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.
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The live entertainment industry breathed a sigh of relief when Congress passed the bipartisan Save Our Stages Act in December. It created a $15 billion grant program run by the Small Business Administration. But it's now March, and the website to apply for these grants isn't even up and running. The SBA tells NPR they expect the portal to open in early April. But as NPR's Andrew Limbong reports, the uncertain wait is putting pressure on venue owners across the country.
ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: Most people in the live entertainment industry were ecstatic when the Save Our Stages Act was passed. But then there were people like Matt Garrison.
MATT GARRISON: I'm kind of the naysayer, the Debbie Downer guy.
LIMBONG: He's the co-founder of ShapeShifter Lab, a small music and arts club in Brooklyn.
GARRISON: I was like, yeah, yeah, whatever. I'll believe it when I see the money hit our accounts. And I said that months ago.
LIMBONG: He and his business partner Fortuna Sung had to change gears as the pandemic wore on and shifted into becoming a nonprofit. But with rent and insurance and utility bills piling up, they're still facing a mountain of debt. The program, known as the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant, would be a lifeline for businesses like ShapeShifter Lab, if it comes in time.
GARRISON: We don't know what's going to happen still. It still could be two months before it hits our bank accounts. Then what?
LIMBONG: A few hundred miles away, Liz Tallent is the events director at The Orange Peel, an 1,100 person standing-room-only club in Asheville, N.C. Like Garrison, when she saw that help was on the way, she was clear-eyed as to how long it could take.
LIZ TALLENT: I thought, well, it's a pretty big program, and they're going to have to figure out the rules and regulations.
LIMBONG: It is a pretty big program. It covers music venues, museums, theaters, even zoos. But she figured she'd see the money before tax season.
TALLENT: I just thought, well, they're not going to want us to have to be worrying about completing our taxes and applying for this at the same time. But now I'm not so sure.
LIMBONG: These grants are something the Small Business Administration has never had to pull off, says Barb Carson. She's the deputy associate administrator for the Office of Disaster Assistance at the SBA.
BARB CARSON: We've never had the authority to have a grant program like this, nor ever one so large.
LIMBONG: Carson says on top of the usual procedural steps that make government seem slow, they had to get to know a whole new sector of businesses and figure out their needs. And they wanted to make the system as fraud-proof as possible.
CARSON: It's important to the stakeholders, too. They don't want people who really aren't in these industries getting these funds. So we're setting it up properly.
LIMBONG: Chris Zacher is the executive director of Levitt Pavilion, a large amphitheater in Denver.
CHRIS ZACHER: It's not a simple thing to put together granting pathways.
LIMBONG: The Levitt Pavilion's a nonprofit, so he's used to how long grants take, and he's empathetic to the timeline. But he points out that for some venues, it might take even longer. See, the shuttered venue grants are tiered, so businesses that lost 90% or more of their revenue get first dibs. But if you're third in line, and let's say the applications open up April 1, Zacher estimates you probably won't be able to apply until May 1.
ZACHER: 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.
LIMBONG: That's if there's even going to be money left over by then.
ZACHER: We're not sure that everybody in the third tranche is going to get funding. We don't know if there's going to be enough funding there for that.
LIMBONG: Zacher is also chair of the Colorado Independent Venue Association, and he's been advising local businesses to get their paperwork ready. The SBA is going to hold an informational session at the end of March to make sure everyone's on the same page. But Zacher says that while preparation might make businesses feel a little better, it's really the money they need. Andrew Limbong, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF BERTHOLET AND SEBASTIAN KAMAE'S "CHIMNEY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.