Venue Grant. Cuyahoga County doled out more than $2 million of its share of the CARES Act to Cuyahoga County Arts and Culture, which awarded venues, nonprofit organizations and individual artists.
“[Politicians] now realize what entertainment venues did for their communities, what the trickle-down effect of not having them did to other industries in their communities,” says Jill Bacon Madden, owner of Jilly’s Music Room. “Not only from a financial standpoint, they realize it sucks the joy out of your community to not have them.”
But despite the financial support, the key hasn’t totally shifted from minor to major for Northeast Ohio’s music venues.
After a year of venues being closed, owners are still assessing the long-term impact of COVID-19. Much of the grant money promised to the venues still hasn’t been awarded, which has them operating lean. “I think it’s going to take us at least two years to crawl back from this major setback,” says Bacon Madden. “It’s not just [the businesses] getting back online or the artists getting ready to play again. Are fans ready to gather en masse again, shoulder-to-shoulder and cheek-to-cheek, and enjoy live music again?”
At the end of June — more than six months after the passing of the Save Our Stages Act — only 18% of applicants have been notified whether they’ve been awarded the promised 45% of their gross earned revenue from 2019. Other than technical difficulties in the application process, it’s unclear what is causing the Small Business Administration’s slow rollout as restaurants were promptly awarded funds from a similar bill that passed in March.
In the Happy Dog’s case, that $536,320 is the difference between paying employees and vendors and plummeting even further into debt, says Watterson. By staying closed throughout the pandemic, the 13-year-old rock club lost $15,000 a month. To open with capacity restricted at 25%, about 50 fans and staff, Watterson estimates that figure would’ve jumped to $30,000.
Now, as it reopens, the uncertainty of when it’ll receive public funds has it operating tentatively, such as not opening on weeknights and not offering dinner before shows.
“We haven’t paid for those hot dogs yet,” says Watterson. “We haven’t sent paychecks out. There are some bills that won’t get paid until we have the money. It means we’re spreading the burden of this closure around.”
With so few opportunities, every show right now must also have the potential of selling out. The amount of bands able to fill a room night after night with certainty was already shallow before the pandemic put a strain on the local talent pool. In addition to some working musicians being forced to find other ways to make money, many bands simply haven’t practiced together or have called it quits over the past year.
“There is some concern about [whether] younger people [are] starting bands and whether interests are shifting away from live music,” says Watterson.
But there have been some silver-lining lessons learned over the pandemic year. Much of it proves there is still a crowd hungry as ever to experience live music.
While the Happy Dog stayed closed, many larger spaces were able to create socially distanced live experiences. In October, the Grog Shop launched its Show and a Snack series, which pairs local bands with bites from Cleveland Heights restaurants. Meanwhile, Tremont’s Coda, which only hosted a few low-capacity, friends-and-family shows indoor over 2020 and early 2021, launched Codapalooza in its parking lot last summer. Bands climbed atop massive shipping containers and performed to pods of 10 spread across the lot. Both of these experiences have stuck around after restrictions have lifted.
In Akron, Jilly’s Music Room, which has been shutdown since March 13, invested $5,000 into livestream technology. Starting in May 2020, the free #StreamingFriday and #StreamingSaturday shows were a huge learning curve for her technical staff but it kept them occupied and employed. When Jilly’s reopens, Bacon Madden plans to launch a $5 monthly livestream subscription service to augment the live experience.
“We really just did it to stay relevant during the pandemic,” says Bacon Madden, whose 244-person Akron entertainment space reopened July 16. “It’s a revenue generator that we didn’t expect.”
Finally, pandemic successes have given grassroots music venues a renewed sense of political power. Two years ago, Cleveland Magazine reported that many arts spaces sat in limbo between for-profit businesses and nonprofit arts organizations: unable to turn a profit and ineligible for grant money. They struggled to prove themselves as the neighborhood anchors they are — for example, the Beachland Ballroom brings nearly 100,000 visitors a year to its Collinwood neighborhood.
But the 2020 formation of NIVA and the successful passing of the Save our Stages Act has changed that. The association has created a vast network of venue owners, who continue to support each other’s local policy battles and business struggles. Meanwhile, the passing of bills and the allocations of funds have forced politicians to read hundreds of thousands of letters from devoted fans of these spaces.
“The only way this massive arts funding bill happened is because you had people who support ventures reaching out to politicians to tell them this is important,” says Watterson, who serves as the Ohio captain of NIVA. “I hope one positive outcome is that this puts a new lens on the creative workforce and all the people with technical skills that make things happen.”
UPDATE: Local music venues have gotten their money but are far from out of the woods.
As of this writing, Northeast Ohio entertainment spaces have received $71 million in federal grant money from the Small Business Association. Sounds huge, but organizations such as the Pro Football Hall of Fame and Playhouse Square are among the recipients of that money — to the tune of $8 million dollars in the case of the downtown theater organization. Meanwhile, some venues such as the Grog Shop, which has received funds for its sister bar, B-Side Lounge, remain in limbo as they continue to wait.
"The bulk of the money is actually going to bigger nonprofit institutions," says Watterson.
That's not to say the money is unwelcome. For the Happy Dog owner, the $536,320 comes in the nick of time.
"It's meant everything to get that money," Watterson says. "I drained my savings to cover expenses while we were closed. Anticipating we'd get it, I didn't have any money left. The money came literally two days before, property tax bills were due. A big chunk of that money came in the account went right back out of the account to pay for all of the things that we had delayed payment on: back rent payments, water and sewer bills and unpaid labor."
There is also some promise of getting a second grant to make up for losses from the first quarter of 2021.
A month after shows have returned to the Happy Dog and toward the end of a full summer slate for other venues, some of the concerns about talent returning to the stage have been alleviated. Same goes for the pit, as fans have been eager to return. While the national touring industry has been slower to restart, many local bands that typically would play stages such as the Happy Dog have been pulled to larger venues — which is great for the bands, but not so much for the venues, says Watterson.
"So it's a double-edged sword, but that'll sort itself out," he says. "Right now, we don't seem to be hitting a saturation point for fans wanting to see live music."
As show and album announcements happen daily, often from acts who targeted the end of summer for a fully safe return to gigging, Cleveland's scene seems to be hitting a stride just as another threat looms: the delta variant of the coronavirus. This week, the CDC revised its mask guidelines, suggesting vaccinated persons wear a mask in indoor spaces, and Cuyahoga County announced it would return to a mask mandate for public buildings. Many Columbus venues are also returning to mask guidelines and some are even requiring proof of vaccination among entry.
"Trying to predict what's going to happen with Delta is like Terry Pluto predicting Browns wins totals — I don't think I'm ever going to be right," says Watterson. "Nationwide, it's been the focus of the NIVA calls for the last two weeks. We're very worried about it. It would be a little easier to ask for proof of vaccination if all we were just a concert venue, like if we were [Jacob's Pavilion at] Nautica, but we're open for lunch."
Another shutdown would be a devastating blow to independent spaces like the Happy Dog. But for now, Watterson is pleased to finally have the support he'd been promised since December and fought for since March 2020.
"My hope was we would get over $100 million to Northeast Ohio through this, and I think we will pretty comfortably get there," he says. "Now we're just trying to figure out how to spread that money to more people."