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?
Every meeting that I have had we have not talked about what our agendas were. We just talked about what is going on. In the grand scheme of things, our stuff just doesn’t matter. Sitting here trying to think about saving music venues and that’s nice, but black people have been oppressed for 400 years. I think we can give a little bit of time and effort and forget about anything else in the world to have a time of reckoning. We should put all of our energy and all of our focus on making meaningful change. Every meeting, everything I was supposed to do got thrown out the window.
[He pauses in an effort to hold back tears.]
It’s not that I don’t cry. I am not one of those guys that’s like, ‘I’m not going to show my emotions,’ but I have cried nearly every day for seven weeks. It’s fucking crazy. I was on a call with 16 people today and all of us were crying. All of us are so raw. We go into this pandemic and the world turns upside down and we have friends who are getting COVID. It seemed like the worst thing that could happen. Then it’s like, ‘Oh no.’ Now, COVID seems like a walk in the park compared to what we are dealing with now. I think back to a simpler time two weeks ago when all I had to worry about was the fact that my businesses closed and I didn’t have any money and I’m not going to have any money for a long time. Now it’s like, whatever. Who cares? Now it is, what can I do to help others out?
Are the other live music folk you talk to feeling similarly?
I was talking earlier with Cody Cowan who works for the Red River Cultural District in Austin. We were on a call with about 12 precinct captains from NIVA and we are all in such white cities. We were like, ‘We don’t know shit. We aren’t around enough people of color.’ Cody brought up a really good point. He said, ‘If I wasn’t in venues, I wouldn’t have ever been around any people of color.’ Music venues are a bit of a great equalizer. Different socioeconomic backgrounds go to shows. Different ethnicities go to shows. The music community gets exposed to people of color in a way that we might not in the rest of our state.
We’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out what we are doing wrong. In the music industry, there are very few people of color in high-ranking positions, like venue owners or general managers. It is not that we won’t hire people of color, it is that they don’t even know to come or that positions are open. We don’t go and try to specifically reach out and find other people. We just put out our ads. It is word of mouth and if you hear about it, great. It’s not good enough to just not be racist. We have to make up for lost time. We need to do more and people need to try and work harder because there are so many f—ing racist people out there. The sheets are off. They are coming out.
People who care, we have to work harder to push those people out, drown those people out.
Were any of your businesses impacted by the protests in Seattle?
One day this week there was a giant protest with 7,000 people out. It was about 11 at night. I opened up my Facebook and there was a video feed of people scattering. I had just turned off my TV and everything was fine. Within those 10 minutes, the cops decided they didn’t like this person’s pink umbrella that was against this police barrier. This cop just reaches out, grabs the umbrella and starts destroying it. Because of that action, the other cops start grabbing umbrellas and then people start pushing on the barrier. Next thing you know, there are water bottles, there’s rocks — everybody is throwing shit at the police because they are throwing everything at them.
They set people off and people scattered. While scattering, somebody had set a fire in one of the garbage cans in front of Neumos. I’m sitting there look at this [from home] and being like, “Oh f—.” There is a TV camera on it and a kid walks up, lifts the lid and has a pitcher of water. He pours the water in the garbage can, puts out the fire and the TV anchor asks him what is going on. The kid says he saw the smoke and got some water to put it out. And then the kid goes to the camera guy on live TV, and this is so Seattle, and says, “Do you know what I should do with this [pitcher] now? I can’t recycle it, so do I just throw it away?” It’s so Seattle. We recycle and we compost everything. It was so funny. I was just sitting there laughing. Then I look up and I see that someone broke our f—ing window. It was one of our upper windows. We had already had part of the place boarded up.
How did you handle the broken window?
It was like, whatever. I don’t know who did it. I don’t know why they did it. I have a friend who not only saw them do it, but they saw somebody film who did it. Somebody told the person filming to stop filming so that there is not proof. I was like, “Okay. I get it. You put your knee on my neck for 400 years.”
[Severin pauses before continuing through muffled tears.]
I don’t care about a damn window. I got insurance. I’ll just pay the deductible. Who cares? The cops set these people off and they were pissed. They needed to take it out on something.
At this other venue Chop Suey these two young white kids pulled a hammer out of their backpack and smashed the venue’s windows at 5 p.m. Everything was totally peaceful at 5 p.m. The smashed the place for the f— of it. If it was somebody of color, I would have been like, “Alright. I get it. You’re pissed. You have reason to be.” But some 20-year-old white kid, what are you so mad about that you’re going to smash up some indie venue that you probably go to shows at?
Have you or any of the organizations you’re affiliated with come up with action plans to keep the momentum going?
I do have the power to help make systemic changes, so who do I listen to to make that happen? I have a platform and lots of people. I have some kind of power because of what I do and I can talk to people who have power who can make those changes. Let’s not use tear gas. We’ve got to talk to our elected officials and say this has got to stop. That on top of defunding the police department, which people need to understand what that really means. I am by no means an expert, but I have read up on it and it makes so much sense. Cops should not be dealing with mentally unstable people. You should have a different department that deals with that. Take the money that goes to that in the police department and put it where it can do some good, because what is happening right now is not working.
We don’t know under what guise this goes. We don’t know if this is a music industry thing or a [Washington Nightlife and Music Association] thing but we want to create a letter and a list of demands and get powerful people to sign it. [Elected officials] don’t just read anything. You have to have the privilege that we have to get them to pay attention. So let’s create something. Let’s work with the Black Lives Matter folks and let’s see what needs to be done. We aren’t going to recreate the wheel, we aren’t the right people to figure that out because we aren’t the ones that are oppressed. So we need to find out what needs to get to the governor and the mayor and the police chief. It needs to happen now. There is no waiting. There are a lot of long-term systemic changes that need to be made, but there are also things that can be done right now.