SEATTLE — The last three weeks feel like three months. As communal gathering places become ghost towns, Seattle — like many cities around the world — doesn’t feel the same as it did even a month ago.
As social distancing requirements to curb the spread of COVID-19 slam the brakes on the local economy, the lasting effects remain to be seen. But Seattle-area music venues are sounding an alarm now. The newly formed Washington Nightlife Music Association has launched a campaign to raise awareness of the threat to the state’s live music landscape and lobby members of Congress for aid.
On Wednesday, the coalition of 25-plus clubs across the state unveiled a list of five areas it says financial relief is needed in order to stave off a wave of permanent closures. The biggest need: direct cash assistance instead of loans. While venues remain closed amid Washington’s stay-at-home order, the bills haven’t stopped coming in.
“It adds up really fast and gets to be so much,” says Neumos co-owner Steven Severin, one of the group’s organizers. “What’s the point of running the business if you’re going to spend the next five years fighting to get back to zero?”
Last week the federal government approved a $2 trillion economic relief package that includes aid for small businesses, though Severin argues it’s not enough. The approved $10,000 economic disaster grants are helpful, but wouldn’t quite cover a month of insurance for Neumos, sibling club Barboza and the street-level Runaway bar, all housed in the same Capitol Hill complex.
Another facet of the relief package offers potentially forgivable loans to cover payroll and operating expenses for up to eight weeks. But for venues like the Crocodile, which has lost “a few hundred thousand dollars” in revenue since its last main room show a month ago, that eight-week mark is coming up fast.
“We’re already at four (weeks),” says Adam Wakeling, general manager and partner at the Crocodile, who’s still looking into the application process. “Are we going to be running at 100% in another four weeks? I doubt we’re going to be off lockdown in another four weeks, I truly do. So, that doesn’t seem like enough to me at this point.”
Wakeling was right. On Thursday, Gov. Jay Inslee extended the stay-home order through May 4, ensuring another month of darkened clubs.
Beyond cash injections, the Washington Nightlife Music Association is seeking rent forgiveness and reductions, financial assistance for staff, tax breaks and insurance relief. Severin has also reached out to some of the city’s most prominent musicians, including members of The Head and the Heart, Pearl Jam and Macklemore in hopes of amplifying its message.
Severin admits the group doesn’t have all the logistics figured out or a dollar amount in mind. Part of the challenge is not knowing when clubs will be able to reopen. And when they do, it’s not as simple as flicking the lights back on.
Venues like Neumos, whose calendar is largely filled by touring acts, book six to nine months ahead of time and many spring and summer tours have already been postponed or canceled. Severin, a longtime Seattle nightlife player, expects big comeback weekend crowds whenever the moratorium on gatherings lifts, but damaging holes in its calendar elsewhere.
Depending on the reopening date, Wakeling says the Crocodile and other clubs may have to rely heavily on local bands and DJs, instead of touring artists, to fill its short-term openings, limiting their ability to cater to different audiences.
“You’re going to run out of bands real quick and all the other venues that make it through this are going to be trying to do the same thing,” he says, noting most of the door money will go to the local artists who have been hurting, too. “It’s already competitive, but it will definitely be hyper competitive.”
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