Same Girls perform at Bottom of the Hill on night two of the 2019 Noise Pop Music and Arts Festival on February 26, 2019. (Estefany Gonzalez )
Update, April 19: The Shuttered Venue Operators Grant hit another delay after the Small Business Administration’s application portal crashed. Read more.
Update, Mar. 19: The Small Business Administration announced that applications for the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant will open on April 8. The agency is also hosting an informational webinar for applicants on March 30. Details here.
A year into the pandemic, the independent music venues that haven’t gone out of business are hanging on by a thread. Or more accurately, they’re taking on hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt to pay for empty buildings, holding on until enough people are vaccinated to resume concerts.
The Save Our Stages Act promised much-needed relief when Congress passed it in December. Its resulting Shuttered Venue Operators Grant (SVOG) would give music venues funding in the form of grants equal to 45% of their 2019 revenue. But three months later, the Small Business Administration still hasn’t opened applications for the money, and venue owners find themselves in increasingly dire financial straits.
“We’ve had to find a bunch of money that we’ll have to pay [off] probably for the rest of our lives,” says Rob Ready, co-owner of San Francisco cabaret PianoFight and an organizer with the San Francisco Venue Coalition. “We’re racking up a mountain of debt. ... I’m 36 now and I’m hoping to retire sometime when I’m 90.”
The San Francisco Venue Coalition, whose members include major players like Outside Lands producer Another Planet Entertainment and small, scrappy clubs like Bottom of the Hill, estimates that the average local venue’s monthly expenses can be anywhere between $18,000–$35,000.
“The reason you haven’t seen a raft of venues shutter is because we’ve all taken on debt and continue to do so,” Ready adds.
The Small Business Administration told KQED in an email that applications for SVOG will likely open in early April. During the first two weeks, it will prioritize venues that have lost 90% of their revenue since the start of the pandemic. But it’s unclear how long after that the funding will actually arrive.
“I’m not holding my breath. ... By the time we might get some money, we might be open,” says Oscar Edwards, owner of Complex, who has been able to keep his downtown Oakland nightclub thanks to his Trap Kitchen restaurant and a modified rent agreement with his landlord. Many of his peers in Oakland nightlife, including Starline Social Club, Stork Club, the Uptown and Spirithaus, have permanently closed.
Casey Lowdermilk, another San Francisco Venue Coalition organizer and the assistant general manager of Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, explains that there are several reasons for the SBA’s delay. “They’re in the middle of a transition with administrations, so that’s some hangup. They’re also traditionally a lending program and this is a grant program,” he says. “And our industry has never gone to the table before, so they don’t generally understand our industry. We’re educating them.”
In the meantime, venue owners are now eligible for the second round of Paycheck Protection Program loans to help keep their staff. But to cover general operating costs, they’ve had to seek other means of support. Oasis, a destination for concerts, LGBTQ+ parties and drag nights in San Francisco, recently raised over $270,000 to keep its doors open. “It goes to show you how much these venues are hurting, and how important they are to the community,” Ready says.
City Programs Offer Some Relief, But More Help Needed at State Level
After KQED reported about the state of emergency for music venues in December, San Francisco Supervisor Matt Haney created the Music and Entertainment Venue Recovery Fund, which the Board of Supervisors formalized in February. But the $3 million fund also hasn’t yet been distributed. And the San Francisco Venue Coalition estimates that at least $48 million is needed to meet the nightlife industry’s actual needs.
Along with sister organization Independent Venue Alliance, the organizers have been in talks with major corporate and individual donors to bolster the fund, which is now accepting donations from the public. Organizers are working closely with the city, and hope the funds will become available in April.
Mayor London Breed’s office offered some support with the JAM Permit, which allows for live music and performances in outdoor dining areas and other Shared Spaces. But few music venues have used it because it requires them to serve food and to have space for outdoor seating.
The Chapel, which has a parking lot and a kitchen, is one of the only venues that has been able to set up ticketed, outdoor shows with dinner service. And even then, “those shows essentially just lose money because the attendance is too small due to the social distancing,” says Fred Barnes, the club’s general manager and co-founder of the Independent Venue Alliance. “But we’re sort of doing it to keep the flame going. It means a lot for people, musicians and the whole community.”
California’s reopening guidelines will allow for seated, outdoor performances at 20% capacity when the state reaches the orange tier, signifying moderate COVID-19 risk. (Currently, most counties are in red or purple, signifying substantial or widespread risk.) But some events presenters don’t believe that’s sufficient: the San Francisco International Arts Festival is currently in a court battle with the state and city, arguing that performing arts events should be treated the same way as religious services and other First Amendment-protected activities. Worship services are allowed with limited capacity even in the purple tier.
The National Independent Venue Association (NIVA), which led the Save Our Stages campaign in Congress, is now focused on working with the state of California as well. About 10% of NIVA members are from the Golden State, says The UC Theatre CEO and NIVA organizer David Mayeri, and they’ll need significant support to start operations back up, even after federal funding comes in from the Save Our Stages Act. “SVOG is helping us pay our bills retroactively. But it’s not getting us reopened,” Mayeri says. “The operating cost to reopen the venues is very expensive. To make it COVID-safe is expensive. To start marketing to build consumer confidence to come back and buy tickets—we need additional help for that. We need subsidies.”
The UC Theatre has been serving food outside of its downtown Berkeley concert hall, with live jazz and funk on Fridays and Saturdays. And Mayeri and many of his venue owner peers believe that once the vaccine becomes available to all adults on May 1, as the Biden administration has pledged, venues should be able to begin selling tickets 30 days after that. Live music is a major economic driver, industry leaders have repeatedly argued, and concerts reopening will be a boon to the entire state.
“That’s what we need to get the governor to understand,” Mayeri says. “Funding music venues in California and helping subsidize their operating costs so we can reopen is important to the economy—not just the music venues alone.”
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