New California Budget Includes $150M for Independent Music Venues

Bill Graham Civic Auditorium
Steve Jennings/Getty Images

Bill Graham Civic Auditorium participates in Save Our Stages "One Year Dark" Marquee Campaign on March 13, 2021 in San Francisco.

Approximately 660 venues and promoters could be eligible for additional relief under the new budget terms.

The California State Legislature has prioritized live music recovery in its new state budget. On June 28, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed the state's 2021-2022 budget into law, which provides $150 million for independent venues and promoters.

The California Venues Grant Program will fall under California’s Office of the Small Business Advocate’s (CalOSBA) domain, which will help administer funds to eligible venues. Eligible venues must include a defined performance space, mixing equipment, PA system and a lighting rig. A venue must have at least two employees that perform the duties of a sound engineer, booker, promoter, stage manager, box office manager and/or security personnel.

To be eligible, the primary function of the venue must be to host or produce live events including concerts, comedy shows, theatrical productions, or other events by performing artists. At least 70% of the earned revenue of the individual or entity must be generated through cover charges or ticket sales, production fees or production reimbursements, or the sale of event beverages, food, or merchandise. Inexplicably lumped into the California Venues Grant Program is also funding for minor league sports, which stakeholders have been informed only currently constitutes minor league baseball.

NIVA California -- which estimates about 660 venues and promoters will be eligible for the grant -- has been advocating for this budget allocation since January with the help of Sacramento lobbying firm Strategies 360. The organization -- an offshoot of the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) -- boasts more than 600 member venues in the Golden State and sees the state funding as supplemental to the federal Shuttered Venue Operators Grant that has been slow to roll out. The SVOG was signed into law on Dec. 27 and more than six months later, the Small Business Administration has delivered only $1 billion out of the $16 billion in funds.

“Our thinking in our advocacy for this was that the federal SVOG program would address the now-16 months that we’ve been through and then this state program would help us moving forward,” says co-founder of NIVA California Casey Lowdermilk. Lowdermilk also serves as the assistant general manager for independent promoter Another Planet Entertainment, which runs venues like the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco.

Lowdermilk adds that the California grants are “a significant amount of money to rehire and retrain our staff and reopen our buildings with COVID considerations in mind.”

Despite strict COVID closures in 2020, Governor Newsom revealed in May that California had a $75 billion budget surplus, which gave the venue coalition confidence to request financial assistance. California music venues were effectively shuttered from March 2020 until May 2021. The shutdowns also impacted performing arts centers and museums, so NIVA California teamed up with California Arts Advocates and the California Association of Museums for a creative economy alliance. Separately, the budget also includes funds for these entities.

“The whole ecosystem of arts culture and the creative economy in California is massive. It is a major export of the state,” says Lowdermilk. “It is undeniable how much impact we have on the state and it was kind of easy to get legislators on board once we made that broader coalition.

The California bill was championed by state assembly member Laura Friedman and, on July 1, the state senate unanimously passed the “trailer bill” which formalized the details of the grant program. Governor Newsom is required to sign the trailer bill before CalOSBA sorts out the application process.

The bill’s language states that the grants would be in the amount of 20% of gross earned revenue for the 2019 taxable year, not to exceed $250,000. The business will need to have lost at least 70% of its revenue in 2020 compared to the same fiscal quarters in 2019. Publicly-traded corporations, or companies majority-owned by a publicly traded corporation, are not eligible for the grant. A business that owns or operates entities in more than five states or in another country is also ineligible.

If an eligible independent live event has been awarded a grant under the California Small Business COVID-19 Relief Grant Program, the amount of that grant shall be subtracted from the grant amount awarded for the California Venues Grant Program.

Lowdermilk tells Billboard that he believes the California grant program will be easier to establish, since the framework around the SVOG has already been created. The majority of venues eligible for the California grant will already have the financial paperwork ready because they most likely applied for the federal grant in April.

The exact date for opening applications is still being hammered out, but Lowdermilk hopes it will arrive in the next few months.

“We’re working hard to get this finalized and open as soon as possible to meet this urgency,” says Lowdermilk. “It’s been a very collaborative and trustworthy process with the state so far.”