SBA Inches Forward on ‘Save Our Stages’ Relief

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In the latest update to the long-running saga of the $16 billion “Save Our Stages” relief fund for independent venues and theaters — which was signed into law on Dec. 27 but has only just begun to send out money to the venues — the Small Business Administration, which distributes the funds, has finally begun to make progress on notifying venues that they will be receiving emergency relief.

However,  according to the most recent SBA report, just over 10% of the venues who have applied for relief have received such notice, and far fewer have actually received money.

The SBA has been marred by dysfunction throughout the entire process — including broken websites, reams of bureaucracy, and such embarrassing snafus as venue owners being inaccurately informed they had been deemed dead by the SBA’s research — which stands in stark contrast to the initial $800 billion Paycheck Protection Program and the more recent $29 billion Restaurant Revitalization Fund, which delivered relief money to businesses within days.

Earlier this month multiple government officials and Congresspeople, including Senators Amy Klobuchar and John Cornyn, who authored the bipartisan “Save Our Stages” act, effectively told the SBA to get its act together, both publicly and (presumably more forcefully) behind the scenes, leading a bipartisan letter along with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and the majority of legislators in the Senate. The SBA, which is being administered through the Office of Disaster Assistance, added new program managers from its Office of Capital Access, which coordinated PPP and the Restaurant Revitalization Fund.

Since then, SBA reps have had a daily call with around 30 representatives of various venues, theaters and other organizations, and applications have been moving more quickly than they had been, although that is a low bar: As of June 9, more than five months after “Save Our Stages” was passed into law, less than 100 of the more than 14,000 businesses and entities that had applied for aid had actually received notice of approval, and none had reported receiving any funds.

According to an SBA document dated Monday, 14,416 businesses had submitted applications; of those, according to Thursday’s call, 1,794 have been approved; 1,082 queued for award; 104 have been declined; 800 are queued for decline; 774 are queued for technical correction and 734 remain to be sorted for either decline or technical correction. Not all of those businesses are concert venues, although the majority are. According to the SBA document, the businesses include live venue operators or promoters, performing artist organizations, talent reps, theater and museum operators and theatrical producers.

Reps for the SBA did not immediately respond to Variety‘s request for comment.

However, sources say the process remains marred by bureaucracy and an overabundance of caution — both of which are flaws that the senators singled out in their polite but strongly worded letter to the SBA earlier this month. A source with knowledge of a recent call with the SBA says that among the venues that have received responses, more than 500 venue applications are delayed, requiring “technical corrections,” and more than 900 are awaiting further action to determine whether they should be declined or the applicant needs to make a technical correction.

The source also said that the SBA has not yet created an appeal process whereby venues can question the amount of money they’re scheduled to receive, which has led some to not sign off on their award for fear of locking in an incorrect amount.

Award recipients thus far include promoter Nederlander Concerts, which received $10 million; Nashville promoter Outback Presents ($9.5 million); festival producer Danny Wimmer Presents ($9.4 million); Colorado agency Madison House, ($1.8 million); and the Lodge Room in Los Angeles’ Highland Park neighborhood ($1.65 million), according to a recent report in Billboard. Also, Southern California venue owner Lance Sterling of Sterling Venue Ventures received an award notice of more than $7 million on Friday (just three days his Canyon Club venue in hosted a fan-only Foo Fighters club show).

“I get nervous for people to see that [we were awarded $7 million] because they don’t know that I owe $11.8 million,” Sterling told Billboard. “Even with that award sounding so big, each venue is a million dollars more than that in debt.”

While Sterling noted that at the time of the interview he had not actually received the money, a NIVA rep tells Variety that many, although not all, venues received it within a few days.

While larger venues owned or operated by multibillion-dollar live-entertainment companies like Live Nation and AEG have been hobbled by the pandemic but have largely survived it, multiple independent venues have been unable to weather the financial hardship of no gigs for 15 months — including, earlier this week, Los Angeles’ popular Bootleg Room.

It took eight months of intense lobbying to pass Save Our Stages, which was also sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and hundreds of other Congresspeople. Four months after its passage, the SBA finally opened the website for venues to apply for relief, but it immediately crashed and was out of service for nearly three more weeks. The delays have caused multiple businesses to shutter permanently, either due to financial challenges or simply losing hope that relief will actually come.