An online application portal meant to help the nation’s music and arts venues get federal pandemic relief after a year-plus of dark stages and a hard-fought lobbying campaign, has yet to get off the ground nearly two weeks after technical problems scuttled its scheduled launch.

The delayed rollout of the $16 billion program, which the Small Business Administration says could be resolved later this week, is the latest stumble by a government agency tasked with delivering emergency aid in the COVID-era. The problems – from meltdowns of states’ unemployment insurance systems to stimulus check delays to glitches in vaccine registration websites – highlight the limits of bureaucratic competency and underscore the massive and sometimes novel undertakings of running rescue programs during a public health crisis.

The Shuttered Venue Operators Grant, which would top out at $10 million, is designed to help arts and entertainment venues cover payroll, rent, utilities and other operating expenses. Analysts put the losses for live music venues alone at $33 billion in 2020.

Arden Barnett, the owner of Duling Hall, a premier music venue in Jackson, Miss., has been unable to make rent for more than a year. He says he’s lost count of how many shows he’s canceled or postponed since his last performance sold out in March 2020. He’d planned to apply as soon as the application portal opened on April 8.

But almost immediately, the application portal crashed, forcing the SBA to pull the system offline. “After working with our vendors to address them as quickly as possible, the SBA temporarily suspended the portal and will reopen it as soon as possible to ensure all applicants have fair and equal access,” the agency said in a Twitter post just hours after the launch.

“The day comes for our hallelujah moment and our landlord’s on cloud nine thinking he is going to get paid, and then ‘boom,'” said Barnett. “It was like a bad acid trip.”


The SBA said Friday that it will share an exact date in advance of the portal’s reopening to give applicants time to prepare.

As the agency works out the portal’s bugs, the owners and operators of theaters, live music venues and museums continue to wait. “I do wake up in the middle of the night because I feel bad that we have not been able to do what our responsibility is, which is to pay rent,” Barnett said. “But there is zero cash flow.”

Duling Hall’s revenue plunged 97 percent compared to 2019, closing in on several million dollars in lost sales. Back rent has piled up to more than $116,000. When the portal crashed earlier this month, Barnett said he sent his landlord a news article about the botched rollout. He said he hasn’t heard back.

Audrey Fix Schaefer, a spokeswoman for the National Independent Venue Association, a 3,000-member organization that helped lobby Congress for the rescue package, said her group has been assured by the White House that reopening portal was a top priority at the SBA. “They’re working around-the-clock on rigorous stress testing and other improvements on the system.” Still, she noted, some small businesses won’t be able to hold out much longer.

“Understandably, landlords can’t last forever. Eviction notices are coming. People are saying, ‘we can’t do this anymore,'” she said.

In a letter to be sent Monday afternoon to the SBA administrator, Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, who led the passage of the legislation to rescue the arts industry, urged the administration to meet their goal of getting the program back online this week.


“With each passing day, more independent businesses are forced to shutter permanently or file for bankruptcy,” the senators said. “Landlords and banks are no longer permitting deferrals and are pressing for immediate payment of past due accounts; businesses are receiving eviction notices; mom-and-pop businesses are being forced to sell.” The senators called for the SBA to continue reaching out to potential applicants and to finalize guidance to help businesses learn if they are eligible and how much money they can receive.

“We are pushing the SBA to fix the issues ASAP,” said a spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who also helped secure funding for arts and entertainment venues. “The stages need help quickly.”

As states move to relax their restrictions on businesses and gatherings, concert goers and audiences are clamoring for a return to live events. As early as last month demand for outdoor shows and festivals, has exploded in the U.S., matching and even surpassing pre-pandemic levels, according to Boris Patronoff, chief executive of See Tickets, the ticketing services company.

“A lot of people have struggled, a lot of people have suffered, but the people still want to go to concerts, the consumer demand is driving that business,” he said, stressing that venue operators want to expand responsibly.

Barnett of Duling Hall said his schedule is booked two to five acts deep for multiple days a week through the summer.

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