Business

Congress Voted to Save Our Stages, But Indie Venues Are Still Waiting for Help

The Anthem Washington D.C.
Andrew Harnik/AP/Shutterstock

Sign at The Anthem music venue reads "We'll Get Thru This" at the wharf which is almost completely empty because of the coronavirus outbreak, in Washington D.C. on April 6, 2020.

What's the holdup? It's complicated.

When Congress Passed a COVID-19 relief bill in December that included $15 billion in grants for independent music venues, promoters and other performing arts organizations forced to shut down during the pandemic, concert business executives saw it as a lifeline.

More than 10 weeks later, however, the Small Business Administration (SBA) hasn't even started accepting applications — which means funds probably won't arrive before May.

Indie venues have been in "desperate" need of government assistance since July, says Audrey Fix-Schaefer, head of communications at promoter I.M.P. and a board member for the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA), which helped lobby for the venue grant program. Venues can't pay rent now, she adds, with "a promise of hope of funding."

When the venues grant legislation passed, Austin-based promoter Walter Kinzie, founder of promotion and production company Encore Live, reached out to his congressman for more information on timing. Rep. Roger Williams (R-TX) "warned us that it would take several weeks for [the SBA] to get their stuff together," says Kinzie. But now that it's gone far past that, he adds, "There are people looking at their bank account saying, 'I can hold on for days, but I don't have weeks or months.'"

While the SBA has released several guideline updates and a preliminary checklist for qualifying organizations, Williams, says, "There's not a sense of urgency right now" to roll out the program. "We're going to get it done, but sometimes you finally get to your destination and there's nobody to greet you."

A lot of this is just classic bureaucracy. "The SBA is building the program from the ground up, and that is a long process in government," says Andrea Roebker, a regional communications director at the SBA. While the SBA was able to distribute Paycheck Protection Program loans soon after the CARES Act passed in March 2020, those were handled by delegated bankers, and the venue grants program is a "different animal," says Roebker, noting that this is the first time the department has created a grant process focused on for-profit entities.

There's a lot involved: compliance with the legislation, interagency work with the Office of Management and Budget, and the creation of systems to prevent fraud and prioritize venues in need. (Those that lost 90% of revenue in 2020 will get priority.)

Over 30,000 entities could be eligible for the grants, according to the SBA, which will need to hire additional staff in order to meet demand. (Currently, about 15 employees work on the program, receiving expertise from supplementary staff.) An amendment in the $1.9 trillion stimulus bill would provide an additional $1.25 billion to the grant program with $840,000 allocated to SBA staffing.

Since the pandemic began, nearly 100 indie U.S. music venues have shuttered permanently, and the list continues to grow after a year without touring. Texas has lost 14 independent venues since the pandemic, with more than half of those in Austin.

"One of the biggest problems is once they announce the rules, it's going to come in phases," says Williams. "If you're in that last phase, it could be deep into this stuff before you get your money. That's why these delays are killer for this industry."

NIVA had two wishes for the venue grants, says Fix-Schaefer: expediency and priority for those that need money most. "In a way, they run counter to each other," she says. "It's a push-pull." For a New York venue owner who pays $150,000 a month in rent, "she's going to go bankrupt if this doesn't come through fast," says Fix-Schaefer. "After a year, there are no other stones to unturn."

A version of this article originally appeared in the March 13, 2021 issue of Billboard.