Sean Lynch is in limbo.
Like thousands of other independent venue owners across the country, Lynch — who owns the Pub Station, a once-thriving concert hall in Billings, Montana — is depending on the money promised by the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant, a federal program passed last year to deliver crucial assistance to the live music businesses that have been struggling since the pandemic began.
The SVOG passed into law at the end of December 2020, but the Small Business Administration didn’t open the application portal for the grant until the beginning of April 2021. Technical issues delayed the rollout until the end of the month, and by the beginning of June, the administration had only approved 31 grants. Those numbers have improved since the SBA changed the SVOG’s leadership team; as of June 21, the SBA had given out 1,345 grant awards, which is still a fraction of the 10,000 applicants the administration hopes to help by July 4th. In the meantime, many venues are feeling the impact of the SBA’s sluggish response, as they rack up more debt and lose out on tour dates to larger and better-financed competitors.
At the start of the year, Lynch was hopeful, with the legislation once thought of as a long shot now becoming a reality, thanks to months of advocacy from groups like the National Independent Venue Association. Today, however, he’s anxious. He was notified Monday that his application was in final review, but he continues to wait for the money the SVOG promised, and he’s been forced to watch other businesses reopen from the sidelines while he can’t afford to bring back the staff needed to get shows going again. “I’d say that I am somewhat enthused, to a point, to see more action since this new leadership team started,” Lynch says. “It’s moving in the right direction. I just can’t stress the urgency enough, though — because, yes, they’re moving things forward. But there are people who are in absolute dire straits right now. We’re getting toward 16 months with literally no income.”
Lynch spoke with Rolling Stone about the struggles that venues in smaller markets face, and the lack of urgency he’s feeling from the SBA.
There’s other folks that have had some requests for changes on documents that they’ve uploaded, forms that needed to be changed. I’m not in that position. I haven’t had any requests for changes or new documents — and I have no idea if that’s good or bad. I’ve just been in the same spot with no communication from SBA, other than an email last month confirming they received my application.
We have what’s called deferred income from tickets that are coming in from events that are September, October, November. We have dollars coming in as far as ticket revenue — but we can’t use that, because shows aren’t guaranteed. Those don’t show up as revenue until that show plays and the expenses are paid out. If I was certain that a grant was coming, I would feel comfortable with using deferred income to pay for something in the current, knowing those expenses would be applied to the grant later. But it’s still a risk. Maybe I’m being too pessimistic, but after the last year, I don’t know that there’s any other way that I can look at it other than being really cautious. I don’t want to be in a position where we use some of that money to hire a staff person and then something else happens with Covid and I’m required to refund all these tickets back and those dollars aren’t there.
We usually book three to six months out, but right now we’re getting a lot of last-minute requests, and that’s definitely because of Covid. Everybody needs money, so they’re taking any opportunity that they can. And I want to take every opportunity I can, too. I just can’t do it. I always refer to Billings as a Sunday, Monday, Tuesday stop. It isn’t the main day, but touring artists need money Sunday, Monday, Tuesday. We’re an important piece to that touring schedule, because acts can’t make it financially work sometimes if they don’t have these markets.
But without the grants, we can’t move. We’re doing shows as we can, but in the past two or three weeks, I’ve turned down around 50 shows because we can’t get a full staff back. The influx of calls from artists and agents is really heavy right now. I look week by week and determine what we can or cannot staff based on what we have right now. Staffing per show is a little easier for me, because I can pay them after the show. It’s the office staff for me, the marketing, it’s the graphic design. That’s what I’m struggling with. People ask me why I don’t start interviewing people. Why would I do that? Even if I find the perfect people, what do I say? Come back to me in four weeks? Who takes a job like that?
Building relationships with touring acts, especially in the smaller market scene, is key to making sure those artists have an excellent experience so if and when they get to a point where they’re drawing a larger crowd, they’re going to remember you. We’re in a difficult spot because in tertiary markets, If you don’t take those acts, not only will they likely not come to your venue in the future, they may never come to the market at all. They didn’t get the support in Billings, Montana, so they go somewhere else. They could go to Wyoming, somewhere else in Montana or Idaho. Then you’re never in the forefront of somebody’s mind.
I’m frustrated because with NIVA, we’ve done our jobs, our job is done. The House and Senate have done their jobs and listened to what we did. They responded to us by voting in this SVOG bill. But then it was handed off to people who didn’t seem to have that urgency or didn’t know that urgency. NIVA and all our partners with Congress and the White House, we got this done. Now it’s the responsibility of somebody to implement it, and that’s where the fumble is. Here we are, continuing to have to reach out to our congresspeople and senators to say, “You’ve been a total champion for us, but we need your help again, because we can’t get what you developed for us into people’s bank accounts.” And that’s a hard spot.
It’s like a broken pipe in a house. It keeps dripping and gradually getting worse. If that was your house, you would be addressing that immediately because it’s an emergency. We’re in a swimming pool right now, up to our necks in water waiting for help. And they just don’t see it.