ENTERTAINMENT

Neumos in Seattle, in a Pandemic: If Indie Venues Don't Make It 'There is No Touring'

Steven Severin, co-owner of Neumos in Seattle, says some venues are having to choose between public safety and losing their rooms forever.

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?

We got accepted by two different fiscal sponsors [to receive donations on our behalf]. They voted and agreed to take us on. It is not 100% done but by this week, we should be incorporated and also have our fiscal sponsor done by then. We need to have it done. I spoke with a big video game company that has been asking about giving us money and I haven’t been able to take it. I finally had a conversation with them today because they said it was a budget thing and they have to spend it. They wanted to make sure they could donate it by June and now we will be able to take that. My wife (Leigh Sims) and Craig Jewell who owns The Wild Buffalo [venue in nearby Bellingham] spent so many hours trying to make that happen because it hasn’t been done. I don’t know why we keep trying to do things that haven’t been done before. But you don’t have non-profits giving money to for-profit businesses, so we had to figure it out. We talked with seven different lawyers and none of them had the actual answer. But we finally got there and now we will be able to accept money.

Washington state has started moving into stage 2 of its reopening plan, does that have any impact on you?

Each county can apply to go to stage 2. In order to go to stage 2, you have to have a certain amount of cases per 100,000. Originally what they wanted was for it to be under 16 cases in a couple of weeks and that’s just not going to happen or at least we don’t know how long it is going to take. That’s not feasible because we have too many people in our county because we have Seattle. Now it is by 100,000 so it is a little more feasible. [King County is] still not going to get to open yet. I don’t think that we are going to be under the numbers we need to be under in order to do it. But I think what they are going to do is a half step where you’ll be able to go to a hair stylist, but not go full into phase 2.

Have other cities taken notice of how Seattle venues were able to get $750,000 in government funding and tried to implement it in their regions?

We spent all this time working on getting that King County money and now it is happening around the country. Austin has met with their city council and they have gone through all the lobbying. They are waiting to hear. Louisville, Kentucky, just reached out and they are having their meeting coming up to do the same thing. It is cool to see all these cities that are going to their governments and being like, “We need to help. You forced us to close. We need financial help or we don’t survive.” Someone from Denver reached out to me and was talking about it. We’re trying to put together a handbook for people so that they can look and see all the different things we did like our mission statement and how we formed a board. Because it is an ecosystem. If Denver doesn’t make it and Austin doesn’t make it and Minneapolis’ venues don’t make it then there is no touring. You have to get the connections so we all have to make it, which is why we are working so hard as one.

Now that many states have given venues the okay to move forward or at least an idea of when they can reopen, have you seen less participation in the National Independent Venue Association?

No, it is more. Our calls are insane. People are diving in further and harder and the numbers keep going up. None of us have all the answers. I don’t care who you are, none of us have them. Every time you talk with somebody you think, I hadn’t thought of that. We are sharing information with each other freely to make sure we can help each other out as much as we possibly can.

How are some of the venues reacting to opening up again?

There is a NIVA member in Florida who is opening his venue even though he doesn’t want to because he doesn’t think that they are ready. But he has to do it otherwise he loses his room. He is like, “I have to open and I have to get some money coming in here because the government won’t take care of us. So I have to put the public safety at risk because my governor is a fucking idiot.” He really is and thinks it’s okay to just have everybody come out at once regardless of what their numbers look like. [The venue owner] is like, “I have to do this because the government is not there to help.’ The Florida government says it is safe to go back in, while scientists are saying it is not. [The venue owner] doesn’t think that he has a choice. He doesn’t want to do it, but he’s got to do it. And that is happening in other places. Who knows what the results are going to be? It could be fine, but it doesn’t seem that way.

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