Theater and Music Venue Lobbyists Demand Release of Federal COVID Relief Funding

The first round of Shuttered Venue Operator Grants had been promised by June 9

Jeremy Fuster

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Lobbying groups representing small entertainment venues that were shut down by the pandemic are demanding that government relief payments be sent to operators who applied for federal grants but have not received them.

Passed as part of the COVID-19 relief package last December, the Small Venue Operator Grant program promised to provide $15 billion in federal aid to theaters, music halls, and other independent venues that have been closed and lost upwards of 70% of their annual revenue during the pandemic. But now the Small Business Administration has missed its June 9 deadline to send out the first wave of payments to those who have reported annual losses of over 90%.

“More than 4,910 small business owners in the first priority period, those with the greatest need, and an additional 10,000 independent businesses that fall into the second and third priority periods, are still waiting for emergency relief funding,” the statement by the National Association of Theater Owners, National Independent Venue Association and other lobbying groups read. “If every one of the 500 reviewers assigned to the program reviewed just one application per day since the application portal opened, approximately 14,000 applications submitted could have been fully processed by now. Yet as of June 9, the SBA reported it had awarded a total of 90 grants.”

“SVOG stakeholders are experiencing a talent drain, cannot reopen, and are hanging on by a thread because this funding is not arriving quickly enough,” it continued. “If SBA doesn’t urgently issue funding while addressing interagency challenges, small businesses that have done everything they could to scrape by and hold on will close due to no fault of their own.”

The grant process was intended to launch in April but was delayed for nearly three weeks after the website crashed upon launch. Since then, the application process has been a mixed one for venue operators, some of whom have told TheWrap that the process was straightforward while others faced delays in their applications and difficulty contacting the SBA for clarification.

One theater owner described the process as requiring extensive documents including floor plans and concession sales receipts as part of an effort to weed out fraudulent claims.

The National Independent Venue Association and the National Independent Talent Organization warn that SBA’s inability to deliver on the grants is causing independent music venues to fall even further behind the two dominant forces in the live music industry, AEG and Live Nation, which have begun selling tickets for concerts at their venues again while independent venues don’t even have enough funds to rehire their staff, which are being hired by restaurants that were able to quickly receive SBA grants through the Restaurant Revitalization Fund.

“The inability of the SBA to release legislated funds designated for those eligible for the Shuttered Venues Operator Grants, has jeopardized the careers and livelihoods of thousands of workers: musicians, their reps, promoters, stagehands, venue staff, ad infinitum, and jeopardized the very fabric of culture that is the basis of good community living,” said Frank Riley, the talent group’s president. “We are only asking for the opportunity to resume our viable and vital businesses and restaff our offices to begin competing with the multinationals who have seemingly unlimited funds and power.”

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