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Hickenlooper and Venue Operators Talk Pandemic Blues and Federal Fixes

United States Senator John Hickenlooper speaking at Levitt Pavilion on Tuesday, April 6.EXPAND
United States Senator John Hickenlooper speaking at Levitt Pavilion on Tuesday, April 6.
Jon Solomon
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“The average venue in Colorado right now is bleeding about $45,000 a month, and that's with skeleton crews,” said Levitt Pavilion head Chris Zacher on Tuesday from the stage of his nonprofit amphitheater in Ruby Hill Park. “It's just not sustainable.”

Zacher, who serves as board chair of the Colorado Independent Venue Association and Colorado chair of the National Independent Venue Association, joined United States Senator John Hickenlooper and Colorado musicians, promoters and music-venue managers to speak about how the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant will jump-start the state’s thriving music industry.

“Without us, 20,000 jobs would be lost in the state of Colorado, and that would be devastating to our economy,” Zacher added.

Starting Thursday, April 8, venues, movie theaters, performing arts theaters and others can apply for the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant, which was established by the Small Business Administration and signed into law last December. The program includes $16 billion in grants to boarded-up venues, which must have been in operation since February 29, 2020. The grants will be administered by the SBA’s Office of Disaster Assistance.

“We need to have about 70 percent of our capacity full so that we can stay in operation,” Zacher said. “We're not there, but we're getting close, and this is going to help us get across that finish line.”

Getting to the finish line has been a long process, with NIVA coordinating efforts between 3,000 venues nationwide. The organization inspired 2.5 million people to send letters to Congress to urge lawmakers to get on board with the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant, which can help most venues get a grant of 45 percent of their gross earned revenue up to $10 million to help the businesses reopen.

Hickenlooper sees the grant, along with an act that provides relief to restaurants, as more than aid. “It really is about redefining Colorado's momentum and reigniting our momentum as one of the centerpieces of the country in live music, food and hospitality,” Hickenlooper said.

He also mentioned the hardship that stage and lighting technicians and roadies have experienced, and how they contribute to the economy when they are employed. “We're getting jobs,” Hickenlooper says. “We're providing that essential life force for our community, but we're also inspiring the next generation.”

Denver blues singer Erica Brown spoke about how concert-goers spend money at bars, restaurants and nightclubs and how the music industry fuels other sectors. “It's an amazing trickle-down thing. As John said, it’s people in the front of the house and the people in the back of the house and the servers and the bartenders. And just everybody that contributes to what makes Colorado's music economy the third-largest [economic] driver in the state.”

Chris Tetzeli, owner and president of 7S Management, thanked Hickenlooper for his support and leadership in helping get the grant program passed.

“Independent music venues throughout the country are the lifeline for bands that are growing,” Tetzeli noted. “Real bands that are the heart and soul and really at the fabric of our cultural community throughout the country. ... With the support of this bill, we'll keep that intact and continue to see years of growth ahead of us, and so we're very appreciative of all the work that went into making this happen."

David Weingarden, vice president of concerts and events for Z2 Entertainment (which operates the Boulder, Fox and Aggie theaters), said that while there’s light at the end of the tunnel, venues are hurting...even as things get incrementally better.

“When we were humming along in 2019, at the height of it, we had 160 employees,” Weingarden says. “Over the past couple of months, before things started picking up a little bit so we could have some reduced capacity shows, we were down to three. Our staff, we've all been struggling; we've been on reduced salaries. There are a lot of people who have been furloughed or unemployed.”

Karen Cuda Exley (from left), Cody Wade, Andy Bercaw, Chris Zacher, John Hickenlooper, Erica Brown, Chris Tetzeli and David Weingarden at Levitt Pavilion on Tuesday, April 6.EXPAND
Karen Cuda Exley (from left), Cody Wade, Andy Bercaw, Chris Zacher, John Hickenlooper, Erica Brown, Chris Tetzeli and David Weingarden at Levitt Pavilion on Tuesday, April 6.
Jon Solomon

Weingarden and Zacher were both founding boardmembers of CIVA, which oversees and helps over a hundred venues throughout the state.

“I guess that's a blessing that has come out of this," said Weingarden. "We're looking out for each other and making sure that we're taking care of each other and the bands and whatnot, so that's been a really great thing."

Karen Cuda Exley has worked in a variety of capacities in the local music industry over the past two decades — as a performer, in touring concessions, and in music venue production.

“I didn't just lose one job — I lost five," Exley said. "So, it really had a huge impact on me, not to mention the grief and the questioning." She's left wondering when this industry she has invested her life in will come back.

Cody Wade, general manager of the Broadway Roxy, says it’s been a difficult year for his combination restaurant, bar and small venue, and the Roxy is far from alone.

“We've seen our staff drop hours — front of house, back of house,” Wade said. “And without programs and support like we're seeing with this, we would not have made it. We were blessed to be able to reopen this February, and a limited capacity is available. We've fortunately been able to have no-cover shows with all our bands six nights a week and to have just a little bit of live music and a small sense of normalcy.”

Wade said he talks to people on a weekly basis who say they haven’t been out of their homes since March 2020.

“It's just encouraging to see that slowly coming back out, and I look forward to being able to come back 100 percent, sooner than later,” Wade said.

Andy Bercaw, co-owner of the Oriental Theater and president of City Park Jazz, said the venue is losing a little bit less money every month.

“And right now, I'll take it — selling out at 150 people,” Bercaw said. “One hundred and fifty people a couple years ago would have been a big disappointment, but right now it's a victory. And it's just great having some bands on our stages, but I just can't wait to get back to full capacity, or close, and start operating normally again."

Joseph Pope, bassist with Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, was slated to be at the event but was self-quarantining after being exposed to a COVID-positive person.

"Senator Hickenlooper has long been a vocal and active supporter of live music and venues big and small since we first met, long ago, before he was mayor of Denver," Pope wrote in a statement that Tetzeli read. "It is my great honor to speak on behalf of this grant program which will provide much-needed support to the venues that provide our artists with invaluable opportunities to grow our craft and also serve as anchors to communities all across the country.

"Not only will these grants help ensure venues will be able to weather the storm and open their doors again soon, but it will provide relief for so many others that are behind the scenes that make live music possible."

In the statement, Pope added that we desperately need music venues to survive.

"I believe more than ever, we as a society need the healing and hope that music provides," he wrote. "And we need to do everything we can to ensure future generations of young musicians are afforded the same opportunities to create, expand and enrich our communities."

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