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Houston’s Underground Music Venues Are Leery About Stimulus Grants

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The latest COVID stimulus package contains $15 billion earmarked to try to save the independent music venues around the country that have struggled since the pandemic cancelled so many shows, but for the purveyors of underground music there is some wariness about how effective it might be.

Jim Pirtle, the owner of Notsuoh, is primarily worried about what the government may ask of him to prove he is worthy for a grant. He received a PPE loan as part of last years CARES Act, something that has been very helpful. Pirtle owns the land Notsuoh and Dean’s sits on so he doesn’t have to worry about rent, but he still has a five-figure property tax bill and other expenses to pay. To receive that loan, he just had to provide bank statements, but if the process to apply for one of the new grants requires more he may not be eligible.

“We’re not paying bands in a way that is IRS paper trail friendly,” he says. “A lot of us pay bands under the table. If it’s a choice between getting the money or being opened up to all the scrutiny… Each payday for an act is under $500 so they don’t even require notification to the IRS. I am wondering about a lot of dive bars and how rigorous the bookkeeping is going to have to be. Maybe it will be as simple as showing them a calendar.”

The stimulus program is theoretically designed for places just like Notsuoh. It’s inclusion in the law was lobbied for by the National Independent Venue Association and other industry groups and championed by Sens. Amy Klobuchar and our own John Cornyn. The bill excludes mega companies like Live Nation, though it also cuts out venues like coffee shops that host open mike nights. Two-part grants will cover as much 45 percent of a venue’s 2019 revenue up to $10 million at first, with a subsequent grant of up to 50 percent of the first amount to follow. Venues had to have been in business in February 2020, which does include most of the Houston underground clubs.

What’s still unclear is just how the application process will be run. Brian Arthur, owner of Super Happy Fun Land has already run into problems when he received a Musicians and Music Venues Economic Relief Program grant back in March. He was eligible for up to $25,000 but qualified for only three. He believes it’s because he didn’t have bands scheduled past May and couldn’t prove further financial need.

Super Happy Fun Land is no stranger to adversity. Before COVID the venue had already weathered Arthur going to federal prison as part of a round-up of synthetic marijuana producers under the Obama Administration, a situation that was worsened by structural damage the venue suffered during Hurricane Harvey. These days, the expenses are being paid by Arthur’s food truck, Flakey’s Pizza, but that is not going to last.

“Super Happy Fun Land has always been subsidized by donations and our pizza truck,” he says. “That’s been paying the bills, but we’re just barely keeping the power in here. In 18 years, we have never made a profit. The bands we bring in we do because they’re the kind of acts that have a hard time finding someplace to play. We were making some headway with hip hop shows. Bun B and Slim Thug did secret shows here and it draws big crowds from the University of Houston and TSU. The cover charges just help us break even, but we can’t keep going just on pizza truck income.”

What Arthur is hoping for in the grant process is a better point of contact and information campaign than what came with the city’s grant, grateful as he is for the help that gave him. As of right now, it’s still undetermined what the venues will need to proceed, and the bills are still piling up while the process rolls out.

“I just want some more information on how to do it,” he says.

The aid for local venues is most welcome after nearly a year of sparse concerts and diminished capacities, and that’s if bands even come through period. For venues that cater to the lesser-known and stranger acts, it’s still a question if they will reap the benefits of the more traditional clubs. If the government insists on too much paperwork instead of a human understanding of how these places operate, it will mean some of these beloved venues will remain on the edge of viability.

“Underground bands are, well, underground,” says Pirtle. “I hope [the government] will be fair. There’s so little money involved. These aren’t converts with $50,000 paydays. When you’re dealing with nickel and dime stuff, it’s like whatever. Here’s a hundred bucks from the bar. Maybe that's the wrong attitude but it’s the one I’ve done for 25 years.”

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