Steven Severin, co-owner of Neumos in Seattle, says “it’s terrifying” watching more music venues permanently close every day.
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 regularly to chronicle his experience throughout the crisis. (Read the last installment here and see the full series here.)
What has changed for you in the past couple weeks?
When we started talking I had a lot of real actual hope that the government was going to help us out. I really believed that there was going to be some money coming from there and there’s not. It is mid-September, all of the studies have said 90% of the venues will be gone by the end of the year (unless they get significant financial support). The end of the year is close. It’s getting scary. I’m terrified.
Reading the NIVA newsletter is so hard because more venues are closing every day. I did not know how many venues were in Somerville, Massachusetts. I don’t know where Somerville, Massachusetts is, but three venues there have closed. Another place went down in Austin a few days ago. We’re all going under. It’s so hard. We are working so hard on getting money from the state. We are talking to reps and the commerce department. There is so much need, but we are those people. We need the help. Every day, being in these calls, it is so draining. Something positive has to happen. It just has to.
Have the massive fires along the West Coast impacted you?
[Our bar Life on Mars was] closed on Saturday and Sunday because the smoke was so bad. We had to. We have employees in there working. You can’t have the door open. You can’t have the windows open and the way the air works, it brings air from outside in. So you would be sucking in this toxic air. The other thing is, we don’t want people walking around to go get food. We shut off the delivery because we didn’t want delivery people to have to be out there. I know people got to make money and all that and we can’t afford to not be open and not be selling, but we also can’t put people in this type of weather. It is crazy. We could have done some vinyl club stuff that day, but we just closed up shop and pulled the blankets over our head.
What is the vinyl club?
We started this vinyl club which is something that we had talked about from day one as something we wanted to do. John Richards, my business partner, used to do a vinyl plan for the local radio station KEXP. People trust his choice in music. So when we started Life On Mars, we said we would do a vinyl club where we select the records and over the course of the year you pay for a subscription that gets you 10 records. Each month, you also get something extra. It could be a t-shirt or a tote bag or coasters that we make. And, you get to either DJ a night or select the playlist. We launched it and we did it really quietly because we could only do about 25 subscribers. That’s what we can fulfill. We only have so much time and being able to put together all the orders and stuff, that’s us. There’s no staff. So we limited it to 25 and they sold out so fast just from John putting out a Facebook post. While we were trying to take down the post, we got a 26th order come in. So we took it off the site and added a waitlist. We just don’t have time to stuff more envelopes than that.
Have you had any luck on new funding ideas outside of government?
Mainstreet Alliance is out of D.C. and they are an advocacy group that helps small businesses. They were very instrumental when I was starting Washington Nightlife Music Association and figuring out what to do. They got this campaign with Crown Royal. Each time you streamed Ari Lennox and Anthony Ramos’s cover of Sly & the Family Stone’s “If You Want Me To Stay,” Crown Royal was giving a dollar to Mainstreet with a cap at $500,000. They got 500,000 plays in like a week. They are going to give the money away in grants to bars, restaurants and music venues. That’s such a cool thing. I’ve been hitting refresh on the song all day long. It’s impressive to see other people do things to help others. They are just doing it so they can get money to give it out in grants. People can go to Mainstreet Alliance and they can sign up for updates on how to apply for the grants. We will apply to the grant.
Has Washington changed any of its regulations on concerts recently?
We were working on doing some outdoor shows, but it doesn’t matter now because we got shut down. There will be no live music until Dec. 1 in Washington. The governor extended the ban. We aren’t allowed to have any live music played in the state of Washington, inside or out. We thought maybe we’d be able to slip one outdoor show in, but now that is not the case. We were going to do it in a giant parking lot that my buddy owns. Now we will talk about it for next year.
Are you working on anything else in the meantime?
I am working with a few friends and we looked at all the different swing states. I think there are 14 states and I think there are 10 senate seats that are flippable. So I put together this pitch that I am going to take to venue owners in those states to ask them to use all of their email contacts and push people to vote. I’ve always got to do something voting-wise and doing something in Washington isn’t a great use of my time. I know how all of our votes are going to go. But if we can get enough of these venues to really push people to vote, we might be able to actually change some of these elections. While doing so, we’re trying to get people to agree to use their venues as polling places. So many polling places are going under. We have venues. We have space. I am going to pitch this to the [National Independent Venue Association] precinct captains in those states. I am sure a lot of them already are, but you can’t take chances.