Neumos in Seattle, in a Pandemic: 'I Feel Hopeful for the First Time Since This All Started'

Nuemos Steven Severin
Roy Atizado

Nuemos owner Steven Severin.

Steven Severin, co-owner of Neumos in Seattle, says existing support programs aren't working for him so he's focused on advocacy.

As co-owner of Seattle’s popular independent venue Neumos in Capitol Hill, Steven Severin has been a staple in the Seattle music industry for more than 20 years. Roughly 10 years ago, he helped create the Seattle Nightlife and Music Association to bring together the area’s live event insiders, and for the past 16 years has helped run Neumos with its sister club Barboza and the accompanying Runaway bar.

As part of Billboard’s efforts to best cover the coronavirus pandemic and its impacts on the music industry, we will be speaking with Severin each week to chronicle his experience throughout the crisis. (Read last week's installment here and see the full series here.)

The federal Paycheck Protection Program for small businesses ran out of funds this week. You mentioned before that the program wasn’t going to work for Neumos -- was that because you weren’t eligible? 

It wasn’t that we weren’t eligible. It didn’t make sense for us. We were able to get the loan, but we might decide to give the money back. Once you get the loan you have eight weeks to have full time employees back in order for the loan to be forgiven and we aren’t going to have that. We aren’t going to have anybody back in eight weeks. My bars may, but even then we don’t know. It didn’t make sense to us.  We are waiting to see what’s changing because they are putting more money into it. There are a lot of people who think the way it is set up is so messed up that we think they are maybe going to change some of the regulations and they are going to increase the length of time you have to get back to full time. It didn’t make sense to a lot of folks and it ran out. And you have to pay taxes on it, so it would cost us money. We were one of the lucky ones but it was going to put us further in debt.

What options are available for your business now then?

We also applied for the Economic Injury Disaster Loan and we didn’t get that. We applied to Facebook and Amazon small business grants. We haven’t gotten anything from that yet. We are trying to come up with some streaming concerts. We are talking about doing some merch. The problem is that I am having to spend so much time on the advocacy that I haven’t had time to try and earn money for the business. I am aiming for a bigger hope than throwing a concert and raising a few bucks. I am planning on doing that, but I am not putting the effort and energy into it yet. It’s a hard thing because you want to [save the venue] for the fans. I want to do it because people have supported the venues for 16 years. It is amazing and they come out in droves. I want to do it because I want us to stay here for people, but I have to decide how many years I want to work before I get paid again. We did a massive remodel a few years ago and we’re still paying for that.

What progress have you made with that local advocacy since we last spoke?

I went to the King County Office of Economic Development to try to help them understand the nuances that have gotten lost with venues. One of the things that got brought up is that a lot of people who are not involved in the music scene think Seattle had its heyday 30 years ago with Nirvana and Soundgarden. They don’t really know what has happened between and they think we are not as important or we’ve fallen off. We’re bigger than ever as far as how many people go to shows. We’ve broken records for the last 10 years as one of the fastest growing cities in the country. It is because a lot of people want to come here out of college and they want to work for Amazon or Microsoft or Adobe or any of our tech companies, but they also understand that we have a nightlife scene here. I have been watching lightbulbs pop up over people’s heads once they understand that ripple effect. There are actual concrete things that happen because we are here and if we are not here we are going to lose that and people will move to Austin or Minneapolis. Our tourism board surveyed 7 million people and one of the top five reasons people come to visit Seattle is music. The tourism board uses musicians and our nightlife culture to bring people here. It is easy to forget the impact we have because we are just rock and roll clubs. 

How did you get in front of the King County councilors?

Our King County executive Dow Constantine is a huge music fan. He goes to shows all the time. He’s been a giant supporter of the arts. This is his legislation. We’ve been talking to his people about what is going on. [Constantine] is writing legislation to help fund music venues. It started as music venues, it is now becoming part of the bigger arts package with money coming from different pockets like the hotel occupancy tax. There is no money coming in from the hotel tax right now because no one is staying in hotels. So they are trying to find money for the arts because they understand how vital the arts are to us and how many jobs we provide. He is putting together a package for us they will vote on, hopefully, in the next couple of weeks. It would be really nice to get this taken care of because then I can spend more time trying to lobby for musicians and other arts organizations. 

Do you know of a good method for getting the attention of councils whether they are music fans or not?

People [in the community] have been sending these really heartfelt letters to the King County councilors. Some people will send them to me to see what I think and I’ll read them and start crying. It is really interesting to see how music venues have impacted people’s lives. It seems to be registering with a lot of the councilors. They are getting the message that this is important to their constituents and our economy. We need to do everything we can to save it. When you send them and they are not form letters and tell your story, the council person knows you took time to do this. It makes a much bigger difference. So we went out and asked our networks on social media and email lists. They have gotten a lot of letters. They’ve gotten the message that the support is there. I feel hopeful for the first time since this all started. I feel like there is some momentum that things can happen between our federal and local government. I’ve got to believe there is still some hope, otherwise what’s the point. 

What has made you feel hopeful in terms of working with the federal government?

Independent Venues Week launched National Independent Venue Alliance [on Thursday]. In the last week it has become a real organization with a lobbyist. We split the country up into different sections so we have precinct captains and people helping out depending on what state they are in. We put together a sheet so that everybody that is in Arizona for example can all get together and have subcommittees and can figure out what they can do in their state. It might have just been that everyone was talking and trying to figure out what we were going to do as venues. Then it was, ‘Oh, we’re going to become a lobbying group. We’re going to save ourselves.’ As [another independent venue owner] said earlier today, ‘I’ve never worked so hard for so little.’ We are all working to lower the amount of debt we are going to have. We are working so hard to try and not be closed. Two months ago, we were thinking of what an awesome spring this was going to be. 

Has NIVA been able to get anything done in its first few days of existence?

We are just getting our feet under us and building out the different sections. I am on the lobbying committee. There is a marketing committee. There are all these committees and I am not even sure what they all are yet. It is impressive. These are some really impressive, really smart people. Rock and roll club owners get a bad rap, but we are some really intelligent, interesting people. There are the numbers people and the idea people. There are great speakers and leaders and then there are the ramblers like me. The organization has been impressive. To throw this together with this many people and most of us are leaders because we run clubs. We all add our two cents and we aren’t shy about it. Watching it all work together has been fascinating. It is really well done. 

What have you personally been tasked with doing so far?

I have been tasked with working with the research committee to help us get a survey done. For example, I was able to calculate that I would have had 750-800 artists in my two rooms in March. We need that information from everybody, so you’ll start seeing these numbers and be like, ‘Oh, they are big. That’s a lot of people.’ 

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