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Philly’s indie music venue owners may have a new lifeline from the federal COVID-19 relief bill

“Until now, we’ve collectively been left to blow in the wind,” said Chris Perella, who co-owns Ardmore Music Hall. A provision in the new federal COVID relief package should get cash flowing, he said.

Chris Perella, talent buyer and operating partner at Ardmore Music Hall in Ardmore, Pa., said a key provision in the new package “is huge, for us."
Chris Perella, talent buyer and operating partner at Ardmore Music Hall in Ardmore, Pa., said a key provision in the new package “is huge, for us."Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

Philadelphia indie music venues that shut down last March and are in danger of closing permanently just got tossed a potential new lifeline.

The $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package that passed the U.S. Senate on Saturday and is expected to become law this week includes an additional $1.25 billion added to the $15 billion in Save Our Stages funds earmarked stimulus that passed in December.

But more important than that SOS money — which adds to that program and inelegantly renames it the Shuttered Venues Operator Grant (SVOG) — is a rule change included as an amendment to the new stimulus package that could greatly benefit venues and promoters.

Previous language in the law made club and theater owners choose between applying for SVOG funds and “PPP2″ loans from the latest iteration of the popular COVID-19 Payment Protection Plan. New language lets them tide themselves over with PPP loans until the big SVOG money starts arriving.

The news “is huge, for us and probably for most venues who are waiting on the SVOG program,” says Chris Perella, who co-owns Ardmore Music Hall and books shows at 118 North in Wayne and Milkboy in Center City, among other venues.

“Up until now, we’ve collectively been left to blow in the wind,” Perella says. “Small businesses all around ours are drawing from a second round of PPP while we — arguably the most impacted industry of all — are forced to sit and pray that the [Small Business Administration] opens up the SVO applications. Making this change would allow venues that are starved for a cash lifeline to draw from the PPP, if eligible, without it canceling out our future eligibility for bigger and more meaningful SVOG dollars.”

Venues from Johnny Brenda’s in Fishtown to City Winery in Center City to Ardmore Music Hall on the Main Line have said they are in dire need of SVOG money — which can amount to as much as 45% of their 2019 gross revenue — to pay bills that have been mounting for a year.

» READ MORE: Coronavirus has put Philly indie music venues at risk. What will the future look like?

But the application process hasn’t even begun for SVOG, which is the first grant program to be administered by the Small Business Administration. The PPP2 loans, with a banking bureaucracy that’s already in place, can get money in the hands of club owners and promoters much more quickly.

“It’s definitely a big deal for venues that are about to go under that have been waiting,” says Audrey Fix Schaefer of the National Independent Venues Association, the organization cofounded by World Cafe Live’s Hal Real that has been pushing since last spring for relief for shuttered venue.

“Most venues have had 95% or more revenue loss and they’re nothing left, there’s not even fumes for so many that have eviction notices coming. They’ve been able to hang on, so the ability to apply for PPP2 will allow them to hold on until the Shuttered Venue Operator Grants show up.”

Ardmore Music Hall’s Perella said it’s the eventual SVOG funds that “will be absolutely essential for the survival of the independent venue ecosystem. But like many, we are out of cash and can’t wait another month or two for the larger program bailout. This will offer much-needed, much welcomed short-term relief.”

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SVOG money is intended to help not only music venues but performance spaces of many kinds, including Broadway and local theaters.

Sean Agnew, who co-owns and books Union Transfer — and did the same for Boot & Saddle in South Philadelphia, until it closed in November owing to COVID shutdowns — said that the additional $1.25 billion could also be of assistance. “It could help another 125-500 venues / theaters [nationally] get funding,” he said via email.

LaNeshe Miller-White, executive director of Theatre Philadelphia, which markets the region’s theaters, called the potential rules change “exciting.”

Organizations that have had to choose between applying for either PPP2 or SVOG have been “trying to figure out which way to go because there’s no guarantee of [receiving] either,” she said.

Miller-White, who’s also one of the founders of West Philadelphia’s Theatre in the X, said her own theater company doesn’t qualify because it doesn’t have a building — many of its performances take place in Malcolm X Park — but that many local theaters will.

“If you operate out of a building, you’re most likely eligible,” she said.

Staff writer Ellen Gray contributed to this story.