Most people in the live music industry were ecstatic when Congress passed the bipartisan Save Our Stages Act in December. It created a $15 billion grant program, run by the Small Business Administration, that would help rescue an industry badly wrecked by the coronavirus pandemic.
But then there were skeptics like Matt Garrison, co-founder of Shapeshifter Lab, a small music and arts club in Brooklyn, N.Y.
“I was like, ‘Yeah, yeah: I’ll believe it when I see it.’ And I said that months ago,” Garrison says.
It’s March now, and the website for businesses to apply for this program — known as the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant (SVOG) — isn’t up and running yet. The SBA says they expect to have the portal for applications up by “early April.”
Barb Carson, the Deputy Associate Administrator for the Office of Disaster Assistance at the SBA, says she agency has never handled a project like SVOG before.
“We never had the authority to have a grant program like this, nor ever one so large,” Carson says.
The grant is open not just to music venues, but also for small movie theaters, museums, live theater venues–even zoos and aquariums. What’s more, rules and regulations were ever-changing. Just today, with the passage of the American Rescue Plan, money was added to the fund and other changes were made to the eligibility rules. Carson says the SBA is planning on holding an informational session at the end of the month ahead of the applications opening so that everyone’s on the same page.
Businesses like Garrison’s have had to find ways to adapt with the uncertainty. He and his business partner, Fortuna Sung, pivoted Shapeshifter Lab into becoming a non-profit. But they’re still facing rising rent costs, as well as a pile of utility and insurance bills. “We don’t know what’s going to happen,” says Garrison, if this grant money doesn’t materialize in the coming months.
Liz Tallent is in a similar situation. She’s the events director of The Orange Peel, an 1,100-person standing-room-only club in Asheville, N.C. When news of the SVOG came out, she was realistic about when she might see the money. But she figured on seeing the money before tax season, assuming that she wouldn’t have to worry about applying for the grant while filing taxes at the same time. “But now, I’m not so sure,” she says.
Chris Zacher is the executive director of Levitt Pavilion Denver, a large amphitheater that holds free concerts for the public. It’s a non-profit, so he’s used to how long the grant process takes, and is empathetic to the timeline. But he points out that for some venues, the wait is even longer. The SVOG will grant money based on tiers. A business lost 90 percent or more of its revenue gets first dibs on the money. So if applications open on April 1, but a business is on a later tier, Zacher estimates it might not be able to apply until May.
“You’re looking at six months almost after the act was signed into law before some of these venues are going to be able to apply,” he says.
And that’s if there’s any money left over by then. Zacher isn’t sure there will be enough money to cover every business in need. According to Carson, the SBA won’t know the answer to that question until applications are open.
Zacher, chair of the Colorado Independent Venue Association, has been advising local businesses to get their paperwork ready and books lined up. But, he adds, while preparation might make businesses feel better, it’s the money they really need.