Here’s the good news: your local club is eligible for a piece of more than $16 billion in aid set aside for small and independent music venues across the US, which has been called the largest single government program for the arts in the history of the United States.
Here’s the reality: not a single dollar was paid out after the fund was created four months ago because the Small Business Administration couldn’t create a functioning website.
And here’s the kicker: venues that have been shuttered for more than a year are now on the verge of being forced into bankruptcy by rent arrears and expenses the fund was supposed to cover.
The Shuttered Venue Operating Grant (SVOG) was created as part of the #SaveOurStages Act, a bill that many supported (including us) and was intended to set aside pandemic recovery funds for small and independent venues across the United States, from New York to Los Angeles and every Cleveland, Austin and Chicago in between. Clubs, music venues and live performance spaces were eligible for grants that would amount to 45% of their gross earned revenue expected in 2020.
The $16.25 billion program was hyped as “the largest investment in the arts in US history” by progressive commentators; it was likely the largest individual dispersement since the Great Depression when Franklin Roosevelt created the Works Progress Administration in 1935 as part of the New Deal.
Congress approved and the former president signed the legislation creating SVOG on December 27, 2020. A new congress and a new president have been inaugurated since it was created, and even passed a new stimulus package in March 2021, but the Small Business Administration (which is notorious for helping few small businesses with the little money it administers) has yet to send out a single check.
What happened to the money? It isn’t gone. It’s just sitting there, waiting to be handed out, while the SBA dithers and thousands of venues are on the edge of bankruptcy.
The SBA spent four months composing FAQs (10 of them with more than 260 questions according to one publication – their latest contains 41 pages amounting to more than 20,000 words) and building a new grantee website from scratch. Venues and the media received word less than a day before that the application process would open up on April 8.
On the big day, the website was open for 4 hours and 15 minutes before crashing. It doesn’t seem a single venue managed to submit an application on launch day.
Before they could even go that far, however, venues have to register using the same system as government contractors — another departure from the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).
There’s a seemingly minor reason for this: PPP funds were technically forgivable loans, whereas SVOG funds are straight up grants. But the difference is crucial. Registering with the federal System for Award Management will result in venue owners being required to submit significantly more paperwork than anyone did under the PPP, and venues will be subject to stringent (and potentially frequent) follow-up audits.
The SVOG application website was down for maintenance for nearly a month after its disastrous launch on April 8. A week after the initial crash, the SBA released a statement announcing that their “tech team and vendors will remain focused on testing the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant application portal” and that while the actual cause of the crash had been found, the “tech team” had discovered still more problems with the site.
Finally, on April 26, the submission process was re-opened, though only slightly more than half of the 17,000 initial applicants were able to complete the process. Long “lines,” which are almost insensible when it comes to a website-based application process, plagued users who were informed they were in a queue behind more than 5,000 others. Perhaps the new site was contracted out to TicketMaster?
Users then found pieces of the user interface disappearing or being directed to strange boxes and other glitches:
Help I got to front of line and now I'm on main portal with no buttons
— Lisa Fane (@lisafanelally) April 26, 2021
Nice. you got past the line of 4000people Im waiting behind. any technique suggestions on how to click the button right at 12?
— trade (@trade42988961) April 26, 2021
Where is the red button?
— Anthony Becich (@monet1964) April 26, 2021
PLEASE ADVISE: Are there uploader issues again? We are not able to upload documents. It worked for 10min, and then stopped…
— Matt Currie (@mattcurrie) April 26, 2021
have been trying and trying and it keeps sending me to pick on a red box in the upper right hand corner that doesn't exist?
— Joe Wos, The Maestro of Mazes (@MazeToons) April 26, 2021
The application process, to be clear, is finally open, if you can navigate it and get all of your paperwork in order. The most troubled venues are told that they can expect to be pushed to the front of the line and receive funds in 14 days after approval.