Jessica Swarner/The Copper Courier The Rebel Lounge closed their doors to live music in March 2020. They're now preparing to reopen while still reeling from the financial impact of the pandemic.
Jessica Swarner/The Copper Courier

“Until that aid comes, it’s hard to think about reopening at scale.”

Concert venues in Arizona are slowly beginning to reopen as people continue to get vaccinated, and pandemic restrictions have largely been lifted. 

But, for some music venues, turning the financial tide isn’t going to be as easy as getting back to business. Many are still facing massive debt from expenses they had to incur while they were closed for months, unable to make money. 

“There’s no industry hurt more than live events and live performance and music venues,” Stephen Chilton, co-owner of The Rebel Lounge in central Phoenix, told The Copper Courier. “It’s 13 months with virtually very little revenue, most venues with no revenue.  No business is set up to sustain that.”

The Rebel Lounge received Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) funds from the federal government, but Chilton noted the relief was minimal.

“There has been no real federal aid for venues in 13 months,” he said. 

Susan Walter, general manager of the historic Orpheum Theater in downtown Flagstaff, said her venue is going through the same thing. She said with heating costs, payments on a new PA system installed right before the pandemic, and other expenses, the venue has to pay out about $20,000 each month even with no shows happening, putting them in the red. 

The Orpheum was able to get PPP funds that will be forgiven, Walter said, but they also took out an Economic Injury Disaster Loan that will have to be paid back. 

Alternate Funding

The Rebel Lounge looks a little different than it did 13 months ago. The space that was once filled with concertgoers is now a lounge area for the Reap & Sow Coffee Bar. 

Chilton said the partnership with the coffee business has been “cool,” but it’s no long-term solution. 

“It’s been good to be open in some capacity and be open,” he said. “ [But] it’s definitely not making up for the lost revenue. It’s a drop in the bucket. We’re losing less than when we were completely closed, but … it doesn’t make up.” 

The Orpheum also tried out other ideas for bringing in revenue. The venue produced webcasts with local artists from its stage to stay “relevant,” and began putting on outdoor 50-person shows in the fall. But they completely closed again once COVID cases began surging over the holiday season.

Marketing director Molly Baker said The Orpheum has since ramped up merchandise sales and solicited donations. They also sold space on their marquee sign, which became a way for people to advertise their own businesses, make personal announcements, or share messages of hope. 

“Flagstaff has been very supportive,” Baker said. 

Waiting on New Grants

What both Walter and Chilton said will help their businesses are Shuttered Venue Operators (SVO) grants. 

Former President Donald Trump signed the program into law in January, but the application portal didn’t open until early April. Technical problems caused the site to have to shut down the same day. The launch was pushed back to April 24 and again to April 26. 

 The first recipients of the grants were initially expected to receive the funds by the end of the month. Now, the Small Business Administration says won’t come in until late May. 

“We are desperately awaiting the SVO grant, which is still in progress,” Walter said, “and that is what many venues are waiting [for] to be able to relaunch and afford to stay open when we are still probably about a year out from completely normal business.” 

Chilton said it’s hard to imagine a future without this money coming through. 

“Until we get that aid, it’s kind of hard to start making big investments when everyone is already in debt,” he said. “And so until that aid comes, it’s hard to think about reopening at scale.”