Federal aid could provide life support for live music venues

Details of how ‘Save Our Stages’ money will be distributed remain unclear

By David Sjostedt

Special to S.F. Examiner

The show may one day go on in San Francisco.

The City’s live music venues, many of which are on the brink of being permanently shuttered, saw a glimmer of hope on Monday after Congress passed a $15 billion relief bill known as the Save Our Stages Act.

The bill, which received bipartisan support and was part of a $900 billion stimulus package, prioritizes venues that are hardest hit by lockdown restrictions — indicating that the first group of grants will be distributed to businesses with a revenue decrease of more than 90% since 2019. While some venue owners have reported feeling left out by relief efforts throughout the pandemic, many are hopeful that this money could help them stay afloat until they are allowed to reopen.

“It would mean that I would stay open next year, no matter what tourist trends happen, what happens with people here locally, or if this vaccine does in fact work,” said Erik Ross, owner of Milk Bar in the Haight. “If we were to get any kind of aid, it would mean that we would make it to next year being open, or not open.”

Ross, who has lived in the Haight his entire life and bought the Milk Bar 19 years ago, said he worries that smaller venues such as his may be bullied out of the money they need by bigger, more well- known establishments.

Other venue owners, such as Jon Larner of The Independent, also stressed the need for officials to take the time to ensure that the money ends up in the hands of those who need it most.

“We’ve waited a long time, and you know, getting it right is more important than getting it out in a week,” Larner said.

Ben Bleiman, owner of Dr. Teeth and founder of the San Francisco Bar Owner Alliance, said he worries that not all independent venues in The City will have that time to spare.

“The devil’s in the details, and especially in how the money is going to be allocated, and how quickly it’s going to be dispersed,” Bleiman said. “A lot of these venues need help now, and some of these federal programs have taken nine to 10 months from the time of application to the time of actually getting funded. So hopefully, it comes out faster, like the PPP did.”

The Independent is among the The City’s live music venues hoping to benefit from a $15 billion federal relief package. <ins>(Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)</ins>

The Independent is among the The City’s live music venues hoping to benefit from a $15 billion federal relief package. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Audrey Schaefer, a spokesperson for the National Independent Venue Alliance, said that the Alliance met early Tuesday morning after the bill was passed to discuss the distribution of the funds, but that it will ultimately be in the hands of the Small Business Administration.

“It’s a bittersweet moment when we believe that we’re going to save thousands of places now, but hundreds have gone under through no fault of their own,” Schaefer said. “We’re going to work very closely with the Small Business Administration to help as best we can to ensure that the process works smoothly, so that the people and the organizations that Congress intended to receive these funds do — and that it’s done expeditiously —because people can’t wait another day.”

The National Independent Venue Alliance, which was created in April in response to the closures, started as a team of lobbyists that ultimately ended up representing over 3,000 venues across the country. The alliance initiated an effort that resulted in over 2.1 million emails being sent to elected officials expressing support for the Save Our Stages Act, according to their website.

“The most unique aspect of this whole situation is how venues that have never been linked in any way and have been so competitive and so secretive about who they’re booking and how much they’re offering bands, are now so closely linked,” Larner said.

In November, San Francisco independent venue owners came together with a list of requests for city officials. The list included a reassessment of San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency permits and fees for parking directly in front of their venues, emergency financial relief for payroll, utilities, rent and mortgage, and an extension of commercial eviction abatement through 2021.

In response to the needs of venue owners, San Francisco Supervisor Matt Haney proposed an independent venue relief fund during a board meeting on Dec. 15.

Larner is among those who are optimistic that for all the struggles of the past nine months, there is an opportunity to improve upon issues that troubled The City’s entertainment industry prior to the pandemic.

“I’m an idealist,” Larner said. “A positive outlook drives a positive outcome… So I’m hopeful.”

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