How Rock Stars Fleeced Millions From a Pandemic Program Intended to Save Small Arts Groups

The Shuttered Venue Operators Grant distributed $14.5 billion that included large sums to Post Malone, Lil Wayne, Steve Aoki and more, an Insider investigation found

Millions of dollars in government money intended to keep small entertainment venues afloat during the pandemic went to some of the most recognizable names in the business, including Post Malone, Chris Brown, Lil Wayne and even Nickelback, Insider reported Friday.

The stars pocketed millions from the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant, a law pushed through by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) that distributed $14.5 billion in grants to movie theaters, ballets, operas, talent agents, performing-arts venues, museums and other institutions – including the private corporations controlled by boldfaced names.

A corporation controlled by Post Malone, whose real name is Austin Richard Post, received a $10 million grant in 2021 despite the chart-topper’s real estate spending spree that year, which included an $11.5 million ski chalet in Park City, Utah.

Also receiving payouts were Brown, who got $10 million, Lil Wayne, who pocketed $8.9 million, ’90s rockers The Smashing Pumpkins, with $8.6 million, Nickelback, with $2 million and electronic-music star Steve Aoki got $9.9 million.

Insider reported that it identified “dozens of corporations and limited-liability companies controlled by high-profile musical artists that received grants through the program.”

The investigation found that just one Los Angeles financial-management firm, NKSFB, “successfully submitted grants on behalf of 97 artists, venues, and managers, amounting to more than a quarter of a billion dollars in grant payouts, including more than $200 million for big-name artists alone,” including Post Malone, Marshmello, Aoki, Godsmack and Korn.

With more than 13,000 grant recipients, the Shuttered Venues program did help small community-arts and culture organizations across the country. A federal Small Business Administration spokesperson told Insider that nearly half the grant money went to businesses with fewer than five full-time employees, “the smallest of small businesses,” the spokesperson added.

“SVOG was there to save us, and to carry us through,” Meredith Lynsey Schade, who was managing an off-off-Broadway theater company when the pandemic hit, told the news outlet.

Yet many businesses run by artists fit into the smallest category, Insider found, including Aoki’s corporation, DJ Kid Millionaire Touring, which told the government it had four full-time employees.

There’s no sign that any of the high profile artists broke the law, but the program also experienced some of the same weak oversight and easy-to-navigate loopholes that other pandemic programs like the Paycheck Protection Program saw. The SBA estimates that less than 1% of the grants disbursed were fraudulent – a rate far lower than other COVID-era programs.

It’s possible that the artists used the federal grants to pay sound and lighting technicians, costumers, security staff and other contractors who were thrown out of work when live performances shut down.

But, Insider noted, there was no requirement that they use the money that way. The grants instead were intended to cover lost revenue, and did require an outline for how they planned on spending the case, but the recipients could use it for a variety of things, including paying themselves, and shift their spending from the plan.

The SBA refused an Insider Freedom of Information Act request for records showing how the artists spent the money, stating they were confidential business records. Insider contacted more than 60 grant recipients, including all of the artists it named, asking for details on their spending. Most did not respond, and none provided any details.

The report also noted that the contracting companies and others in adjacent businesses could also apply for grants on their own. Two of the biggest sound-system providers for touring, Eighth Day Sound and Clair Global — which merged in 2020 — each received $10 million grants, the report said.

“Two entities partly owned by the legendary talent manager Irving Azoff, whose firm’s clients include The Eagles, Lizzo, Harry Styles, and Gwen Stefani, together got $17.5 million from the program,” the report said. An attorney for Azoff said he did not receive any of the cash himself.

Even subsidiaries of Live Nation, a publicly traded company that was not eligible for the program, were able to score grants, while many small venues struggled to access the funding.