Kessler Theater

Patrons arrive at the Kessler Theater in Dallas in 2013. A newly proposed program would let music venues like it — with capacities less than 3,000 — apply for tax rebates.

The Texas Legislature is aiming to offer some help to the state’s smaller music venues and festivals with a new program to offset their costs, and in so doing, make paying gigs easier for local artists to find.

The legislation, which the House and Senate have passed, would allow music venues with capacities of less than 3,000 to apply for tax rebates of up to $100,000.

Music festivals in Texas counties with less than 100,000 residents would also be eligible to apply.

Venues and festivals would have to show that they are paying their musical acts with a portion of ticket sales or through advances. In order to qualify, applicants would need to have operated under the program’s requirements for at least two years prior to making the ask. A number of restrictions intended to make sure the rebates go only to bona fide music venues are included in the bill as well.

The money would be distributed through what legislators are calling the Texas music incubator rebate program. The state’s Music, Film, Television, and Multimedia Office would select those to receive funds based on which offer “the most economic benefit to the communities in which [they] are located… and to the Texas music industry including live music performers.”

The legislation, Senate Bill 609, arrived on the governor’s desk last week. It now awaits his signature. If he inks it, the office would start accepting applications by September 2022.

“We we have so many great venues in our state that have suffered, whether it’s been natural disasters, hurricanes, the freeze or the pandemic,” said State Sen. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, who authored the bill.

“This program will allow those venues to open back up, to stay open, to keep their people employed. And Texas is known for a lot of these historic venues,” Alvarado said.

As for the focus on smaller venues: “We know that those are the ones that were hurting,” she said.

Funds for the program would be collected from existing taxes on alcohol sales at the venues.

The legislation proposing the program arrived on the governor’s desk last week. It now awaits his signature.

Those taxes are typically the second largest expense for small venues, behind only their property taxes, mortgage or rent, said Rebecca Reynolds, who lobbied for the bill as president of the Music Venue Alliance Austin.

“So it would be a significant help for venues who are trying to pay higher wages and, you know, a professional wage to a musician,” she said.

Edwin Cabaniss, the owner of Kessler Theater in Dallas, who pushed for the bill as well, said its structure means venues with more alcohol sales would contribute more to the program, in turn making funds available to smaller applicants that may be more financially vulnerable.

“It’s a program that lets mid- and large-sized venues share with smaller venues that might not ever be able to generate it for themselves,” he said.

It could be a boon for rural venues especially, which — unlike the Kessler and others in major metropolitan areas — don’t have big potential customer bases to draw on. And it’s no secret that the Texas’ most far-flung venues are some of its most culturally and historically significant.

“The real magic takes place when my excess incubator funds are put in the smaller communities like Prosper, Granbury or Athens,” said Cabaniss.

Under the program, “the money goes back in to help save and sustain some of the most iconic cultural institutions” in the state, he said.

Cabaniss, Reynolds and others began pushing for legislation of this kind even before the pandemic, in 2019. Since then, “it’s estimated we’ve lost half of small venues” in the state, Cabaniss said. By his count, there are now about 350 to 400 venues across Texas that’d be eligible under the proposed program.

“If this bill would have passed two years ago, that number could have been as much as double.”

The state’s music industry supports 80,000 jobs, a number that inches closer to 100,000 if music education is included, according to a study the Texas Music Office wrapped up in 2019.

If Abbott signs the bill, will help come fast enough?

At the very least, said Alvarado, it’s “the light at the end of the tunnel” for venues. “They can plan, at least knowing that it’s on the calendar.”

In the meantime, live music has begun a slow crescendo, with some regional and national tours booking dates again. But nobody’s turning it up to 11 just yet.

“A lot of venues are still dipping their toe in the water of reopening this summer,” said Reynolds. “So having that sort of cushion on their operating costs is really going to help them ramp back up. And I know that a lot of the new operators feel like they’re just looking into the abyss, you know, are people going to come?”

The federal government has also pitched in with the Save Our Stages Act. Co-authored by Texas Sen. John Cornyn, it created a $16 billion program to provide grants to venues nationwide.

“Save Our Stages is also critical,” said Reynolds. But the key difference between it and the proposed Texas rebates, she noted, is that Save Our Stages is a one-time disaster relief measure, while the rebates would be part of an annual program.

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