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Neumos in Seattle, in a Pandemic: ‘We’re in the Calm Before the Storm’

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?

This is an interesting week because it is literally a lull between the storms. [The Washington Nightlife Music Association] got our fiscal sponsor [for the non-profit we are establishing]. We are signing contracts as we speak. We had a choice between two different organizations and we finally decided yesterday who we are going with. We are creating our bylaws for the organization. So that is basically done.

We are working on coming up with things to change within our industry and presenting a letter to our whole group to try to get everybody to sign off on. We are looking at what we’re doing going forward to be more equitable as far as hiring practices and stage performers, anything to do with our industry that we can do to change things.

Do you see this as a real moment for change in the live music industry?

I was talking with somebody and they were talking about how 25% of their staff is black. And I was like, “But how many aren’t security?” And they said none. So there’s the f—ing problem. You have people who you have actually hired that are of color and that’s good, but look at the position. It is not a position where they can move up the ladder and get into management and ownership types of roles.

I have been in the music industry for 20 some years and one of the things we just talked about is that when we all started, there were hardly any women in the music industry. I was on a call with the NIVA [National Independent Venue Alliance] folks and scrolling through the 10 pages of people who are on the call and it’s almost half women. That didn’t happen overnight. It took a long time and it took some intention to do that. Now we need to do the same thing with people of color and we need to do it now. We need to reach out to outside our regular networks. We need to be really committed to change and some are and some aren’t. We want to work with the people who are. 

What is happening right now on a national level with NIVA?

We started our lobbying efforts again. The Restart Act is something that the Senate has put out. It is kind of like the Heroes Act. It is to help small businesses. It is not just music venues, it is to help small businesses across the board and it is getting pretty good support. It is co-sponsored by a Republican and a Democrat. It is really good. It is what we actually wanted to have happen. I started hitting up our senators and our U.S. Representatives in Washington and already got some pretty great feedback from one of our senators. It’s only been a few days. Once it hits the Fourth of July, they check out. So we need to get this Restart Act thing done before then. It is our last hurrah to have the federal government financially take care of us.

What makes the Restart Act better for music venues than the Paycheck Protection Program?

The PPP loans got extended from its original eight week period [to get the business running again] to 16 weeks or the end of the year, whichever came first. That was part of Restart but it got pushed ahead because of PPP. Restart would cover six months of payroll, benefits and fixed operating expenses for businesses that have taken a substantial revenue hit during the pandemic. There is also a loan that would be forgiven based on revenue lost by businesses in 2020 and the remainder could be paid over seven years with no interest payments due in the first year and no principle for the first two years. The biggest part of it is that you can use the funds for more things than just payroll like operating costs and getting up to six months for costs taken care of and then getting it forgiven. Some of it can be a loan but a lot of it a forgivable loan. 

More and more music venues are announcing they are permanently closing. How is that impacting you?

I found out this week that three more Austin venues went under. That’s four Austin venues already. I’ve been talking to Dan Holloway who is Barracuda’s booking agent and part of NIVA. We are talking and they just couldn’t do it anymore. I don’t know exactly what happened. I read that they couldn’t keep paying rent, which of course. Paying rent when you have no money coming in and you have no way to get money coming in. The amount of venues that are still going is ludicrous considering how screwed all of us are. It is crazy how many haven’t gone under, how many people are just hanging on and collecting massive amounts of debt and hoping something happens.

Does it feel like that is what is coming for other venues?

Yeah. We’re in the calm before the storm. We know this is going to happen. I don’t know if you saw the survey that NIVA put out that 90% of independent venues won’t make it through 2020 without government funding. It’s insane. Because of the PPP changes, it’s not going to be as bad. Some people are okay taking the debt because they can’t imagine closing. If you are young enough and thinking over the long run that you can go a little bit in debt now to save yourself so you can keep going for another 20 years, then yeah. But seeing three venues go down… It is crazy because a city like Austin should be supporting their scene. 

It’s tough. If I wasn’t so busy trying to work and save everything, I am sure I would be in a massive heap of depression. I haven’t slowed down enough to worry about anything because I’m trying to have my eye on the prize and we’re going to save the world or at least the venues.

Coronavirus

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