Sound & Vision: Seattle Venue Owners on Their Uncertain Future

Sound and Vision
Emily Fox
photo by Victoria Holt

KEXP's Sound & Vision airs every Saturday morning from 7-9 AM PT, featuring interviews, artistry, commentary, insight, and conversation to that tell broader stories through music, and illustrate why music and art matter. You can also hear more stories in the new Sound & Vision Podcast. New episodes are out every Tuesday. Subscribe now and listen below.


Many Seattle-area venues say they can only muster 8-9 weeks of being closed amid coronavirus until they have to shut down permanently. Washington State’s governor has extended shelter in place orders until at least May 4, which will put local venues at about the eight week mark. Even if venues can open on May 4, they won’t have performances ready, venues often have to book shows months in advance and many musicians have cancelled their tours completely for 2020. Members of the newly formed Washington Nightlife and Music Association talk about the current state of music venues and the five steps that need to happen in order for them to survive.

Those five steps are to contact your state senator and representative to say music venues need the following:
-    Cash assistance (not loans)
-    Rent forgiveness and reduction
-    Financial payments and assistance for the workforce
-    Tax relief
-    Insurance relief and revisions

Below is a condensed transcript of a Sound & Vision panel conversation recorded April 2,  just before Governor Jay Inslee extended shelter in place orders to May 4.

The panel includes Dana Sims of El Corazon/Funhouse, Steven Severin of Neumos and Kevin Sur of Artist Home.

EMILY FOX: So Dana, you were on Sound & Vision back in the fall to talk about what’s at stake for music venues. And that was months ago, before coronavirus. And in a lot of the changes and issues we've been seeing is just Seattle’s exponential growth and cost of living over the past five years or so. So before coronavirus, what were some issues that venues were facing even before this?

DANA SIMS: It's expensive to run a venue. We’re in a town where things are getting prohibitively more expensive. Number one of our points that we're pushing for in the association is that we need grants and cash for rent, not loans. Purpose being we ought to be able to provide a gathering space for large groups of people, we need a lot of space. Most rent is calculated on space. Ergo, our rents are really expensive. That, coupled by the fact that it seems everything as far as government fundraising lately has been, let's tack it onto property tax. That gets passed through to us. So our rents exponentially keep going up every time property tax goes up. The fact that we're sitting dormant right now makes it really, really challenging because our rents are really, really high. And the other factor is that once we reopen, it's not like a restaurant or a bar where everyone floods in the next day. Because we're primarily touring venues and tours require a lot of planning, a lot of logistics. We're one stop in a run of anywhere from three weeks to three months, depending on how heavily the artist that we're hosting is touring. That means that they've pulled up stakes for anything that's happening in the near term due to the uncertainty. And most of them are pushing, at the earliest, to the late summer or fall, which means that even if we reopen next month or the month after, there's not going to be a ton of tours lining up to blow through that city for a while. But those expenses aren't going to decrease with the decreased business. And that's why the venues are trying to get this message across that we need help because there is no scenario that we're seeing collectively for sustainable cashflow in the near term, even if the lights get turned back on.

EMILY FOX: Steven, if you look at your concert schedule right now [for Neumos]. What’s the earliest that you actually have a confirmed date for a performance at your venue?

STEVEN SEVERIN: It looks like all of April touring is gone. . . In May there’s a couple things that have cancelled but not much, which, I don’t really see us being open in May. And then once we hit June, there's still some stuff there. But it's all getting pushed back. I mean, when this first came up, the artists started pushing back to the summer like, okay, by the summer, hopefully we'll know what's going to happen. We don't have to break up these tours. And now it's being pushed back to the fall. Most venues our size, we're already booked in the fall. We're done. We're six months to nine months out on booking shows. A lot of artists are just like, I'm gonna take 2020 off because I don't want to deal with setting up this tour and everything that goes into it, only to have it get pushed off again. So, I mean, we could be a year out before we even get anywhere near to normality. And we don't know what the new normal is. Everything is so up in the air.

EMILY FOX: Kevin, after we got the news, when the governor first ordered no events over 250 people and even if you are less than 250 people, you have to comply with CDC guidelines to make sure the virus doesn't spread. You called me that day and you said you've been talking to so many venues and you're like, the reality is, is I heard tears on the other end. And so, what is your sense of when you look at the venues in Seattle, how many do you feel like will be able to weather this storm? There's so much we still don't know. But just like from your sense and you checking in with folks, the music community, how many venues do you think we'll be able to survive or not?

KEVIN SUR: Well, I already know two that are done. They haven’t made an announcement yet. So I haven’t said who they are. I want to respect that and let them be.
I know some that say, if the bills come April 1 and there's not any sort of help, they're done. I don't know how to put a real number on it, I just know that when I hear all these venue owners speak in our meetings with this association, the timeline I hear in the weeks that people mentioned sort of top out around eight, nine weeks and that I haven't heard anyone really mention a timeline longer than that. And that's frightening. . .  People need to realize that when we're fighting for our venues, that's where artists make 80 percent of their income. That is their life blood. Those stages are where they make their money. It certainly isn’t off of Spotify. When I do the simple math in my head of how much an artist gets paid a year in Spotify, it always turns out to be, they get paid about as much in a year as they would headlining the venue that's appropriate for them, for one night. One show pays a year's worth of streaming. And so when you think about supporting the arts and keeping our artists afloat and alive, the venues really need to be fought for, for our artists.


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