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. A decade 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.)
What has been happening with you since we last checked in?
There is Neumos that we have been talking about, but we also own a bar a block away called Life On Mars. Somebody decided that they didn’t like our window, I guess, and destroyed it. My wife and I were home playing Cards Against Humanity with some friends on Zoom and we look down and our phones were starting to blow up. We were looking at our phones thinking, it’s 11:30 at night. That can’t be good. Five different people saw the person and what they said was someone walking around with a baseball bat. They had seen him cruising around the neighborhood. We looked at the footage the next day and it was clear that was not a baseball bat. Here is a very clear video of a guy walking around the corner, looking at the camera and then taking his axe and smashing the shit out of windows. So that was another thing to deal with.
We drove down and then sat around while a friend of the GM came and boarded it up at midnight which was super awesome of her. We got the rest of it boarded up on Wednesday. Which will provide some nice big pieces of wood for lots of new art. People have been doing that all over the neighborhood to cover up the windows. Just put something on there that people want to see. We were out in the neighborhood cruising around, looking at all the art on the boarded up windows and there is some pretty great stuff. We have some people coming to paint some nice murals. Lemonade out of lemons I guess.
Were Neumos or the other buildings nearby hit or were they already boarded up?
Right when they made the call to go down to 50 people, someone broke a window across the street at a bar at like four in the afternoon. After that, people started boarding up to protect themselves. We were going to board up, but we really didn’t want to because we didn’t want to send that message that we needed to do that. All of our stuff at the bar and the club is locked up. You can’t get to anything. There is nothing to take. We partially boarded up at Neumos.
Did you catch the axe-wielder?
Not a clue. We clearly saw their face. If they walked up, i’d be able to say that’s the guy right there. But no one is going to find him. He is just going to slip back into wherever he came from. Well, as long as he doesn’t keep cruising around with an axe.
How did you handle the shattered window in addition to everything else you’re dealing with?
You’ve got a guy walking around the neighborhood with an axe in his hands, he’s got some issues. He’s having a pretty rough day himself. I actually handled that okay. It was the next day when I found out that [the federal government] was just going to put more money into PPP [Paycheck Protection Program] without doing any adjusting on it like moving the date or extending it or anything like that. Then I lost it. That’s when I got pissed. That was the final thing. They’re just going to keep going with this PPP thing that doesn’t work for so many people — not change it and just put more money into it. People are not listening. I don’t know how to get them to listen. Some are listening, but there are a lot of people who aren’t listening and some that just don’t care about the same things.
What does ‘losing it’ look like for you?
I listened to Dead Guy and Black Flag really, really fucking loud to where I was shaking the sliding glass door upstairs. My wife said, ‘If you break the window, you’re going to have to deal with that.’ That’s pretty much how I got through it.
What were you hoping they would change about the PPP loans?
The biggest thing is that it shouldn’t have a date that you need to have your employees back. You get the PPP loan and you have eight weeks to have your full time employees back in order to get the forgiveness. Nobody knows when we are opening again. The eight weeks is arbitrary. We want to be able to spend it on more than just salaries. There are a lot of expenses that we have like rent and insurance. We wanted to be able to expand that and the length of how long until we have employees back. Once we open our doors, then give us eight weeks. June 30 was the day we would need to have our employees back and that’s not happening. If you are mandated shut, you have no way to provide your service or your goods. There has to be some type of allowance for that. It’s ridiculous. It is set up to help people who are hurt the least. Not to say they don’t need help. They absolutely do.
Were these requests that were made to the federal government?
One of the things I have learned is that it’s easier, in government, to ask to change existing legislation than it is to introduce new legislation. With NIVA [National Independent Venue Alliance], that’s what we’ve done. We’ve asked to change what is in existence, particularly with the PPP. It was sent out in a letter to the government by NIVA. It is in there with the suggestion to increase the loan cap to at least eight times the average monthly cost of qualified uses of the loan, build in flexibility for the forgiveness being payroll, rent, utilities, or ticket refunds. It takes money just for us to open back up. I got a bunch of kegs that I already tapped. They are toast. That’s just money that is gone.
We’ve gotten some pretty good feedback on [the letter] so far. People in D.C. get it. They get that we are hurting. They understand what is going on. It’s just that there are so many people that are hurting. It is hard for them to figure out who to take care of.
It has been just over a week since NIVA was officially announced, what has the group been up to?
We have been working with Main Street Alliance out of D.C. who helped Washington Nightlife and Music Association with our messaging and organization early on. They are a grass roots advocacy group and they focus on small businesses. They have just been helping out. NIVA has hired a lobbyist group to help because it is such a beast. We have 900 members in all 50 states now, so we had to hire somebody to help keep everything together and knock on the right doors. We need to know who is on the Task Force to Reopen the Economy. We don’t know all that stuff.
I was talking to a rep for U.S. House Representative Adam Smith today. They asked how many employees we had. We have about 50, but the amount of artists that come through aren’t technically our employees. We have 750-800 artists perform in a month. The amount of people that we pay is massive. We have a survey going now. By next week we will have the information. I was talking to someone who is gathering the data and they said, ‘You’re going to be blown away when you see these numbers.’ We know our impact is huge, but once you see these numbers you aren’t going to believe it. If all these venues don’t make it, these artists don’t have stages to play and then they can’t eat themselves.
Have you been working on anything for just Neumos?
I am trying to get some shows to happen on Neumos stage, get some video of them and broadcast them. I’ve been trying to do that for weeks and now I finally talked to somebody. I’ve got two set cameras and a third roamer. I got my sound guy and my light technician. I’ve got my things now so that I can actually stream it. I still need to get a band. Every time I try to hit people up they aren’t willing to do it because they are quarantining or they are already doing something.
Is it safe to put on shows at the venue?
We will be able to keep them socially distanced. For soundboard and lightboard, they are easily six feet apart. Monitors are way up in the corners by themselves. You’ll have your two camera folks that are stationary and then the one who is cruise around. We will have somebody in there making sure they are staying at a safe distance. Then the artists will need to stay apart from each other. We can’t do this and have it have any negative effects. No sharing of microphones, everything is wiped down, if you are not on stage performing you’re wearing a mask. The last thing we want to do is get anybody sick. It’s cool for people to see but it also makes some money for the artist. They got to get paid. They need money.
Is it legal to put on a show right now?
Yes. We are considered an essential service. Being able to perform on stage is considered an essential service [in King County]. I was a little surprised when I heard, but it is absolutely, totally 100% legit. I am not trying to sneak anything by. I’m too old to be playing games with my livelihood. You can’t have people in the audience but you can have them on stage.