Hal Real is tired of waiting.
Along with music venue owners and promoters in Philadelphia and across the country, the World Cafe Live founder has been in need of a lifeline since the COVID-19 shutdown brought live music to a sudden halt in March 2020.
Thanks in large part to the lobbying efforts of NIVA, the National Independent Venue Association, which Real cofounded, Congress passed the Save Our Stages act in December and created the $16.3 billion Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program, designed to aid venues devastated by the pandemic.
Help was on the way, it seemed, for Philly-area clubs like the World Cafe Live, Union Transfer, and Ardmore Music Hall, as well as larger showplaces like the Mann Center for the Performing Arts. SVOG, administered by the Small Business Administration, was set to disburse funds equal to 45% of a venue’s total revenue from 2019.
But due to a maddening series of snafus and delays, those funds have so far made it to only a tiny fraction of applicants. On Wednesday, the SBA missed its self-imposed June 9 deadline to grant funds to businesses that suffered 90% or greater losses in revenue. Of the more than 5,000 applicants who meet that criterion, according to NIVA, the SBA revealed in a report that only 90 grants have been approved thus far.
“The package was passed in December and signed by Trump, and it was supposed to start 45 days later,” Real said on Thursday. Instead, the SBA kept the process open until April 8, and when its online portal debuted, it “crashed and burned,” he said, before any applications were accepted.
After the process reopened on April 28, “we heard nothing for three weeks,” Real said. Then applicants were told they would receive grants by the end of May, a date later pushed back to this week.
Most venues have not seen their application proceed beyond the “submitted” stage, but some have received troubling notifications, like Michael Swier of New York’s Bowery Ball room, who told the New York Times that he received a Do Not Pay notice because the government listed him as being deceased.
Delays have been blamed on “technological glitches and vendor interagency issues [to guard against fraud], that kind of [stuff],” said Real. The SBA has also cited incorrectly filled-out paperwork. “We’re just trying to get the benefit of this program before more people go under,” he said. “That was what this was designed to do. Save all these stages.”
“The SBA’s repeated errors and delays have endangered the very businesses and organizations the program was designed to help,” NIVA said in a statement on Thursday, in conjunction with partner organizations such as the National Independent Talent Organization and National Association of Theatre Owners.
In boldfaced type, the groups called on the SBA and its administrator Isabel Guzman “to immediately fully fund all Shuttered Venue Operators Grant (SVOG) eligible entities and to immediately resolve interagency issues that have proven a barrier to funding for SVOG applicants.”
“The SBA realizes the critical need to increase processing speed for Shuttered Venues applicants,” SBA spokesperson Han D. Nguyen said Thursday. “We are committed to doing everything we can to improve funding speed, get Americans the relief they desperately need and open our venues again.”
NIVA spokesperson Audrey Fix Schaefer said that in a meeting this week, Biden administration officials said the SVOG program would be given additional support from administrators who implemented the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, which has been more efficient in delivering aid to small businesses in need than SVOG.
“With that good news, it seems that all hope is not lost,” said Sean Agnew, who co-owns Union Transfer and heard of the promising new development Thursday after despairing Wednesday when the SBA missed its deadline. “They are promising that everyone in the first two priorities” — those that lost 90% of their revenue, and also those that lost 70% — “will receive an initial portion of their grant within 28 days.”
“Yesterday was the darkest day for me,” Agnew said Thursday. “I know this has led to so many sleepless nights and crushing anxiety for so many venue owners.”
Union Transfer is scheduled to reopen in August with a run of Japanese Breakfast shows. South Philly’s Boot & Saddle, which he also co-owned, closed permanently in November. While Agnew is confident that Union Transfer will be able to survive thanks to 16 sold-out shows scheduled in the coming months, he said the SVOG money is crucial.
“Full rent is due at Union Transfer in three weeks,” he said. “And we need to bring everybody back full-time by July 1 to reopen in August. It’s getting really sticky.”
Real said World Cafe Live has been able to keep from going under in part because the University of Pennsylvania has been a forgiving landlord, and because of the venue’s status as a nonprofit. The venue plans to reopen with a Sept. 18 show by the Philly pop duo Marian Hill.
“We can hang in there,” Real said. “We have to upgrade our ventilation, take care of renovations, hire new staff, train them.” The government’s new promise to issue the grant money sooner rather than later has raised his hopes that help might actually be on its way.
“So far, it’s all been unfulfilled promises. I mean, we can send a rover to Mars, but we can’t get grants out? I will say that I’m encouraged. But confident is too strong a word. Show me the money.”