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Austin music venues see hope in federal COVID-19 relief package

Congress appears to be in the final stages of approving a $900 billion COVID-19 stimulus package that will include $15 billion earmarked for cultural institutions including music venues, several sources familiar with the legislation confirmed on Monday.

"It's definitely too soon to pop bottles, but it looks like it's happening," said Cody Cowan, executive director of the Red River Cultural District, which works with several downtown Austin venues.

Introduced earlier this year by senators John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), the Save Our Stages Act began as a $10 billion proposal to help independent music venues weather coronavirus-related shutdowns. In recent months, it was expanded to include other cultural institutions such as theaters and museums, along with an increase to $15 billion.

In the current legislation, the SOS Act is now titled "Grants for Shuttered Venue Operators" and has been expanded from around eight pages to 30 pages, according to Music Venue Alliance of Texas chairman Edwin Cabaniss, who was getting his first look at the latest documents Monday afternoon.

"At first blush, it's not a massive overhaul to the language we've known since May," said Cabaniss, whose concert promotion company Kessler Presents books shows in Austin venues the 04 Center, Antone's and the Mohawk. The full stimulus package, he added, is a 5,600-page document.

Austin music venues such as Antone's may soon be eligible for federal COVID-19 relief grants.

"It was never a sure thing, but all the way through it has had broad bipartisan support," said Rebecca Reynolds of the Music Venue Alliance Austin, which has worked on a local level with Cabaniss's state-oriented venue alliance. In turn, both have worked with the National Independent Venue alliance, an umbrella group whose board of directors includes Stephen Sternschein of Austin company Heard Presents and Empire Control Room & Garage.

The federal funds come shortly after the Austin City Council approved two grant programs, the Live Music Preservation Fund and the Austin Legacy Business Relief Grant, as part of a $10 million Save Austin's Vital Economic Sectors (SAVES) resolution that was passed in October. Dozens of venues already have applied for initial $20,000 emergency grants, with additional grants that may provide up to $140,000 over six months.

In a social media post Monday, Cowan noted that the city funds "will be the bridge to this federal relief." The congressional package "will provide a runway for us to get through vaccination, hopefully be able to see better public health outcomes develop and finally get to turn the lights back on for touring shows and festivals (the meat and potatoes for industry jobs) by October 2021," he wrote.

Specifics on how venues can apply for the federal grants aren't yet clear, though it seems likely the disbursements will run through the Small Business Administration, which handled Paycheck Protection Program funds during the federal government's first round of COVID-19 stimulus in the spring.

When the federal funds become available is another significant detail still to be determined. Cabaniss said that his examination of the current legislation suggests it may be February at the earliest before the federal funds make their way to venues that apply.

Cabaniss, Cowan and Reynolds all stressed that bipartisan support was key to keeping the music venue relief plan in the final stimulus package. "I can't really emphasize enough how the Texas delegation from both sides of the aisle stepped up on this," Cabaniss said.

"It's easy to forget that music is bipartisan and has no political affiliation; it's a human experience and a human need," Cowan said. "For the first time in history, not just in Austin but on the federal level, we're seeing a recognition of the industry and its economic impact."

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