For nearly a year, Exit/In owner Chris Cobb has been part of a constant text thread and email chain with independent music venue operators across the country struggling with the same set of grim circumstances: COVID-19 has decimated live music and arts venues and many operators have worried they may never be able to open again.

On Wednesday, those strings lit up with messages reflecting a “general deep sigh of relief pretty much across the board,” Cobb said.

A exterior view of the EXIT/IN in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images)
A exterior view of the EXIT/IN in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images)

“Yesterday is the first day since mid-March that I don’t have some form of anxiety all day long,” Cobb said. “I’m very hopeful. I haven’t said that a lot over the last year.”

The “Save Our Stages Act” is part of the $900 billion COVID-19 stimulus bill passed by Congress in December, providing a $15 billion funding package for venues to pay employees, rent, utilities and other expenses. The Small Business Administration, which is administering the grant, began releasing the fine print this week. Nashville Mayor John Cooper on Thursday praised the legislation during a COVID-19 news conference and said more than 40 live performance operators in Nashville may be eligible.

Music venues, theaters, live performing arts organizations and others are eligible to apply for up to $10 million in grants. The grant amounts are calculated as 45% of a venue’s 2019 gross revenues. Small businesses with the greatest financial losses will be first in line and could receive a check in as little as 14 days after applying.

The grants, which do not have to be repaid, are arriving just in time, Cobb said.

“We were sort of at the end of the line when those (Metro Nashville) grants came in,” he said. Nashville councilmembers approved $2 million funding for music venues in September. “We’re sort of back there again. This should get us through until the time we can safely put people back at the Exit/In again.”

The grant program was the result of a grassroots effort by independent music venue operators in Nashville and across the country to press for relief for shuttered venues. The effort led to the establishment of the National Live Venue Association and gained momentum as artists signed letters to Congress and took to social media performing benefit concerts and selling merchandise. Big name artists including Billie Eilish, Lady Gaga, Neil Young, Willie Nelson and Coldplay leant their support – and their visibility.

The Exit/In, the iconic Nashville music venue in operation for nearly 50 years, has been closed since March 16. There’s too much uncertainty to predict when he can reopen. “I’m hopeful this gets us there but ‘there’ is a bit of a moving target.”