The issue of helping independently operated music and cultural venues that were put into suspended animation by COVID-19 had fairly broad bipartisan support. The intertwined cultural and economic arguments about the issue are pretty clear: Legendary artists by and large develop with nourishment from local music scenes, and even if economic data is a bigger concern to you, the venue ecosystem plays a vital role.
To that point, the second stimulus bill passed in December — after almost nine months of lobbying by the National Independent Venue Association and other entities — including more than $15 billion for venues nationwide. The figure was increased by $1.25 billion with the signing of the American Rescue Plan Act in March. The total amount is much more than the $10 billion initially asked for, partly to account for extending eligibility to include spaces like movie theaters. The Small Business Administration was tasked with distributing this money in the form of Shuttered Venue Operators Grants.
Venue owners appreciated that this was a big task for the SBA, which has historically focused on loan programs. But the funds have been painfully slow in coming, so much so that some of the 15 members of Music Venue Alliance Nashville, a sort of local analog to NIVA, have been helping less-fortunate members make rent. On top of multitudinous technical snags, the SBA says it’s trying to be very, very careful about awarding grants, to avoid inadvertently helping large corporations or entities that don’t focus on live music but instead just offer it on a limited basis. In some cases, however, applicants have hit roadblocks — like being informed they’re on a list of people who’ve been reported dead — that require more time-consuming workarounds.
Though restrictions have eased, meaning that some venues (including many in Nashville) are now open in a limited capacity, the SBA has finally begun awarding grants. Per the June 9 report, 90 grants have been awarded and more than 4,600 are currently under review, out of more than 14,000 applications submitted so far.
It’s not clear when venues will actually receive the funds, even after their application is approved. Today, the National Independent Venue Association published a letter urging the SBA to get the lead out.
“If every one of the 500 reviewers assigned to the program reviewed just one application per day since the application portal opened, approximately 14,000 applications submitted could have been fully processed by now,” read’s NIVA’s letter. “SVOG stakeholders are experiencing a talent drain, cannot reopen, and are hanging on by a thread because this funding is not arriving quickly enough. If SBA doesn’t urgently issue funding while addressing interagency challenges, small businesses that have done everything they could to scrape by and hold on will close due to no fault of their own.”
The document features testimonials from affiliated organizations like the Association of Performing Arts Professionals, the League of Historic American Theatres and the National Association of Theatre Owners. Stephanie Silverman, executive director of the Belcourt, added her voice to the chorus on Twitter.
The letter includes praise for the careful auditing process, for the White House’s pledge to increase oversight of the process and for members of Congress who’ve spoken up about the issue. Among those is Rep. Jim Cooper, who published a letter he sent to the SBA earlier this week.
“Many of these businesses are dying, and the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant (SVOG) is the life-giving respirator,” Cooper writes. “Some of them may be weeks away from disappearing forever. They need your help.”
The cultural impact of our independent venues is easy to feel and see over time. Widely loved acts hailing from Nashville — from Lambchop to JEFF the Brotherhood to Adia Victoria, Becca Mancari, Margo Price and beyond — played clubs like Springwater, The Basement, The 5 Spot or Exit/In well before they were touring around the world.
But these spaces have an economic impact that you can quantify, too. The 2020 Music Industry Report published by the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce includes an assessment of the economic impact of the 15 independent venues that make up the trade association Music Venue Alliance Nashville. In 2019, these small and midsize rooms added nearly $35 million to Music City’s economy. In 2020, that number was down to less than $10 million. That was in line with a drop in revenue from about $32 million in 2019 to not quite $9 million in 2020. Here’s hoping that the relief finally comes that will let them keep contributing for years to come.