Five months after the federal government passed the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant (SVOG) to assist independent venue owners, promoters and other small live music businesses who’ve been dormant during the pandemic, applicants are finally beginning to receive grant approval notices. Getting a grant approved means venues still must wait to actually get their cash, but it’s a small sign of progress following months of waiting and uncertainty.
It’s unclear how many applicants have gotten their grants approved. Several members of the tight-knit National Independent Venue Association tell Rolling Stone they’d only heard of a few applicants getting approval notices if they’d heard anything at all. Some of those members say they only received an email Friday morning from the Small Business Administration (SBA) confirming their completed application was under review, while others say they still haven’t had any communication with the SBA.
In a statement, the SBA told Rolling Stone that while the administration began notifying applicants about their grants on Wednesday, it’d be “ramping up the notification rate over the coming days.” And while the SBA has begun to approve applications and says it has started to disperse funds, it still hasn’t given a specific timeframe for when applicants will get their approved grants.
“Per the federal grant process, once approved applicants receive the notice of award, they must return signed documentation acknowledging acceptance,” the agency added in a statement. “Upon the SBA receiving the required signed documentation, funds will be disbursed as quickly as possible to get our live entertainment venues back on track.”
Struggling venues have long awaited federal assistance for their businesses since the health crisis started. After months of advocacy from NIVA, senators Amy Klobuchar and John Cornyn brought forward the Save Our Stages Act last June. It passed in December as part of the larger coronavirus relief package, bringing $15 billion of funding to venues. The Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan brought another $1.25 billion to the grant program for over $16 billion available. Venues who’d lost at least 90 percent of their revenue are getting first priority for the funds over the first two weeks of disbursement before the SBA awards other applicants. Grants go out on a first-come first-serve basis, but the SBA has said it does not expect to run out of funds.
Venues’ anticipation for the funds slowly turned into anxiety, however, as they’ve faced several speed bumps in their long wait. While the SVOG passed in late December, the SBA didn’t launch the SVOG’s application until April 8th and quickly closed it again over technical issues. The portal didn’t reopen until the end of April, and venues spent most of May waiting for updates with little communication from the agency, accruing more debt each month they waited.
Following all the issues, SBA director Isabella Guzman testified Wednesday at a government hearing entitled The Pandemic Response and the Small Business Economy: An Update from the U.S. Small Business Administration regarding the SVOG’s delay, where she called back on the application’s tech issues along with the complexity of the program itself given the various types of entities and aid that make up the application pool.
Guzman told the Senate during the hearing that the SBA had begun to send out approvals and funds this week, adding that the agency received around 13,000 application for $11 billion in funding.
“With the shuttered venues we encouraged everyone to apply up front. We have a sizable group in both the first priority, second and third priority. We are processing those applications as quickly as possible,” Guzman said at the hearing. “It’s a very complex program by statute with various types of entities which has created various eligibility requirements along the way and requires intensive applicant by applicant review. We have started awarding funds, we’ve been in communication with stakeholders … We are still in the process of reviewing.”
Tyrus Joseforsky, owner of indie concert and festival promoter Flight Levelz Entertainment in Indiana, got his approval notice on Thursday afternoon and was informed Friday that the first round of his funds were disbursed. He hasn’t gotten the cash yet but expects it in the next couple business days. It’s the first positive step forward he’s seen since the grant was passed into law, and Joseforsky says knowing his grant was approved is a sigh of relief. “For a year, we were just in a holding pattern. We had no revenue and I cut everything from the budget,” he says. “For the first time in a while, it feels like finally we’re going to catch a break.”
But the sluggish rollout has left him skeptical too. After five months of waiting with little update, he’s still bracing himself for more complications. “I’m still holding my breath. It took six months for this to happen, and when you have to wait that long, you lose that much trust. It came to the point where I just wasn’t expecting it anymore.”