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Neumos in Seattle, in a Pandemic: ‘We Don’t Have Money, But We Have People’

Steven Severin, co-owner of independent venue Neumos in Seattle, is focusing on advocacy work on local and national levels -- and got his first win on Tuesday.

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.)


Last week National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) launched the #SaveOurStages campaign to raise awareness at a federal level for COVID-19 relief. How has that gone so far?

It launched on May 5. We did a letter writing campaign to all of the elected leaders across the 50 states and D.C. We are at 300,000 which is ridiculous. [Elected officials] get 300 and they are tripping. There are still a lot of people who haven’t sent it out to their email lists or their socials. I’m going to get on some people, because it would be rad to get 500,000 people. Plus, we just got to keep hammering people because they are not fucking getting it. How are they not getting it?

NIVA is now at 1,500 [members]. It is really getting noticed. We are all promoters. That’s what we do. We push shows and we’ve been doing it for a long time. Our lobbyist says everyone on Capitol Hill is talking about us. We have access to people. We don’t have money, but we have people. So we reach out to our lists.

Have you gotten support from artists as well?

There are a lot of artists who are sharing this. Bon Iver did a post pretty early on and that got 30,000 views in three days. Nick Kroll did one on Instagram and it is pictures of him with all these rad comedians. There’s a gang of others that are coming out and of course they are. Bon Iver played Neumos. He plays stadiums now but he started at Neumos. Of course he wants Neumos to keep going on, otherwise there is not the next Bon Iver. You don’t start in giant venues. You’ve got to learn on smaller stages. 

We know everybody. It’s 1,500 promoters and venue owners across the country. There is not anybody that we don’t have a connection with. Who knows if U2 or Adele or the ghost of Jimi Hendrix is going to do something, but we can ask.


Which state has sent the most letters?

Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris are number one and two. Dianne Feinstein got a total of 12,346 letters and so did Kamala Harris. The next closest was Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin in Illinois. And then North Carolina. It has been a friendly competition to get your numbers up for your state. 

More than half of states across the country started loosening restrictions as of last week, does that seem like a positive step for venues like Neumos?

I don’t know the exact numbers but I read that Texas opened up over the weekend and had over 1,000 new cases three days in a row. People are talking about how they are going to have to close back down again. That is absolutely what we couldn’t do. We could not open and close again. 

Why is it better to stay closed than to open back up and shut down again?

Because I think it is going to take that much longer for us to get open again. There is a venue that has been in Seattle for 30 years called the Re-Bar and they called it over the weekend. It just sucks. They’ve been around for 30 years and they aren’t going to open again. Nirvana did their Nevermind release party there. It does everything. They had the longest running house DJ night in the country called Flammable. It’s been running for over 15 years every Sunday. Dina Martina owned it for some time so there were a lot of drag shows. They were an important part of the community and they are done. They may open up in a couple of years in a different space, but you can’t recreate the magic. And they are friends of ours. We’re all sitting here thinking the exact same thing could happen to us. 


Have there been any positive things happening for venues?

We had our county council debate and preliminary vote last week. I watched five and a half of the seven hours. It was a Zoom call of county council people debating whether or not they are going to support this bill [that provides funding for live music venues] and they are. It won 7-2 and the official vote is today. [The bill passed unanimously on Tuesday evening.] We will be the first state in the country that has given money specifically from the government to music venues. We worked our asses off for this. Granted we have a very strong music support from our government already and our King County executive is the one who drove it. 

How much money is proposed in the relief bill?

It’s not the money. Once you split the money up between all the venues it is not the money that is going to make the difference, it is the fact that our government is saying that venues are important. That in a pandemic where money is going to the most important fabrics of our city, that music venues fit in there. That’s huge. It is $750,000 total. It is going to help people kick the can a little bit further down the road. I think it is going to buy us time. It is going to get some a month or two. Some people, it will give them a couple of weeks. It will get us further and, as we see, everything is changing every day. We will have that to leap off from and go raise more money. 


So the next step will be fundraising?

Our county executive has said he is going to lead the charge on taking that money and making more. We’re going to start fundraising. That’s our only shot of making it through this. There is no way the venues can withstand not making any income at all for months and months on end, if not over a year. We are game planning now how to go raise money, which is something we don’t do. I have done dozens and dozens of fundraisers, raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for people over the years. But we have never asked for anything for ourselves. Our county executive is going to help and talk to some of the bigger companies and say ‘this is important.’

We have been working with the council to try to get this money, which has been so much work. Organizing all of these people and talking with our reps and begging them to give us 20 minutes of their time to listen to us even though they have to listen to hundreds of other constituents that are all in the same boat. And now we have to go raise money. You’ve got to be kidding me. We’re not at the finish line? We’re at the starting line. This has just been training. You have to dig down and find it because the other option is just giving up. When you’ve done something for a decade plus, you can’t just decide to give up because it is hard.