The stage at the Portland House of Music is lit red and visible through the windows on Tuesday. Music clubs in Portland and around the country bathed their exteriors in red Tuesday night to stand in solidarity and bring attention to their economic plight amid the pandemic. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Frustrated by a lack of response from the federal government and unwilling to wait for help any longer, the operators of Maine music clubs and music industry professionals have formed a grassroots alliance and launched a $500,000 fundraising campaign to help local venues survive the pandemic.

The newly formed Maine Music Alliance will coordinate the fundraising campaign and serve as an advocate for the music industry in Maine, said its president, Scott Mohler, a Portland-based agent and promoter.

“I think we’ve all had a fair amount of optimism there would be some kind of government assistance coming down through the Save Our Stages Act or something similar. But the urgency has increased,” he said. “We’ve worked too hard to build the scene up, we can’t just wave the white flag.”

Introduced in July, the Save Our Stages Act would give six months of financial support to keep music venues and theaters open and pay employees. It is among several pandemic-related bills that are mired in the political fight in Washington among the White House and congressional Republicans and Democrats, who disagree about the scope of the next round of pandemic relief.

Ken Bell, owner of Portland House of Music in Portland, had put the venue on the market but is now trying to raise money to survive until spring. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Simultaneously, the Portland House of Music has begun its own fundraising campaign, with a goal of raising $125,000. Club owner Ken Bell explored selling the club earlier this summer, but has taken it off the market and now is trying to raise enough money through Go Fund Me to survive until spring, when he hopes there’s a vaccine for the virus and people will start to feel comfortable attending live music events. Bell said he fully supports the fundraising efforts of the Maine Music Alliance, as well. “I am trying to save my club first, but I am supportive of the team effort,” he said.

To call attention to the initiative, some Portland music presenters bathed their clubs in red light Tuesday night to send out a red alert for live music and to stand in solidarity with other clubs around the country. The red-light effort, spearheaded by a coalition called #WeMakeEvents, is intended to pressure Congress to pass the Restart Act, which would provide assistance to many people and industries, including the music industry.

Ian Smith, owner of Sun Tiki Studios on Forest Avenue in Portland, said financial relief, either from Congress or from people who support the Maine Music Alliance fundraising campaign, is vital. One prominent music club in Portland, Port City Music Hall, has permanently closed, and Smith fears others will soon follow. He worries most about small venues, which give fledgling local bands the chance to play, develop their art and build a fan base.

Red lights inside the State Theatre are seen through the glass doors on Congress Street on Tuesday night. The red-light effort, led by a coalition called #WeMakeEvents, is intended to pressure Congress to pass the Restart Act, to provide aid to many people and industries, including the music industry.  Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“My concern is saving the venues that might have to close within the next few months, before they get the chance to get back in the game,” Smith said. “I think there is a sense that we need to take responsibility for our scene as a community. This is an unprecedented circumstance, and what is happening in Washington is so unpredictable. There’s a lot of discussion about the Save Our Stages Act, but we have no idea if or when it might materialize. If it’s too small or doesn’t happen soon enough, it won’t help us.”

Mohler said several club owners and operators and other music industry professionals in Portland formed the alliance “to have a bigger voice and attract corporate donors.” It evolved from weekly Zoom chats among them that began soon after the pandemic forced them all to close in March. The chats have provided emotional and moral support and encouraged them to share ideas, information and strategies. He sees the alliance as a support system to help sustain music venues through the crisis.

Money raised will go into a fund that will be administered by the Maine Music Alliance in conjunction with Creative Portland, which will serve as a fiscal sponsor to allow tax-deductible donations. Mohler said the alliance will retain an entertainment attorney to help devise disbursement strategies for the fund. “It will be based on metrics of need, operating cost, capacity and things like that,” he said.

Ian Smith, owner ofSun Tiki Studios in Portland, sets up red lights outside his venue Tuesday. Smith said, “I think there is a sense that we need to take responsibility for our scene as a community.”  Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

And while Mohler expects most of the effort and energy will focus on Portland, the alliance will advocate and support venues across the state.

“The goal is definitely for other cities to be helped by this as well,” he said. “Portland naturally is the hub and as Portland goes, so goes the rest of them. That said, I would jump at the opportunity to work with other folks in other markets to help them and would encourage them to reach out with any questions.”

The Maine Music Alliance will informally coordinate its messaging with the National Independent Venue Association, which has begun a national campaign to raise awareness about the role and value of live music in communities across the country. NIVA has been pushing Congress to act, citing both the economic benefit of the country’s live-music ecosystem as well as its unique characteristics. NIVA estimates that 90 percent of independent music venues will close this year if relief doesn’t come soon, and the industry will lose $9 billion in revenue if they stay dark through the rest of the year, as expected.

He is cautiously optimistic the alliance will raise $500,000.

“It would be incredible if we did. In this time, people are starting to realize what they value and how they value it. In my lifetime, we have never been not able to go see concerts,” said Mohler, who is 39. “Some beautiful art will come out of this pandemic, and we will need a place to showcase it.”

This summer, One Longfellow Square raised $175,000 in a fundraising campaign designed to keep the venue solvent until sometime next year. Bell, owner of Portland House of Music, resisted asking for money. But with no apparent end of the pandemic in sight and no great offers to buy his business, he said he had to reach out directly.

“I carried it as long as I could. As much as I did not want to do this, I had no choice,” he said. If he raises $125,000, Bell said the club will survive until next spring.

For information or to contribute to the Maine Music Alliance, visit mainemusicalliance.org.

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