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Neumos in Seattle, in a Pandemic: ‘People Want to Give Us Money But We Can’t Take It Right Now’

Steven Severin, co-owner of independent venue Neumos in Seattle, says venues in Washington need to find a fiscal sponsor in able to accept donations to keep them afloat.

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.)


What has changed for you in the past week?

Last week I was done with this. I couldn’t do it anymore. Last weekend I just hit a wall. Over the weekend my wife and I had a serious conversation of ‘can I actually do this?’ I am pushing so hard and I have had some pretty major health problems in the last few years and this is one of the ways that I got there. I don’t have quite the stress that I had then, but just nonstop go with no regard for my own health. We had to have that conversation because she is the same and she still has a job. Somebody has to bring in some kind of money. So Thursday, the answer was ‘no.’ Then we had a great call on Friday with our WANMA [Washington Nightlife and Music Association] Champions League and then I talked to people from Senator Patty Murray’s [D-WA] office and someone from Senator Maria Cantwell’s [D-WA] office. Then it was, ‘Okay. This is bigger than just what I am doing. This is a big thing and if I can keep doing it it can make a real difference. 

What is WANMA’s Champions League?

[For WANMA] we have our ‘bus drivers’ who are the people who are the music venue owners and the artists and the band managers who run WANMA. Then we have the Champions League who are more of the business people and the bigger bands and that kind of thing. They are helping us strategize. They are helping us figure out how we work with the government to get money and they help us figure out a way for the venues to stay open, but also to set up a campaign to go get money.


Who are some of the people in your Champions League?

It is people from Starbucks, but people from the company’s music department. It is people from Vulcan, which is the company that [Microsoft’s] Paul Allen founded and ran for many years before he recently passed away. There is not one single person that we have asked who has said no they won’t help. The Champions League this week was just phenomenal. We got two new people from a very large band that I can’t say yet until they give me the clearance and Sir Mix-A-Lot is part of our Champions League now. 

The people that came on board this week have been huge. It used to seem like Mount Kilimanjaro and the mountain is a lot smaller now. It actually seems feasible and to keep hearing the people talk about raising money and saying, ‘Yeah, it’s doable,’ is great. 

What is the campaign plan WANMA and the Champions League is working on?

Once we can do the launch, which will hopefully be in the next two weeks, then with everybody going out at the same time in Washington it will hopefully hit some ears and really get people to understand that this is do or die. I’ve never run a big campaign like that before but I do know the initial impact is huge so we need to come out of the gate strong. We need to raise a lot of money. The longer we are closed, the bigger that number gets. It’s scary. When you start to see those numbers in your bank account go down, it’s different than looking at it on a spreadsheet. It is getting to zero. How am I supposed to survive for another four months? How much debt do I need to go into? For some people, that number is zero and there is no going into debt. It’s not an option. 


Are you still working on creating a non-profit that will handle the donations?

No. We are working on a fiscal sponsor. Essentially we would have a non-profit organization that we’ll pay a percentage to and they will have some type of arm to have this be part of their organization. You don’t give money to for-profit companies. That’s not something that happens, but that is what we are doing for music venues. We are talking to non-profits and artist organizations and they have a billion questions and we’re like, “The clock is ticking.” We need to go now and they don’t go at that pace. It is fascinating to build a plane while you’re flying. 

Have you found your fiscal sponsor yet?

We are close. It is a big opportunity for the right non-profit because you are going to get people that you normally don’t give money. These are different people who will be writing checks and entering into the philanthropic world. These non-profits will now have access to them. Not to mention, the amount of money that we need to raise — a percentage of that is a lot of money. But they have to have the capacity to do it, the amount of people to do the work. Once we launch the campaign and checks start coming in, you have to have people doing all the processing and dealing with all the backend financials. It is a lot of extra work. [The non-profits] have their staff and in order for them to be our fiscal sponsor they are probably going to have to bring on extra people which is a big ask for a short amount of time. Finding someone where the marriage makes sense is where we have been spending a lot of our time. 

Does the fiscal sponsor need to be in place by the launch of the campaign?

Yes. You can’t really launch until you can accept money. We have to have somewhere to put the money. People want to give us money but we can’t take it right now. We could if people didn’t want the tax write-off, but most people do. There is a trust factor as well. People are more willing to give to an organization that has been around for seven years rather than one that has been around for seven weeks.