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Oklahoma Performance Venues Hit Hard By COVID-19 Pandemic

The band BRONCHO performs at Tower Theatre in Oklahoma City in July 2019.
Ryan Magnani
The band BRONCHO performs at Tower Theatre in Oklahoma City in July 2019.

Independent performance venues were some of the first businesses to close due to the COVID-19 pandemic and will be among the last to fully reopen. That’s meant zero revenue for some Oklahoma venues, even as fixed costs remain. But some of Oklahoma’s congressional delegation are supporting legislation that would offer them targeted relief. 

Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa was closed from mid-March to mid-June. Chad Rodgers, general manager of Cain’s Ballroom, said the venue has had some live stream performances on Facebook during the pandemic and held a couple of in-person concerts this summer with limited capacity. There may be more in-person concerts this year, but it’s unlikely much money will be made since tickets will be limited and sanitation supplies must be purchased.

According to Rodgers, Cain’s Ballroom is down about $2 million in revenue since the pandemic began.


If small, independent performance venues begin to permanently close, he thinks it could also impact large performance arenas and amphitheaters. 


“All of these major acts that play these big arenas and these amphitheaters, they all got their start somewhere, and they were all playing small bars and venues like Cain’s Ballroom, independent rooms, when they started out,” Rodgers said. “That’s where they sharpened their skills.” 


During this difficult time, Rodgers said Cain’s Ballroom becoming a member of the National Independent Venue Association, also known as NIVA, has been encouraging. 


NIVA formed at the beginning of the pandemic and includes about 2,000 independent entertainment venues and promoters from across the nation, 22 of which are in Oklahoma. The association reports that about 90% of independent venues in the U.S. are at risk of permanently closing in a few months if federal funding is not provided. 


NIVA has been lobbying the U.S. Congress to pass the Save Our Stages Act, which was introduced in the Senate, and the RESTART Act, which was introduced in both chambers and is cosponsored by Sen. Jim Inhofe, Rep. Tom Cole and Rep. Kendra Horn.  


The RESTART Act would provide small businesses, including independent performance venues, with financial assistance, tax credits and extended unemployment benefits. 


Horn said these venues attract talent to Oklahoma and create jobs. While the Paycheck Protection Program has helped many businesses, she said it doesn’t work as well for independent performance venues.


“Payroll is not their only, nor is it their biggest expense,” Horn said. “So, for example, under the PPP program, the loan amount is usually about two-and-a-half times the average payroll costs. But because of the nature of performance venues and the overhead, large buildings and other fixed costs, that model doesn't work for them, especially without any revenue.”


Chad Whitehead, talent buyer and operating partner at Tower Theatre in Oklahoma City, said this legislation would be a big help during this dark time for independent performance venues like his. 


Tower Theatre used to have about 12 concerts a month, but Whitehead said it has remained closed since mid-March. He expects about a 95% loss in revenue for the year. 


Tower Theatre and its bar next door, Ponyboy, which has also remained closed, used to have more than 30 employees, but he said there are now fewer than 10.  


“We don't have jobs for those folks when we don't have shows,” Whitehead said. “So there is a very real problem economically that has been created. The trickle down of the live music industry is really affecting a lot of great, talented, skilled people.”


In Norman, The Deli on Campus Corner has been able to continue hosting some shows since it holds significantly less people than Cain’s Ballroom or Tower Theatre. 


Tobias Schiele, booking manager at The Deli, said the venue currently has about eight shows a week with safety precautions put in place. That’s compared to about 11 a week before the pandemic. Attendance at these shows is about 60% lower than before the pandemic.


Schiele started a GoFundMe, which has stopped accepting donations, to raise money for operating expenses like utilities and rent and to raise awareness about the struggles of independent music venues. 


He said The Deli plays an important role in the community, providing young artists with opportunities for experience and development while also catering to older musicians who have been playing in Norman for decades. 


Even though The Deli has been able to host some shows during the pandemic, he said normal remains a long way off. 


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Katelyn discovered her love for radio as a student employee at KGOU, graduating from the University of Oklahoma with a bachelor’s degree in journalism, and then working as a reporter and producer in 2021-22. Katelyn has completed internships at SiriusXM in New York City and at local news organizations such as The Journal Record and The Poteau Daily News. Katelyn served as president of the OU chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists from 2017 to 2020. She grew up in Midland, Texas.
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