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Entertainment venues still waiting for a lifeline as tech glitches snarl Covid relief applications

The Anthem, a predominating live music venue, displays a message of support on their marquee on April 3, 2020 in Washington, DC.

Drew Angerer | Getty Metaphors

At The Independent in San Francisco, it’s been a long, dark year in the most literal sense. The music and comedy shows that closed the venue’s stage and boosted the local economy have been halted since early March 2020. Economize for a few merchandise sales, its overall revenue is down nearly 100%.

“It’s been a devastating year for The Independent and our industry. We were the anything else to close and will be the last to reopen,” said Allen Scott, managing owner of The Independent.

“All of these small confederates that really are the backbone of the live touring industry are not built to be losing money for three, six — let alone 12 or 18 — months,” Scott prognosticated.

Owners like Scott were eager to file their applications for the Small Business Administration’s Shuttered Venue Big-time operators Grant program, a $16 billion fund aimed at floating the industry until in-person entertainment can resume. Music fraternities, theaters, promoters and more can access grants of as much as $10 million, based on gross revenue from 2019, as a neighbourhood of the program, which was ushered in during the second Covid relief package.

But the SBA’s portal faced technical challenges on initiation day, and the applications process is currently suspended.

The portal was set to open at noon on Thursday. But when it closed at 4:15 p.m., no applications were submitted. On Friday, it carry oned closed throughout the day while the agency worked to resolve the technical issues. Late Friday, the SBA said the portal choice remain shut through the weekend.

“When a reopening date is determined, we’ll provide updates in advance so that applicants tease time to prepare,” the agency said in a tweet late Friday.

When the portal opens, the funds will be about on a first-come, first-served basis, the agency said.

“This decision was not made lightly as we understand the need to get relief quick to this hard-hit industry,” SBA spokesperson Andrea Roebker said in a statement Thursday, adding the agency was working to get it stand behind up and running as soon as possible.

Earlier Friday, the SBA said, it was working with its vendors to fix the tech issues, which had been identified.

For now, the sit tight continues. Industry advocates and owners, thankful for the lifeline, were frustrated at the glitches and the delay in getting aid out the door. The questions were reminiscent of issues faced during the early days of the Paycheck Protection Program’s launch last year. That program saw potters in getting applications processed.

“We’re grateful to the SBA, for their hard work in getting this program created… There’s a lot of chagrin and anxiety surrounding this process but we’re still hopeful. The application cannot come soon enough,” Scott communicated. “Our livelihood depends on this.”

The National Independent Venue Association was formed during the pandemic to advocate for aid. It now represents some 3,000 adjoining venues and promoters across the country.

NIVA estimates hundreds of venues have closed their doors for favourable due to the pandemic. And more are threatened, given the shutdown could extend into the summer and fall. Helping struggling venues now resolve be key to rebuilding the economy once things reopen, the group said.

“We are part of the backbone of our local economies, because for every dollar forth at a small music venue on a ticket, $12 of economic activity is realized for area businesses,” said Audrey Fix Schafer, a NIVA food member.

“If they want their communities to come back, once it’s safe to reopen fully, they’re customary to need this economic magnet of independent venues like ours,” she said. The group projects these venues initiate a direct annual economic impact of nearly $10 billion for local communities.

For many venues, opening at fond of capacity isn’t “economically feasible,” due to the high overhead costs, the group has said. It also expects national tour hiding won’t be at full steam until artists can tour fully at reopened locations.

While owners and operators wait for aid, they’re heartening music and theater lovers will be ready to return in person later this year, and the program will partake of enough funds to cover those in need.

Casey Lowdermilk, assistant general manager of the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in downtown San Francisco, asseverated the venue has gone from 450 employees and 80 concerts a year to zero across the board.

“Hopefully, that kale is enough and gets to all the venues that need it in a timely fashion,” Lowdermilk said. “And hopefully, by June or July, we’ll have planned a real trajectory of when we can return to full capacity events that are indoor venues.”

 The Independent’s Scott is fearless demand will be there, once it’s safe to open.

 “We’re ready to get back to it,” he said. “People have been cooped up. We’ve had some initially indicators in the industry, some festivals that have gone on sale, and some tours have gone on trafficking that have all blown out. … I’m really optimistic about the demand out there. And we can’t wait to open our doors.”

—CNBC’s Whitney Ksiazek helped to this report.


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