There Should Be No Shame For Musicians Who Took PPP Loans

This story has been updated.

We live in the age of shame. Fueled by social media, everybody wants to point an ugly finger at others for being morally inferior to themselves, often to hide from their own mistakes and shortcomings. If there’s someone out there that’s worse than you, then you can’t be all that bad. But by focusing on the inequities of others, you avoid addressing your own.

There should be no shame in major music outfits taking money through the government’s Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP, to keep their road crew and support staff financially stable, despite it being characterized as the cash grab of millionaires by some, aided by certain embellished and misleading headlines in the media.

On Monday, July 6th, the Small Business Administration and Treasury Department released the names of the entities that have received small business loans under the $2 trillion CARES Act passed by the United States Congress in April, which included the Paycheck Protection Program.

In the list of names published by Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, and others, there were many major music franchises, including The Eagles, Green Day, Guns N’ Roses, Tool, Nickelback, Pearl Jam, Weezer, Imagine Dragons, Incubus, Slipknot, My Chemical Romance, Cheap Trick, The Chainsmokers, Wiz Khalifa, French Montana, and Papa Roach.

In the country and roots world, numerous artists applied for and received PPP loans as well, including Luke Combs, Tim McGraw, Rascal Flatts, Chris Stapleton, Kip Moore, Chase Rice, Gary Allan, Cody Johnson, Wilco, Gary Clark Jr., and Jason Isbell.

Though each loan varies in size, the loans range from at least $150,000, to around $350,000 on average, with some loans reaching as much as $2 to $5 million. But this is not money going directly to the pockets of the respective musicians named in media reports. It is going to their road crews and support staff. In most cases, even though it’s the names of the artists themselves being reported, it’s actually their touring companies who are receiving the loans.

These are loans, not grants. However under the PPP program, if the loan recipient can prove the money was used to support employees during the COVID-19 shutdown, portions or the entirety of the loan can be forgiven. The philosophy behind the PPP program is simple: instead of companies (or in this case bands) being forced to lay off employees who will end up on unemployment rolls and taking government assistance anyway, it’s better to keep them under the umbrella of their current employer, so when the economy is able to open back up in full, they are able to restart business without having to go through the hiring process again, while employees can also continue to receive health benefits and remain financially stable.

However that has not kept some from criticizing the loans taken out by more wealthier entities. When it was revealed that companies like Shake Shack and The Los Angeles Lakers had taken out loans through PPP, public pressure mounted for them to give the money back, which they did. At that time, the amount of funds appropriated by Congress for the program was finite, and it did run out for a short period before more money was allocated.

The ethical argument is whether entities applying for PPP loans are wealthy and stable enough to sustain payroll through the shutdown without government assistance. But what makes the music business unique is it was one of the very first industries to be shut down, and it will be one of the last to open back up. Shake Shack can still offer drive-thru service and limited seating in some locations. The NBA is set to resume their season on July 30th, though under limited conditions, and with no crowds.

Meanwhile music acts have little to no options at all, aside from streaming concerts whose best application is to raise money for charity. And even if a well-known artist plays a ticketed streaming event, this does nothing to help their road crew. The music industry professionals who’ve been left out in the cold the most have been the side players and tour personnel, of which most of these PPP loans will go to support. The Eagles alone were able to support a crew of 50 people through their particular loan. Cody Johnson was able to retain 17 employees through his loan.

The real concern should be if there were smaller acts who applied for these loans, and did not receive support because it had already been siphoned to massive stadium acts like The Eagles and Green Day. However due to the refilling of the PPP program, if a band did not receive a loan, it’s likely because they either did not apply, did not apply quickly enough, or did not have their paperwork together.

Yes, it perhaps would have been more cool if some of the artists listed as PPP beneficiaries could have reached into their own pockets to backstop payroll in a sign of solidarity with their workers. Some did this very thing, like Florida Georgia Line. But it’s the government’s fault they aren’t working, not the artists. The reason for the PPP program was to disincentivize economic activity deemed dangerous in the COVID-19 epidemic.

This is the same reason more independent artists without an incorporated status should not feel shame for applying for unemployment benefits, which in many locations have been extended to gig economy workers. It’s not the fault of these musicians they’re not working. It’s not an issue of laziness. It’s the government that has put them in financial distress, so therefore the government should help them through this unprecedented hardship.

However there are still some in music—perhaps especially in country music—who are philosophically opposed to taking any government assistance, no matter the circumstance. And perhaps some major artists are in a position to support their staff without PPP assistance, and didn’t want to take the chance of poor publicity by applying for a loan. Some laid off their crews anyhow, like Zac Brown, though Zac Brown did receive a PPP loan for his Camp Southern Ground charity camp.

When Chase Rice and Chris Janson were criticized for playing shows recently, Jason Isbell said on Twitter, “Boy y’all really throwing the term ‘country star’ around today. It’s like the adult film industry, they aren’t all ‘stars.’ Hell, some are so broke they’ve decided to do shows this weekend regardless of what might happen to their non-isolated, maskless audience!”

There’s no defending these artists for allowing fans to rush the stage and not postponing the show until they returned to a socially distanced environment as the organizers and venues had intended. However it’s easy to criticize others for playing shows to survive when you received government assistance.

But no matter how any artist chose to approach the COVID-19 shutdown, there should be no shame for wanting to take care of your employees through government-backed loans offered for that very purpose. This is an unprecedented moment in the music industry, and forced into a corner, everyone did what they felt was best to keep themselves and their music families secure and safe.

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Editor’s Note: This story was updated to reflect that Chase Rice, Gary Allan, and Cody Johnson also received PPP funds.

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