UPDATE (4/9): The Small Business Administration said Friday evening that the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant portal was still “temporarily suspended” and would remain so through the weekend as technical issues were resolved. A re-launch date was not announced, with the SBA adding, “When a reopening date is determined, we’ll provide updates in advance so that applicants have time to prepare.”
UPDATE: The Shuttered Venue Operators Grant application portal remains temporarily suspended, and will through the weekend, while we work to resolve technical issues. When a reopening date is determined, we'll provide updates in advance so that applicants have time to prepare.
— SBA (@SBAgov) April 9, 2021
They got a glimpse of hope — and then it was right back to the usual frustration. Over a year after Covid-19 brought live entertainment to a halt, and 102 days after desperately-needed funding was finally approved in a stimulus bill, American venue owners were left staring at 404 error messages as the Small Business Administration’s (SBA) grant portal opened, then quickly closed, yesterday.
The Shuttered Venue Operators Grant application site, which is supposed to help music and arts venues ask for $16 billion in federal aid, opened at 12 p.m. ET on April 8th. By 4:15 p.m. ET, it had been shut down. The chaos was not dissimilar to the fiasco that befell the government’s wider Paycheck Protection Program, which crashed under a deluge of applicants upon its launch last April.
“It just adds on to the fucked situation that we’ve been in this whole year. It’s typical at this point,” says Mikeal Maglieri, president of the Los Angeles concert hall Whisky a Go Go, which is one of thousands of U.S. venues hanging in financial limbo. “Every time you think there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, something gets destroyed in the last minute.”
In a statement yesterday, an SBA spokesperson said that “technical issues arose despite multiple successful tests of the application process.” The decision to shut down the portal was “not made lightly, as we understand the need to get relief quickly to this hard-hit industry,” the spokesperson said. SBA head Isabella Casillas Guzman added in her own statement (via NPR) that the organization is “committed to moving as quickly as possible to deliver this vital funding effectively and equitably.”
Because the grants are open to the operators of concert venues, museums, theaters, movie theaters and more, it’s likely the portal was completely overwhelmed by a crush of applications coming in all at once. (While the program established priority tiers to ensure hardest-hit venues got funding first, all applicants, regardless of tier, were invited to submit applications yesterday.) But the SBA has yet to announce when the site will reopen.
Hanging over the fumbled portal launch, as well, was a same-day report from the SBA’s own inspector general, Hannibal “Mike” Ware, warning of “serious concerns” over the grant application site’s ability to prevent fraud. The organization does not yet have “the staff necessary to provide effective oversight” over the program, Ware wrote. (When it comes to reviewing the applications, however, an SBA spokesperson confirmed that it has approximately 500 people on hand to assist with that task.)
“This race to the finish line that pits venues against each other is troubling, especially after we have all united as a community over the past year.”
Venue owners watched the cacophony in disbelief. “There should have been a week-long window to submit applications instead of a frantic rush to get all of our applications in at the same time, on the same day,” Eric Sosa, owner of New York venue C’mon Everybody, tells Rolling Stone. “This race to the finish line that pits venues against each other is troubling, especially after we have all united as a community over the past year […] Businesses should not be rewarded on a first-come-first-served basis.”
In emails to Rolling Stone, several venue owners — Jimmy Nigg of the Monkey Barrel in Denver, Kerri Park of the World Cafe Live in Philadelphia, and Alex Crothers, the co-owner of several venues in Vermont and Maine — say they were either unable to log onto the portal or faced error messages uploading documents.
While some people may have been able to get an application through, Chris Zacher, founder and owner of the Levitt Pavilion in Denver, said the SBA sent out an email announcing that anything previously submitted would be deleted, and that everyone will have to re-submit their applications.
“After the year our industry has had, it is almost impossible to have confidence in anything running smoothly,” Park says. “I want to emphasize that I have a tremendous amount of respect for the burden the SBA is under to deliver on this new program, but this process has been confusing and stressful for independent venues and promoters across the country from the beginning, and today was unfortunately no different. The stark reality is that the financial hole we are all digging to stay afloat is getting deeper by the day, and the overwhelming rush to the site right at as the portal opened should demonstrate just how desperate the situation still is for our industry.”
The National Independent Venue Association, which has spent the past year lobbying for federal aid for shuttered venues, said, “We need this lifeline for independent music venues which are still shuttered. We all want the SBA to be successful in providing desperately needed emergency relief ASAP.”