Six months after Congress passed COVID relief, shuttered venues still await payouts

27 Colorado entertainment businesses had received SBA funding as of June 21

By: - June 29, 2021 5:00 am

Jack Antonoff of Bleachers performs at the Fox Theatre in Boulder on March 7, 2015. (Seth McConnell/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

As part of the coronavirus relief package passed in December 2020, Congress directed $16 billion in grant funding to the concert halls and theaters that were forced to close during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Shuttered Venue Operators Grant, or SVOG, program was meant as an answer to pleas from artists and business owners nationwide, who warned that without government help, live entertainment might not be around once the pandemic ended. But applications for SVOG grant funding didn’t open until April of 2021.

And six months later, most shuttered venues in the country that applied for SVOG funds through the Small Business Administration hadn’t received a check.

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“We’re confident that there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be approved for this, so it’s hopefully just ‘when’ and not ‘if,'” said Geoff Brent, owner of The Black Sheep in Colorado Springs. The music venue applied for a grant months ago, Brent said.

According to Small Business Administration data, 14,416 U.S. venues applied for SVOG relief funds, totaling $11.6 billion worth of funding requests. Just 1,445 grants had been awarded, worth $833 million, as of June 21.

New data posted online June 29 showed 2,390 grants awarded, worth $1.5 billion, as of June 28.

Cash starts trickling to venues

Under the SVOG program, businesses could apply for grants equal to 45% of their gross earned revenue for 2019, up to $10 million. Among the awardees as of June 21 were 27 Colorado venues and entertainment businesses with grants totaling $17.89 million. As of June 28, the SBA data showed 48 Colorado organizations had been awarded grants totaling $23.2 million.

The SBA began issuing awards around June 14, SBA Regional Communications Director Christopher Chavez said in an email. Most awards thus far have gone to Tier 1 businesses and organizations — those that suffered a 90% or greater loss in revenue between April and December 2020 — with a handful of awardees under Tier 2, which correlates with a 70% or greater revenue loss, Chavez said.

“Starting this week we will begin awarding under Tier 3, as well,” Chavez wrote on June 28. That tier correlates with a 25% or greater revenue loss.

“The agency is processing these award requests as quickly as possible,” he added.

Some of the biggest checks in Colorado have gone to Picture Show Entertainment, a movie theater chain with locations in Grand Junction and Colorado Springs ($9.17 million); Clearly Confused Intertainment, which operates The Dinner Detective: Murder Mystery Dinner Show locations in Denver, Colorado Springs and Fort Collins ($2.46 million); and Madison House, a music management and booking company based in Boulder ($1.81 million).

Geoff Brent
Geoff Brent, who owns The Black Sheep in Colorado Springs, is pictured with dog Yoda. Brent said support from community members on social media helped the venue survive the pandemic. (Photo by Julie Reed)

The Black Sheep isn’t the only Colorado music business still waiting on federal money. Z2 Entertainment, which operates three concert venues, is anxiously awaiting relief, said David Weingarden, the company’s vice president of concerts and events.

“We’re still stuck in the ‘under review’ stage with no end in sight,” Weingarden said. “Everything is still very backlogged, and we’re all getting very anxious, and it’s difficult. It’s a difficult time right now.”

Z2 Entertainment’s three venues — the Boulder Theater and Fox Theatre in Boulder, and the Aggie Theatre in Fort Collins — opened to full capacity as of June 1, Weingarden said. Though tickets are selling well, that revenue is set aside until the shows actually happen. And the business’s cash-poor status makes it difficult to ramp up staffing to meet demand.

“We’re not like the local hardware store where you can just turn on and turn off the neon open sign,” Weingarden said.

Chris Zacher chairs the Colorado chapter of the National Independent Venue Association, which lobbied Congress throughout the pandemic for relief money targeted at venues. Zacher is also the CEO and executive director of Levitt Pavilion in Denver, which recently learned it was awarded $367,000 through the SVOG program.

Even with most coronavirus restrictions now lifted — and many people itching to return to theaters and dance floors — venues will need a boost to get going again, Zacher said.

“Without the SVOG money, it’s made it extremely difficult especially for smaller independent clubs to be able to pay deposits before artists show up to their venue,” he pointed out. Typically “you pay anywhere between 10% and 50% of their fee about 30 to 60 days before they come to your venue.”

Colorado venues have only recently begun to book national artists who live outside of the state, Zacher said, because many artists’ U.S. tours were on hold until California lifted COVID restrictions. Shows with smaller, local artists don’t produce as much revenue.

Then there are upfront costs like sound systems, which Zacher said many smaller venues don’t own but rent.

“There’s a little bit of a lag time in this industry between, you know, opening and being able to start producing shows at the level that we were doing them at before,” he said. “Typically it takes anywhere between three and 12 months to book, plan and execute a show. So those timelines are being a little squeezed, which is pretty stressful for an industry that’s rusty, not being open for a long time.”

The Black Sheep
The Black Sheep, a music venue in Colorado Springs, was still waiting on federal relief money as of June 28, 2021. (Photo by Jacki Vitteta)

State program helps some venues stay afloat

For Brent, the struggles of the past year and a half shed a new light on live music.

“I would have never thought, ‘Oh, shows can go away at any minute,'” Brent said. “It can happen, it turns out.”

Along with support from loyal patrons and community members, Brent credits a $50,000 state-issued Colorado Arts Relief Grant for helping The Black Sheep make it through the pandemic.

The grant program, administered by the Office of Economic Development and International Trade, paid $1.35 million in grants to individual artists and crew members, and $6 million to 128 arts, culture and entertainment organizations. State lawmakers established the program through legislation that passed during a December special session of the Colorado General Assembly.

Z2 Entertainment received a $200,000 state grant, which Weingarden said had paid for part of the company’s property tax bill.

Other than buying tickets to a show, fans of live entertainment should support their favorite venues by calling their congressional representatives and asking them to put pressure on the Small Business Administration, Weingarden said. He noted that ticket sales for future shows are deferred revenue at first, if a venue is budgeting responsibly.

“Let’s just say we get $1,000 today for a show that’s playing off in October,” he said. “We’re not going to be able to realize that money until October … You don’t really want to touch that money, and then if you have a profit, then that money would go to your bank account or balance sheet.”

As long as the SVOG backlog clears soon, Zacher’s hopeful for the future, based on conversations he’s had with other independent venue owners.

“Initially, I thought that this pandemic probably set the industry back a couple of years,” he said. “But that’s not what we’re seeing. We’re seeing more attendees, more ticket sales, more (food and beverage) sales at venues. So we’re starting to see kind of this machine start to churn some money above what we were making in 2019, and this is across the board for every venue owner I’ve talked to.”

Weingarden took a more cautious tone.

“The supply of shows that are out there is pretty substantial,” he said. “So people definitely are buying tickets, which is awesome, but at some point we’re trying to figure out: How much disposable income do people actually have?”

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Editor’s note: This story was updated at 7:45 a.m. June 29, 2021, with new SVOG data from the Small Business Administration. It was updated at 1:10 p.m. July 2, 2021, to use the the term “deferred revenue” in discussing ticket sales for future shows.

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Faith Miller
Faith Miller

Reporter Faith Miller covers the Colorado Legislature, immigration and other stories for Colorado Newsline.

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