Published October 2021
Way back a dozen years ago at the beginning of the pandemic, a lot of folks in the industry organized around #SaveOurStages. In the Twin Cities, we joined in the national effort for Red Alert and turned dozens of our local venues red for a night. We did a Road Case Push through downtown Minneapolis in solidarity with an international effort to raise awareness about the plight of the unemployed workers. We joined in a chain of Empty Events in which we set up and tore down a corporate-style event without ever having an audience. All of these were national and international efforts focused on telling our story to the public and to the people elected to power.
From our efforts, and the efforts of thousands of other activists in and outside of our industry, we did get some relief. Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) was extended and provisions were added for people who received both 1099s and W-2s in the past year. The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) rolled out in time to cover paychecks for a few months. Save Our Stages morphed into the Shuttered Venues Operating Grants and passed into law. Then nothing happened for months.
What started as an effort by Dayna Frank of First Avenue and others in the music industry to Save Our Stages and advocate for support for small music venues turned into a national lobbying effort and a 501(C)6 lobbying organization called National Independent Venue Association (NIVA). In December, Shuttered Venues Operating Grants (SVOG) was rolled into the American Rescue Plan Act. The American Rescue Plan was signed into law on March 11th 2021, the one year anniversary of when the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a pandemic. In its final form, the American Rescue Plan Act had $12.5 billion set aside for SVOG which was to be administered by the Small Business Administration (SBA).
Since then, things have been clear as mud. The SBA has never administered a grant program before; they are a loan-based organization. Though the processes are similar, they are not the same. Another complicating factor was in the language of the law itself. The initial program was set up under one set of assumptions but as the wording was read more thoroughly, those assumptions changed. This led to shifting qualifications throughout the course of the grant program. In some cases, a business that wasn’t eligible under the initial reading has become eligible under later interpretations causing confusion, uneven application, and many contested rejections.
Initially, the SBA announced a tiered roll out focused on businesses with 50 employees or less for the first 60 days of the grant. This was a response to the number of large businesses that had received PPP monies before smaller businesses, who were the intended recipients of that money, were considered. In the case of the PPP money, many of those smaller businesses were denied when the funding ran out.
The SBA then changed their tiered rollout to focus on percentage of revenue lost. The first two weeks would be open to businesses that had lost 90% of their revenue, the next two weeks would be for businesses that lost 70% of their revenue, and after that the grant would be to any business that had lost at least 25% of its revenue. An additional tier includes supplemental funding for businesses that continued to lose revenue in the first quarter of this year. The tiered roll out created a similar issue to the re-reading to the language of the law – businesses that initially didn’t qualify were later qualified and either had to scramble for the opportunity or missed out entirely due to believing that they didn’t qualify.
Another complicated change in the qualification said that a business couldn’t simultaneously apply for PPP and SVOG money. This meant that an organization in the later tiers of SVOG qualifications would not be able to apply for PPP money, but had no guarantee that the SVOG money would still be available by the time their tier opened up. That stipulation later changed and any money received through PPP was taken out of an SVOG award.
SVOG opened on April 8th 2021, and immediately shut down due to technical difficulties. On April 26th, applications re-opened and the program’s tiered rollout began.
As of August 23rd, three days after the application window closed, 17,643 applications for a total of $13.3 billion in assistance had been requested from organizations across the United States. Of those, 11,321 grants have been awarded and 3,971 applications have been denied. By September 20th, those numbers had inched up to 11,966 approved grants and 4,773 denied grants with 86 pending initial review and 818 pending review after denial. The grants awarded total $9.7 billion with $9.5 billion of that already disbursed.
In Minnesota, grants vary from $10,000,000 to Cinema Entertainment Corporation and the St. Paul Arena Company down to $2,348 to The Wildwood Theater. The top 10 largest grants mostly went to Live Venue Operators such as The Armory, Hennepin Theater Trust, and Mid-American Festivals. The only Theatrical Producer on that list is The Guthrie, though Chanhassen Dinner Theatres snuck in as a Live Performing Arts Organization Operator. Other names in the top ten are: United Entertainment Corporation, Minnesota Zoo, Historic Theater Group, and The Ordway. Those last two were also among the Live Venue Operator or Promoter category.
The most up-to-date lists of who has received what grants can be found at: https://data.sba.gov/dataset/svog
Sortable, searchable, user friendly link at:
Overall, the Shuttered Venues Operating Grant has helped a specific subset of the entertainment industry. As it says in its name, it is focused on venues. For the venues that have benefitted, it is a lifeline to a future we are all still hoping for. But for many small businesses, the inconsistent rules, qualification changes, and sluggish roll out has left them already too deeply in debt to recover or denied them access all together.
Though we may have buildings in which to return to work, many of these grants are being spent on inventory, rent, and upkeep. This continues to deny the people who worked in those buildings the work they need to stay in the industry and support themselves. SVOG filled a niche, but it isn’t a magic bullet and isn’t enough to give the people in the industry a bridge back to full employment and a financial safety net.