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Neumos in Seattle, in a Pandemic: ‘The Hardest Thing Is the Staff’

Steven Severin, co-owner of Neumos in Seattle, is spread thin trying to save his venues and help others while bearing the heavy burdens of letting employees go and an uncertain future.

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.)


We have started to see states open in the past few days including some states allowing concerts to resume. What are your thoughts on concerts resuming right now?

No. The people I’ve talked to aren’t even thinking about what it is going to be like to open yet. We haven’t even gone there yet. We’re still trying to figure out how we are going to save ourselves financially. Nobody has even thought about what it is going to be like to reopen, let alone announcing shows.

I’ve talked to a ton of people about that. They are freaking out that there are restaurants opening up next to their clubs. We’re not ready. Everybody wants to get back, but we can’t get back until we’re ready and I don’t know the answer to that. I want people to do things as long as they aren’t going to hurt anybody else. We all need to be in it for the greater good. We all have to not open and have setbacks. That can’t happen. That is going to freak people out.

Have you started putting any effort into reopening?

I spent an hour talking to our partners at Life on Mars today about the different phases that we would take to open back up like how we would do, what we would need. Once we think that we are going to open in a couple of weeks, would we do takeout? We would need to get thermometers to make sure that our staff is healthy. We would have to get masks made so the staff could wear them. We need to make sure that we have gloves. We need to make sure that we have disposable masks for the kitchen because they are going to be going through them. We need to make sure we have extra cleaning supplies. We need to have a full plan in place in order to go back and just do take out. Then we get the chance to open up at 50% capacity. So what does that look like? What do we need for that? Do we need to have some type of plexiglass between the booths? My immediate thought was, ‘That will look horrible. No.’ But we have booths back-to-back so we might have to do that.


With reopening off the table for the moment, what else have you been doing to protect your business?

We are setting up a nonprofit for Washington Nightlife and Music Association. It’s crazy how much work it is. I have my other days jobs and night jobs of trying to keep my businesses from going under and helping other people. You have this organization so people think you have it dialed in, but no. I am trying to figure this out. I don’t know how to set up a nonprofit organization that can lobby. I don’t know what a 501(c)(6) is. I mean, I do now because I’ve had to study it and learn it and talk with accountants and lawyers.

Trying to figure out a nonprofit, lobbying state and federal officials and being a precinct captain for the National Independent Venue Association seems like a lot of work on top of trying to save your own businesses. Does it take an emotional toll on you?

It depends what day you ask me on. Yesterday I was okay. Today is not bad. The day before yesterday I was an emotional wreck. [When asked] what has been the hardest part about all of this…

[Severin gets choked up. It takes a minute before he can speak again.]

I can’t do it. I can’t f—ing say it. This is what happens. I get super emotional. I bring it up and it absolutely triggers it. The hardest thing is the staff. Knowing that when all this happened, all the people that we employ, all of their families and their lives, I had to make a decision that affected them and is f—ing them up. They are bummed. I didn’t have a choice, but it is so hard. The hardest part has been knowing that all these people that depend on us for a paycheck and to feed their families and their kids. And I can’t do that. I can’t give them a check. I can’t give them the basic thing that they came to work for me for.

[Severin breaks down again before composing himself.]

This crushes me. The stress, it just gets to you. Saturday I spent 30 minutes walking around my neighborhood listening to Agent Orange balling my head off because I couldn’t handle it. It’s heavy. It weighs. It is all of it. It’s 15 years of running a club. It’s what I do and it may not continue to happen. It is money and frustration and everybody is not as nice as they could be because we’re all stressed.
It sucks. It is tiring. I am tired of looking at numbers and being like, ‘How long is it going to take?’ and ‘When is my government going to help me out?’ I still haven’t gotten unemployment. I just get nothing back. No answers. We are pretty far into this. Somebody should have responded by now.