For 24 years, Greg Macolino has owned and operated the Brighton Bar in Long Branch, a rumbling pillar of New Jersey’s rock and alternative music scenes since the 1970s.
Bruce Springsteen, The Damned, Fountains of Wayne, 3 Doors Down, U.S. Chaos, members of Cheap Trick and The New York Dolls — they’ve all played the black-walled club, which until March still hosted live entertainment seven days a week.
Now, nearly five months into the crippling pandemic shutdown, Macolino scrambles to build an impromptu outdoor dining plan — Brighton Bar has never served anything but basic bar food. He slings discounted pasta and seafood dishes. He runs himself ragged.
“I’m working 10 times harder for 20% of the money,” says Macolino, who like thousands of bar, club and theater owners across the country, fears he’s singing his swan song. He knows as well as anyone that if he’s forced to stay closed much longer, it’ll be bye-bye Brighton Bar.
“I’m getting by on the skin of my teeth,” he says. “I’ve gone into serious debt. It is dire.”
Since April, the National Independent Venue Association — a group supported by more than 2,000 venues including the Brighton Bar, Count Basie Center For The Arts and more than 40 other Garden State locales — has lobbied Congress to include the plummeting arts industry in packages for federal aid, be it through the polarizing RESTART or House-passed HEROES Acts, or separate legislation. The goal is to alter the PPP program “to work for shuttered businesses like ours that [now] have zero revenue, high overhead and no clear timeline for reopening,” according to NIVA’s website.
Without assistance, 90% of U.S. venue owners and promoters surveyed by NIVA said they would be forced to close within six months of March’s initial pandemic restrictions.
The timeline is quickly tightening; Congress typically takes an August recess — meaning no relief would be decided upon until at least September — though negotiations surrounding a second stimulus package could keep senators in Washington a bit longer.
“We’re not taking our foot off the pedal, and absolutely need one of these passed before the recess in August or we’re dead in the water,” says Patrick Wilson, a talent buyer for White Eagle Hall in Jersey City and a NIVA representative, referring to the organization’s member base.
Last month, more than 600 major artists, comedians and industry heads — including Lady Gaga, Willie Nelson, The Foo Fighters, Billie Eilish and Cher — signed a letter on NIVA’s behalf urging Congress to move. The letter has so far produced no results.
The latest call comes from Senator Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who last week co-introduced the Save Our Stages Act, which asks for a $10 billion life raft to balance the reported $9 billion the music industry stands to lose in 2020. Industry experts predict concerts will not return until at least 2021 — some are already looking at 2022.
“I don’t want to lose music in America,” Klobuchar told Rolling Stone. “… [Venues] may have been the first to close because people are so close at concerts, and they may be some of the last to open.”
While letters similar to the Stage Our Stages Act have received bipartisan support since at least May, arts executives understand they aren’t exactly a top priority amid the myriad economic disasters caused by the coronavirus.
“Traditionally, there has not been a strong lobby for venues in the U.S., nor a great appreciation for what live music and the other performing arts provide to the well-being of people,” says Craig Sumberg, executive director at South Orange Performing Arts Center.
Sumberg, who has been forced to furlough most of his staff and cut expenses “to the bone,” hopes the larger conversation in Congress will prove a saving grace for his center.
“There is clearly momentum right now in Congress and across the country to pass COVID-19 relief aid before the November elections,” he says. “There may not be another moment where our case will be as strong.”
Venues have tried to make back some cash with drive-in concerts, like rock keyboardist John Ginty’s experimental outdoor show in June, put on by Morristown’s Mayo Performing Arts Center.
The event earned about $15,000 in ticket sales — a drop in the bucket compared to what’s been lost.
“Not only did we lose the last quarter of our season for the fiscal year that ended June 30, we have lost our summer and so far a good portion of our fall,” says Allison Larena, MPAC President and CEO. “That’s over 100 events and millions of dollars in ticket income.”
How about Southside Johnny’s sprawling Monmouth Park drive-in concert, put on by Count Basie earlier this month, which raked in more than $150,000 at the box office? It was the first of several planned performances at the racetrack parking lot, including Almost Queen Wednesday night.
“It doesn’t come close to the costs associated with operating our organization,” says Adam Philipson, the Red Bank center’s president and CEO, of the drive-ins and additional fundraising events. “… We are losing more than $1 million a month on potential earned revenue.”
Sumberg, Larena and Philipson are all optimistic that even without federal help, their respective venues would somehow manage to survive through donor funds and community support. But they agree that clubs with less backing won’t be so fortunate.
“The reality is that many smaller nonprofit organizations and live music venues will not make it,” says Larena. “That is a tremendous loss for all of us.”
Philipson adds: “Only a handful of independent venues will be able to weather the storm.”
Back at the Brighton Bar, Macolino hopes he’s one of the lucky ones. Starting Aug. 8, he’s going to try small outdoor shows in the back lot, once or twice a week. In between, he’ll serve his $10 dinner specials and wait for Washington.
“I don’t have a choice — I have to survive,” he says.