Independent sites still awaiting promised federal aid
Photo: Eric England
After nine months of anxiety in limbo, independent music halls ended 2020 on a high note. Federal financial aid they’ve been pushing for since the launch of the National Independent Venue Association in April was included in the stimulus bill promulgated in December. There was finally a lifeline for an industry in which more than 90% of companies said they would have to shut down permanently if they didn’t get relief. The Small Business Administration has been authorized to disburse $ 15 billion in grants to operators of venues closed to independent concert halls and other small businesses that make most of their revenue by charging for admission.
Two months have passed and none of this aid has been distributed. Although some important information about how the program works has been released, at press time, it was not known when the grant applications will be available, let alone when the sites will be able to get the money. Meanwhile, the live entertainment industry in Nashville and across the country remains in the pattern it has been in throughout the pandemic.
“I don’t know anyone who expected it to take that long,” says Chris Cobb, owner of historic Music City club Exit / In. (There’s a plan in the works that could eventually make him the owner of the property the club is currently renting out.) He is also a founding member of NIVA and president of Music Venue Alliance Nashville, a local trade group representing 15 independent sites. “It’s no small feat for the SBA to award $ 15 billion, which isn’t something they typically do anyway – they’re in the business of lending money, not to grant it. I’m certainly aware of the fact that this is a load of work, and I appreciate the fact that they want to get it right.
Getting it right is essential. Neither the original Paycheque Protection Program nor is the recent update really designed for companies like concert halls, which cannot survive financially without being sure to operate at near full capacity – part of the reason NIVA has been pushing for for a single program. During the first two weeks after the start of acceptance of applications by the SBA, sites that can demonstrate a loss of income of 90% or more will receive priority consideration for SVO grants; then, sites that experience a revenue loss of over 70% get their chance, followed by those that experience losses of 25% or more. A total of $ 2 billion is reserved for companies with 50 or fewer employees. Although the total funding of $ 15 billion for SVO grants is $ 5 billion more than what was allocated in the initial Save Our Stages law approved by NIVA, eligibility was expanded to include spaces like independent theaters, museums and some zoos. Additional funding may need to be added later to cover all those who are eligible for assistance.
Some venues eligible for SVO grants cannot wait. “If you’re waiting for an oxygen tank, you need it now – you won’t need it in the future,” says Audrey Fix Schaefer, communications director for NIVA as well as the 9:30 Club in Washington, DC. . While echoing Cobb’s gratitude for the SVO program, she also says some NIVA members have reported receiving eviction notices or had to shut down for other reasons. Other sites are considering applying for a PPP loan because the money is available relatively quickly – although if they applied for a PPP after December 27, they cannot apply for SVO grants unless they are refused. Whichever way sites choose to proceed, the industry needs as much as possible to survive.
“In Nashville, you have a wonderful collection of artists who can perform locally,” Schaefer says. “But much of the rest of the country is going to need a more complete nationwide reopening for groups to get on a bus and go on tour. Because they can’t get to one or two places across the country – they need it to be open in a fairly universal way. So most cities will not have their sites activated until this happens. “
In the meantime, Cobb is planning a series of outdoor concerts that will allow for safe social distancing once spring arrives. He hopes that enough of the country will have received a COVID-19 vaccine to be able to safely organize shows inside the site in the fall as part of a very slow return to normal operation.
“You just can’t fit enough people in there… in a pod-type scenario to be close to financial viability,” he says. “So we’re really going to have to be on our feet. And I don’t think we’re talking about 100% capacity. … Maybe if we could get to 50% of the actual capacity – if we could fit 200-300 people there safely, then it would be financially viable and make sense to remake shows.
Update: March 4, 3:50 p.m .: An amendment to the law This means that sites eligible for SVO grants can now also apply for PPP loans. If PPP funding is awarded, this amount will be deducted from the total awarded in the future through the SVO grant program. In the example provided in a release from NIVA, if a site takes a PPP loan of $ 25,000 and later qualifies for an SVO grant of $ 100,000, the grant amount will be reduced to $ 75,000.
Update: March 19, 5:30 p.m .: According to Billboard, New Small Business Administration Trustee Isabella Casillas Guzman has announced that the first two-week window for accepting applications will begin on Thursday, April 8. A webinar on the application process will be held on March 30 from 1:30 p.m. to 3 p.m. – register here.
“We realize this is a huge undertaking for the SBA and we appreciate everything the agency is doing to ensure this program is administered as Congress intended as quickly as possible,” one reads. press release from the National Independent Venue Association. “Openness cannot come soon enough. The fate of our industry’s survival depends on it. To say we look forward to the day when we can apply for this emergency aid is an understatement.”