If you’re not from Omaha, you may not realize how important the music scene is to our city. For over a hundred years, live music has been a driving force in the vibrancy of our community – matching or even exceeding cities ten times our population. In the early part of the 20th century, legendary performers like Daniel Desdunes, Lloyd Hunter and Nat Towles led the way. From their lead, grew giants like Preston Love, Buddy Miles and Lester Abrams. Anna Mae Winburn was huge during the war years, and Wynonie Harris came out of the projects to lead the Zoot Suit craze and become one of the true founders of Rock n’ Roll. In the modern era, Chip Davis and Mannheim Steamroller, then 311 kicked things off, and Saddle Creek Records followed by launching the careers of Bright Eyes, Cursive, Conor Oberst and the Faint, just to name a few. Right now, performers like Satchel Grande, the Kris Lager Band, Hector Anchonodo, Twinsmith and others are making a huge name for themselves. And that doesn’t even touch on the fact that Omaha has provided venues to every major artist in America for more than a century. All of this has contributed to the fact that, in spite of its rather provincial image, Omaha has always been a very cool place to live.
COVID is directly threatening this live performance heritage. We’ve all seen the impact on our favorite restaurants and bars. We can see that just driving down the street, but most of us haven’t thought much about the next tier – the live music venues like Slowdown or the Waiting Room. If you’re like me, you’ve passed by that era in your life and just getting up in the morning is a “process.” But back in the day, dancing the night away in places like Arthur's or the Ranch Bowl was a two or three nights a week kind of thing. Oh, my body hurts just thinking about it.
Full disclosure, my very cool little brother is the production manager at Slowdown, and he and his longtime friend and competitor, Marc Liebowitz, the owner of the Waiting Room in Benson, are seriously worried about survival. The CARES Act, the first stimulus package, gave them some relief, but it runs out about right now. As is the case with most businesses, margins are everything, and there is no way for them to social distance their way to profitability. No one’s idea of a night at the club is sitting at least six feet away from the hottie you want to meet wearing a mask. The simple fact is that there is no way to make it in this COVID environment, unless the government can come through with help.
Marc told me, “If you used the Paycheck Protection Program the way it was supposed to be used, you lost money. We spent one hundred percent of it on payroll, just enough for two and a half months, and that didn’t cover rent or other overhead expenses. We had to refund almost $100,000 on ticket sales, and the truth is our insurance bill is more than we received from PPP.”
In both cases, Slowdown and the Waiting Room are entertainment anchors for dozens of other businesses that surround them. If they go down, the rest will probably follow.
And let’s not forget the profound impact all of this is having on the artists themselves. Not being able to perform or even get together to collaborate is bound to have a deleterious effect. But what if they don’t have venues to return to when this is all over? If we don’t save these venues now, it could negatively impact the music scene for a generation, and that’s a loss I don’t want my children to have to experience.
Fortunately, in a rare but wonderful shout-out to bipartisanship, Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and John Cornyn (R-Tex) came together to sponsor the “Save Our Stages Act.” As my little brother said, “Music might be the one thing that transcends politics.” I doubt that, but it certainly is a nice thought and a good place to start.
Hard politics comes down to squeaky wheels, and we need to make a lot of noise for our politicians to give us the grease. So, here’s what you need to do, and do it right now. Go to , saveourstages.com, sponsored by the National Independent Venue Association, and sign the petition. They will immediately forward your name to your respective Senators and Congressperson and tell them of your support. It can and will make a difference.
We’ve got some momentum going right now, so jump on it!
Photo courtesy of Slowdown.