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.
Washington was the first state seriously hit by the coronavirus and first to mandate social distancing — what has it been like as a venue owner since those orders went into effect on March 11?
We were the first to get closed and we are going to be the last to reopen. That’s how it is. We shut down before we got mandated to shut down because they said we could only have 250 people in the room and we weren’t going to sit there and make people stand six feet away from each other. There is an energy at a rock and roll show and if I am worrying about standing six feet away from somebody, that’s not it.
What measures have you taken since the shutdown to help your business?
The way venues our size are set up, we book six, nine months, even a year out and all these tours are going away. Most festivals are gone for 2020 and so many bands are looking at 2021. If you’ve got to route a 30-to-45-date tour, you’re not going to take a chance to have just seven dates before the whole thing falls apart. So bands are staying home.
I haven’t even looked at my businesses to have an idea of what I should be doing to help [the venues] get T-shirts made and sold. I haven’t even had a chance to do any of that, because it has been so focused on the advocacy part of it. Now that there is this pot of money [the federal government’s CARE Act stimulus package], we need that. There is no doubt that we need that or we don’t survive.
What kind of advocacy are you working on?
A week ago we launched an organization called Washington Nightlife and Music Association. It is a collective of 25 or 30 venues, mostly independent, in Washington. We have gotten together and we have been lobbying our government, mostly federal. What we are asking our senators and our U.S. representatives is that if we are going to come back as a live music industry in Washington, we are going to need cash assistance and grants, not loans. People can’t take loans. The PPP [Paycheck Protection Program] was set up as a one-size-fits-all and it doesn’t fit a lot of people. It doesn’t fit the venues that I know. We have no idea when we are going to open again and we have no idea what it is going to be like when we open again. Neumos is a 650-capacity room, are they going to say on July 1 that 650 people can come back? No. They are going to parse it out. They will slowly, slowly roll it out.
Is your advocacy on the federal level only or locally as well?
A few days ago we started focusing locally because we were watching a King County Council meeting — which are very boring, it’s like watching paint dry — but there is some arts money that is in there that I think is coming budgeted from the tourism industry and maybe hotels. I know that the tourism industry is going to take a huge hit because music venues and bars and stuff are a lot of the reason why people come to Seattle. We are a music and arts city. They have a pocket of money that they are considering going to music venues.
We have been lobbying our county councilors to make sure that they understand why for-profit companies like live music venues need this money or 90% of us won’t be there when this is all said and done. The ones that are going to make it are corporate owned or non-profits. The rest of us, there is no way. It is not feasible even with deferred loans. You have to pay that later and we are already on razor thin margins as it is.
Are the venue owners doing the lobbying yourselves or has the association hired someone with experience?
Everyone is doing the lobbying on their own. As a group we have a Slack channel and we are sharing all our information with each other. It is the most open I have ever seen music venues be with each other. We are sharing everything. I am part of a national coalition called Independent Venues Week, which is 100 or some odd venue owners and folks across the country.
I have talked with a few friends of mine who are lobbyists and they haven given me a lot of great free information that has helped. But there is some talk of making that more of a real thing and bringing them on paid. The same thing is happening nationally. In the last stimulus bill, the John F. Kennedy Center [for Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.] got $25 million direct for the arts. In the wording, they were allowed to use that money for deep cleaning. I have laid off all of my employees, every single one. I just laid off the last two last night. I wanted to keep them on because they need it and they are so important to my business that we were just reaching into our pockets and paying. But the Kennedy Center can get their carpets cleaned. That fucking pisses me off. It’s because we don’t have lobbyists. We don’t have people in there that are playing that game.
How do you emphasize the importance of independent music venues when so many businesses are seeking aid?
We’re so forgotten, it is fascinating. We employ so many people and the ripple effect is massive. At Neumos, we sell the most Pabst Blue Ribbon in the entire state and we have for about the last 10 years. It is absurd. The effect that I think of is the farmer that is making the hops isn’t going to be able to sell as much hops as they did at one point because of all the cases that we sell a year. Then there is every step in between that and that is just beer. If we go away, if music venues go away across the country, it is going to have a massive ripple effect. We are already seeing it. Everybody is touched by this disaster.