Further Federal Grant Delays Put Independent Venues in Dire Straits
Concerts are on the calendar again at many Bay Area venues, and festivals like Stern Grove and Healdsburg Jazz will be in full swing later this month. To onlookers, it might seem like the live music industry is well on its way to recovery after over a year of COVID shutdowns.
But behind the scenes at many small concert halls and clubs, itâs a different story. Most venues in California are still waiting for long-delayed emergency funding from the federal governmentâs Shuttered Venue Operators Grant (SVOG), which would provide much-needed cash flow required to resume businessâ45% of each venueâs 2019 gross revenue, to be exact. For many, thatâs hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars.
âIn all honesty, independent venues in San Francisco are probably in a worse spot today than they were even just a couple months ago because of this delayed funding,â says Casey Lowdermilk, general manager of Bill Graham Civic Auditorium and an organizer with San Francisco Venue Coalition and National Independent Venue Association. âIâm hearing from venues that they donât have enough capital to buy liquor to stock their bars, they donât have enough capital to pay artist deposits.â
The rollout of the $16 billion SVOG fund has been troubled from the start. First introduced in Congress in July 2020, the Save Our Stages Actâwhich created the grantâwas only signed into law in December of that year, after numerous independent venues across the country had already shut down permanently, and others took on significant debt. After several more months of silence, the Small Business Administration (SBA), which administers the grant, opened applications on April 8 but shut down the portal the same day because of technical issues. Finally, applications reopened on April 26. And although 14,020 applications were submitted nationwide, the SBA has only awarded 90 grants, with 16 of those to venues and events producers in California.
âThe feel to the whole thing has been rather adversarial, as opposed to a program that was designed to help businesses,â says Christopher White, owner of San Franciscoâs Rickshaw Stop. âIt feels as if there is an enormous amount of distrust from the federal agencies about our industries.â
White says the SBA notified him that his name is on several Do Not Pay lists. Heâs trying to get to the bottom of whether heâs one of the venue owners that was mistakenly classified as deceased, as the New York Times reported last week.
âWhatâs actually been the most difficult is the SBA will give no instruction on how to rectify the problems,â he says. âIf you email the SBA, they tell you to call the hotline. If you call the hotline, they will tell you to email.â
After the SBA missed its June 9 deadline to award grants to all venues that had lost 90% of business during the pandemic, the National Independent Venue Association sent strongly worded letters to Congress and the SBA.
âWe are past our breaking point. We canât hang on any longer. We want to participate in Americaâs economic recovery, but our venues canât afford to re-open our businesses,â read the letter to Congress. âWe have no funds leftâmany of us have exhausted our PPP loans, our EIDL loans and whatever assistance weâve been able to garner at the State and Local levels. We donât have the capital to restock food and drinks for the customers we hope to welcome back or make offers on shows. We are losing professional staff to well-capitalized, larger corporate competitors. We are losing longtime wait staff because we canât compete with the wages offered by bars and restaurants who received support via the quickly administered Restaurant Revitalization Fund.â
In the meantime, state and local funding could temporarily ease the burden for venues in California and San Francisco. The city is preparing to give out grants from its $3 million Music and Entertainment Venue Recovery Fund, and $150 million in state funding for music venues, live events and minor league sports is awaiting the governorâs approval. But both grants will award venues only tens of thousands of dollars. For a business like Rickshaw Stop, about half a million dollars is whatâs truly needed to get things up and running, White says.
âWe donât have trash service anymore, we donât have vendors anymore, weâre not paying our rent, weâve let our insurance lapse,â says White. As far as the state and local grants, âthatâs sort of runway. They donât really cover anything, but weâre still thankful to get them.â
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