Minnesota music venues are still on hold, awaiting federal relief after website crash

Minnesota music venue operators and promoters are used to tardy performers and fashionably late fans, but their patience is being tested like never before by the federal government.

More than 100 nightclubs, concert halls, theaters and promotional companies across the state — along with thousands more nationally — lined up last week to finally apply for some of the $16 billion in relief promised in the so-called Save Our Stages bill that Congress passed in December.

When the online application process began April 8, however, the website set up by the Small Business Administration quickly crashed and never came back up. Not a single application was processed.

Ten days later, hopeful recipients of what’s now officially called the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program are still waiting to apply for the grants, which they began lobbying for more than one year ago.

“At this point, the delay is nothing short of devastating,” said Shayna Melgaard, president of the Minnesota Independent Venues Alliance.

Already stretched thin by nine months of COVID-19 lockdown when the bill, co-authored by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., was passed, presenters endured four more months of waiting — and then had to wade through an arduous application process including a 58-page guide.

Said Melgaard, “It’s certainly adding more stress on venue operators and promoters who [were] already burdened with trying to navigate the lengthy and overwhelming application questions, and now can’t even access the portal to begin the process.”

The New York Times reported that the vendor behind the SBA website initially scrambled to fix it that day, but after a few hours “shut down the portal to ensure fair and equal access once reopened, since this is first-come, first-serve.” Comparisons were made to last year’s meltdown in applications for the Paycheck Protection Program.

“If you know an independent venue operator, promoter, or talent rep, please leave them … alone today,” First Avenue owner Dayna Frank posted last week.

Frank, who led lobbying for the bill as president of the National Independent Venue Association, urged venue operators and promoters to continue to stick together.

“We started this fight because we feared for our collective existence,” she said. “This portal will get opened. It might take a bit longer than we ever wanted — but we can say definitively we’re all in it together.”

Now booking concerts for the fall, First Avenue is using its extended downtime to host a vaccination clinic with Hy-Vee pharmacies Monday aimed at the Twin Cities music and nightlife community.

The delay has brought more urgency to calls for passage of a SaveMNStages bill by the Minnesota Legislature. Last week it was incorporated into a federal funds omnibus bill at the State Capitol.

Proposed in March with bipartisan sponsorship, the legislation asks for $15 million in grants and tax relief.

“We are hopeful that relief will come, from somewhere, and soon,” said Melgaard, who’s a talent buyer for the Music in the Zoo series and other concerts produced by Sue McLean & Associates. “We just hope [relief] doesn’t come too late for some of Minnesota’s treasured venues and concert promoters.”

Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658

Twitter: @ChrisRstrib

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