Ruta Smith file

All of Charleston’s most popular places to catch live music are quieter than normal. All are taking a hit.

“We’re not making any money,” said Alex Harris, co-owner of the Charleston Pour House on James Island. “We’re trying to find a way to break even doing this but we’ve lost money the whole time. We lost money in June, we lost money in July, but we don’t want to close.”

With a valuable piece of legislation hanging in the U.S. Senate, some local venue owners and musicians see the Save Our Stages Act as the key to keeping music venues alive. Introduced on July 22 by U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and John Cornyn, R-Tex., the bill would authorize the Small Business Administration to make grants eligible to live music venues.

The National Independent Venue Association has championed the bill and the RESTART Act as the last opportunity to keep many venues alive during the pandemic. Those interested in helping can petition their senators to support the act, which has been stalled in the Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship since it was introduced.

“The Save Our Stages Act is super important, especially for independently owned venues,” said Charles Carmody, executive director of the Charleston Music Hall. “I’m hoping it will go through legislation and get financial help for independently owned venues.”

The Royal American, one of few places that had live music almost every night before COVID times, has shifted to being a bar and restaurant first. “Luckily, we have been able to pivot a bit,” owner John Kenney said. “Our sales are significantly down from previous years, however.”

While the extra cash flow from food and drink sales has been a boon to the business, state regulations closing bars after 11 p.m. has been a “crippling change,” Kenney said.

“We do a large amount of our business between 11 p.m. to 2 a.m., especially catering to the other F&B workers who come in late at night after their shifts for a drink and something to eat,” he said. “Turning the lights on and doing last call at 10:30 p.m. has been absolutely brutal for us, and every other bar in town I’m sure.”

Kenney conceded that, even though 2020 will likely be the worst year for Royal’s finances on record, he doesn’t think that the bar is in danger, yet.

In recent months, many venues have offered livestreamed concerts, some more frequently than others. The Gaillard Center’s Lowcountry Listens series, which puts local musicians on one of the city’s most regal stages, proved successful enough to warrant a second season. Awendaw Green and the North Charleston Performing Arts Center followed their lead with their own livestreamed series, both premiering over the summer.

Venues that cater to national acts more often than local artists have encountered their own set of specific challenges. “It’s bad,” Carmody said. “I’m not worried about us closing. Everyone’s on unemployment and we’re just having to hibernate. It’s hard.”

The Music Hall has hosted several livestreams, including a performance from Benny Starr and Rodrick Cliche’s collaboration Native Son, but “it’s just not the same,” Carmody said.

As of last week, Carmody said his venue may open in late September at a capacity of around 250, with the option for livestream tickets at a discounted price. But, he clarifies, that plan can change overnight.

One of the biggest challenges the Music Hall is encountering is a lack of performances from national artists, which used to bring in steady streams of revenue. “That’s how we survive,” he said. “We did 78 national tours last year, but we did 278 events. That 78 made up a large portion of our income.”

To pull through, venues need financial support, Carmody said.

Other venues, like the Purple Buffalo and the Pour House, have trudged forward with socially distanced concerts. The Purple Buffalo has been hosting women’s only dance classes every Tuesday and open mics on Wednesdays.

Over at the Pour House, shows on the outdoor deck stage have continued, but they haven’t generated the same revenue as the large indoor shows that brought local artists and national acts together.

In June, the Pour House only did 40 percent of the sales done in June 2019. “It’s going to be a bad, bad year,” Harris said, even with the Paycheck Protection Program loan the business received.

“It’s almost like, if you were in a circumstance where you could just sell food, drinks, be a bar and be busy, you’d be better off,” he said. “We’ve got to pay the bands and when it’s a free show, we’re paying the bands off the register, too. It’s part of the reason why we’re not making money.”

Harris also believes the Save Our Stages and RESTART Acts or another round of PPP loans can help the venue to stay open. While things look bleak, he does believe the Pour House will survive. “We’re not there at the moment,” he said. “We’re figuring it out and I’m hopeful things will fall in our direction.”

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