Touring

In Seattle, America's Coronavirus Ground Zero, Music Venues Face Uncertain Future & 'Massive Debt'

Stephen Wood / EyeEm

Seattle, Washington.

"It's heartbreaking all around. You want to be mad, but who do you blame?"

SEATTLE — Kat Colley, who co-owns bar and venue the Kraken in Seattle’s University District, said “it just started as a wave” in the middle of last week: one band had a couple of sick members and couldn’t play. Another had to cancel a tour.

But it really sunk in when a huge benefit show planned for that Saturday pulled out entirely. Colley, still dealing with the news that her kids’ schools would be closed, knew she had to make some decisions -- and fast. How could she keep her business together and her venue alive while keeping her community safe?

“Should I have shows?” she asked herself. “Should I not have shows? Should we have little shows?

The decision was ultimately made for her.

In January, the Seattle metro area became the first place in the United States to have a confirmed case of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus that has emerged as a pandemic in recent weeks. As the virus began to spread -- and as downtown white-collar workers were asked to stay home and events like Emerald City Comic-Con got canceled -- musicians, venue owners and other industry professionals started to get nervous.

“I see people keeping tallies of how many of their shows are canceled,” says Eva Walker, one half of rock band the Black Tones and host of local music shows Audioasis on KEXP and Video Bebop on Seattle Channel, a municipal TV station.

Steven Severin, who owns venues Neumos and Barboza in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, says that turnout was taking a nosedive for dance nights at the beginning of March, but headliners were still drawing crowds. But once Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced a ban on gatherings of 250 people or more on March 11, mid-size venue owners scrambled to respond to government mandates, decreased crowds, canceled tour dates and the safety of their staff and community.

On Sunday, Inslee announced that public gatherings must be capped at 50 people and many businesses, including bars and dance halls, must close until March 31 -- effectively shutting down Seattle’s service and live-music industries.

“It's just dizzying,” says Dan Cowan, owner of the Tractor Tavern in the Ballard neighborhood.

For independent venue owners like Cowan and Severin, closing has weighed heavily -- both their employees and musicians need the income -- but was out of their control. Most mid-size venues ended up postponing their March shows before clubs were required to fully close, because staffing shows and stocking bars around unpredictable circumstances was just too costly.

Cowan said that with the rush of last-minute cancellations, “a lot of people were just questioning whether the show was going to go on.” Ultimately, he said, it was “actually less expensive just to close and pay the rent.”

Cowan says keeping his venue -- which has a capacity of just over 300 -- dead for a month could cost more than $20,000. Severin says it will cost six figures every four weeks that the 600-capacity Neumos and the 200-capacity Barboza and attached bar the Runaway are down.

But the ultimate damage is still unclear. Not only do venues not know how long they’ll be closed, they have no idea what’s going to happen once they reopen, either.

“We don't know if people are going to buy tickets right away for the shows that start in May, because people don't know if they’re going to happen,” says Severin. “That's a horrible place, to not know anything.”

But Severin says one thing is for sure: “Every venue in Seattle is going to have massive debt.”

Last hurrah at small venues

While the cap on public gatherings was still at 250, small venues were a lifeline for the music community.

Patti Smith’s guitarist, Lenny Kaye, was sitting in Screwdriver Bar in the Belltown neighborhood when he learned that Smith’s show at nearby venue the Moore was canceled, says Screwdriver co-owner Chris Jones. The bar includes a small venue, the 125-capacity Belltown Yacht Club, which had some cancellations -- but Jones and co-owner Dave Flatman had decided to stay open until they were told otherwise.

“[Kaye] was like, ‘If you can find me an amp, I'll play tomorrow,’” says Jones. They threw the show together and announced it on social media last-minute, and Kaye played the next day to a mostly-full room. “He wanted to put on a show because that's what people need. It was this amazingly cathartic experience.”

As other venues closed, the Kraken, despite its own cancellations, saw a lot of new visitors -- before it, too, had to shut down. The bar relies on the income it gets from shows and March is normally their biggest month. “It’s heartbreaking all around,” Colley says. “You want to be mad, but who do you blame?”

Technology to bridge the social distance

Even before the crowd restrictions, musicians and venues were finding creative ways to work and connect with fans in the middle of a quarantine. Pianist Marina Albero is starting a Facebook Live series called the Quarantine Sessions. The Seattle Symphony has started live-streaming its performances for free. The music school where Walker teaches has switched to remote lessons. Faced with waning crowds, Seattle band Acid Tongue opted to live-stream its record release show, which had been scheduled (and then canceled) at the Tractor -- but Belltown Yacht Club was able to pick it up after a last-minute cancelation.

Guy Keltner, one-half of Acid Tongue, said you can get depressed, “or you can kind of make art and be positive and find some solution to improve a really messed up situation.”

Now that venues have been put entirely out of operation, streaming is one of the few ways to share performances -- but it doesn’t do much to recoup the full emotional and financial loss many in the community are feeling.

“Of course, there's always the option, everything's online, blah, blah, blah,” says Walker. “But you also need a physical presence. The show experience is so important to musicians.”

Scrambling to survive

Still, the most immediate concern for many is the livelihoods of people that work within the industry, especially as the threat of the virus remains.

“My biggest concerns are always going to be the gig economy workers and musicians and artists that hold up the city,” says Ricky Graboski, interim executive director at all-ages music and arts nonprofit The Vera Project. The organization is routing all donations through the end of April “directly toward sustaining young people that have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.”

But with no revenue coming in, not all venues are able to provide that direct support.

“The staff is the backbone of the club,” said Jeanne-Marie Joubert, assistant general manager at the clubs Kremwerk and Timbre Room. “Most of our staff, working at the club is their only job… helping to find resources for industry workers is my main goal right now.”

Many Seattleites share that concern: Author Ijeoma Oluo has also started a fund to help members of the arts community make it through the crisis, which raised about $150,000 in its first week. Restaurant industry veteran and healthcare activist Jessica Tousignant raised more than $60,000 in just one day after launching an emergency fund for hospitality workers. Graboski said this kind of fundraising is critical so “we have a culture and community to come back to once we're through this.”

On the business side, Severin said that he and about 15 other independent venue owners are forming the Seattle Venue Coalition to coordinate how to make it through. The longer the shutdown lasts, however, the more likely it seems that some fixtures of the music scene could be lost entirely. It’s a tragic prospect for Seattle, which is still reeling from gentrification and rising rents during the tech boom of the 2010s that left many cultural landmarks in the dust. (The wave inspired two popular living art projects, Ghosts of Seattle Past and Vanishing Seattle.)

“We're on such thin margins that there's going to be [venues] that I don't think will be able to make it,” Severin says. “I would hate to lose anybody.”

For now, all anyone can do is wait.

“I have this horrible feeling it is going to get a little bit worse before it gets better,” says Colley. “Hopefully not too much worse.”

Coronavirus