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Neumos in Seattle, in a Pandemic: ‘We Are the Blueprint for the Country’

Steven Severin, co-owner of independent venue Neumos in Seattle, is turning a recent victory for local government funding into a nation-wide model for indie venue survival.

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 Washington’s King County passed a bill that would provide $750,000 to independent music venues. What does getting that through mean for you?

Getting through the King County vote was huge for us. When it went through, it was like we could finally exhale. It was just, “Holy shit. I am tired.” I didn’t realize I was sitting there tensed up for weeks working on getting this thing through and if you don’t get it through then you are dead in the water. We are the blueprint for the country. This had to win. This was not a thing that could lose. We won with a 9-0 vote and it felt so good. We were the first ones [to get government assistance for for-profit music venues]. 

Do you think other cities will follow Seattle’s lead?

Austin venues are asking their government for $35 million, we asked for $2 million. They are going to their officials now and saying, ‘Seattle did this. We need to step up,’ which is what we wanted. This is not just about Seattle. This is about a much larger community. Whatever we do, it is key that it works across the country. We obviously want to save the venues in Washington, but I am about venues completely. Getting that win is everything. 


What are the next steps for the bill in terms of handing out the funds?

What I understand is that everyone has to apply. You have to be an independent venue, 1,000-capacity or less, you have to have shows three nights a week and you have to participate in Seattle’s reopening plan. There is a thing called REVS, which is Reopen Every Venue Safely, which is eight cities around the country working with the government to come up with criteria for how to open across the country safely. Venues will also get points if they are a ‘legacy’ club that has been around for so many years. There will be points if you are LGBTQ+- or person-of-color-owned. And it will be based on need. Some venues are 150 capacity and they have shows three-nights a week, but they mostly make their money selling beer and nachos. They aren’t going to need as much money as a big place like El Corazon, which is two venues. 

It will be a few weeks. They were very careful of the committee that they put it in so that it doesn’t get bogged down in political red tape. The money should be out within a month.

Has your victory in Seattle given hope to other venues in the National Independent Venue Alliance that they can weather the storm?

We have reached out and said, “Look, if you are going to go under then let us know.” Let Washington Nightlife and Music Association know, let NIVA know. We will try and find ways. If you need a little bit of money and that is going to help you make it through the rest of the year, I’ll go into my own pocket. These kinds of places, their monthly nut can be as low as $8,000-$10,000. If you are only down $8,000-$10,000 to make it to that next extra thing then we will find a way to help you get there. 


Has NIVA been making progress at a federal level for funding?

There is a letter that NIVA has been working on to get all of the senators and U.S. Representatives to sign on basically saying they support live music venues. We’ve been emailing everybody saying we want you to sign on to this letter that was sponsored by a couple of senators and a couple U.S. Reps. In the House, the response has been phenomenal. The support across the aisle has been phenomenal.

I just got off the phone with [Sen.] Patty Muray’s (D-WA) people and I asked if she would sign the letter. But we kept talking about what I am doing and how important it is to have their support. They are working on the HEROES Act and the CARES Act and they need to talk to average people who understand why the PPP loan doesn’t work for a lot of people. They hear it and they get emails and they get letters, but they need to actually talk to somebody and I said, “When you all designed this, I’m not sure you spoke with actual people who run businesses that have 40 people, not 5,000.” Now there is talk of expanding this eight weeks into 24 and there is talk of 75% of it needs to be spent on payroll in order to have it forgiven. Now they are talking about taking out those percentages. 

We don’t have employees right now and we are not going to put people back to work on a fake thing so the powers that be can get their unemployment numbers down. That’s the whole guise behind the PPP. It is not so much about helping people out. They want the unemployment numbers down. We aren’t going to give you a “W” if you give us fake shit. If I pull someone off unemployment and pay them to do whatever for a few weeks to get some of that money forgiven then they have to go get back on unemployment because I am not going to be open in eight weeks. That’s not smart. I am not going to do that to people. 


I know you don’t work with them, but have you been following Ticketmaster’s issues around refunds? 

They have been pulling some interesting shit. I have been seeing these emails go by through NIVA with [Ticketmaster] saying something about the refunds that they weren’t giving back to people were partially because the venues are holding that money. Which is 1,000% not true. We don’t hold any of the money with ticketing. That gets held in an “escrow” account with the ticketing company. We don’t see that money until they have given us a check after the show. They came out and lied and nobody cared because the truth doesn’t really mean a whole lot when you’re Live Nation. They don’t care about us at all and by us I mean the indie venues. Don’t you dare throw us under the bus for something that isn’t true. Especially now that there is NIVA, we are a beast. Live Nation has all the money, but we have the people. 

On our Zoom call, some people were laughing, some people were pissed. When most people go to a show, they care about two things: that the band is good and that the beer is cold. That’s it. They don’t give a fuck who the promoter is. Our egos are so bloated. Nobody cares that it says something like “Wake Up Presents Wiz Khalifa” or “Wake Up Presents Hot Chip.” We make sure our font size is right and our logo is on there. Nobody cares about that. They don’t care about where the ticketing money is and they don’t know. So if Live Nation says, “It is with the venues,” they believe that and then they can blame us. 

There was probably a time where venues were afraid to come out and say stuff against them. I think that that time is done.