With COVID cases and hospitalizations again on the rise as new variant EG.5 (nickname: Eris) spreads across the U.S., it’s hard not to feel like we’ve been trapped in a frustrating time loop, with headlines that seem plucked straight out of 2021. And now, there’s another pandemic-related controversy that feels like a throwback. A new report alleges that hundreds of millions in taxpayer funds that were supposed to help independent arts and events venues through the crisis instead went to millionaire rock stars, including Benihana heir/electronic musician Steve Aoki, legally troubled singer Chris Brown, and Magic: The Gathering superfan/rapper Post Malone.
It’s a scenario reminiscent of the controversy around Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans, in which taxpayer money earmarked for small businesses went instead to large companies owned by then-President Donald Trump, reality TV stars, and global fast food chains. But in the case of those PPP loans, recipients had to jump through certain hoops to avoid repayment (albeit hoops that were pretty easy to overcome).
But these funds, part of the Congress-approved Shuttered Venue Operators Grant, don’t ever need to be repaid, which means that many famous folks with seemingly healthy bank accounts reportedly raked in millions they’ll get to keep forever. And, to be clear, all this was completely above board, as while the expectation was that the money would be used to support employees and replace lost revenue, it could just as legally use the money to pay themselves.
(As of publication time, none of the artists named in the report have shared detailed information on how their grant money was disbursed; citing the confidentiality of business records, the Small Business Administration declined to share information from any of the musicians’ grant applications.)
According to a report from Insider, a corporation fronted by Malone—who, per Texas Monthly, spent $2 million this summer on a single, collectible playing card—successfully applied for a $10 million grant from the SBA-administered program. A company fronted by Brown also received $10 million. Aoki’s company, DJ Kid Millionaire Touring Inc., received $9.9 million.
Other artists/bands and their grant amounts, according to Insider:
- Becky G: $2.2 million
- Common: $2.8 million
- Father John Misty: $1.7 million
- Korn: $5.3 million
- Leann Rimes: $2 million
- Melissa Etheridge: $3.9 million
- Nickleback: $2 million
- Slipknot: $9.7 million
- Smashing Pumpkins: $8.6 million
- Vampire Weekend: $8.3 million
- Usher: $3.1 million
The SBA struggled to manage the grant program, which was initially called the ‘Save Our Stages” campaign, from the very beginning, notes Variety. The overwhelmed government agency took six months to start distributing money and sent applicants to a non-functional website, prompting Arizona Congressman Greg Stanton to say then that the “rollout and execution of the grant program has been a disaster.”
Those delays prompted 55 senators to send a letter to the head of the SBA in June 2021, urging it to cut through the red tape and to send the funds more quickly.
“The SVOG program is unique,” the senators wrote, “with necessary restrictions built in to ensure taxpayer funding goes only to eligible applicants in need.” And it was a lifeline for many, says Meredith Lynsey Schade, a nonprofit theater exec. “We can, now, look back three years later and say there wasn’t enough oversight” of the program, she said.
“But the reality is that when there’s a fire that’s burning, you look around and try to put that fire out.”