Sound & Vision: The Future of Live Music After Delays in Federal Money for Venues

Sound and Vision
Emily Fox
photo via Facebook

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It has now been 13 months without live music in Washington State. At the end of December, 2020 the federal government passed the Save Our Stages Act which would bring in billions of dollars to help struggling independent music venues in the country. It has now been four months and indie venues have still not seen that federal money yet. The website for venues to start applying for that federal money launched and crashed on April 8th and it wasn’t until April 26 that it re-opened again. For KEXP’s Sound & Vision, Emily Fox spoke with Neumos co-owner Steven Severin on the state of local music venues and what comes next. 

KEXP: How has this delay in federal money impacted local venues? 

Steven Severin: It's been brutal for people. Once the SVOG [Shuttered Venue Operators Grant] got announced, all of the bill collectors started knocking on our doors because they're like, OK, you have money now. And we're like, no, we don't, we don't have it yet. We're still waiting on the government. And it was supposed to be a thing where it was four weeks. It got passed in December. It would be four weeks and they'd open the applications up. Granted, the SBA’s [Small Business Administration] never done this before. They've never done anything that's this large. So, they were way in over their head. And I know that they're trying, but it's been massively frustrating because you've got bill collectors knocking on your doors, demanding money. And then when you tell them, look, we don't have the money from the SVOG, they're tired of hearing it. And I get it. I get it. They need to get paid. They need to pay their bills just like everybody else does. But because of it, it's made it so that it's been very difficult to get everybody to understand that we're still in the same position that we've been in. And it's mentally devastating to people. I mean, just talking to people in Washington and across the country and they're starting to crumble. They're starting to lose hope and fall to pieces and to just throw in the towel, because it's not that everything was so unbelievably fantastic before that it makes sense for everybody to keep going, especially after this year. And the SVOG is not going to make us whole. It's not going to make it so that I don't have any debt at all and I have all this money, it means I'm going to have less debt. So it's still going to be a big climb to get back to where we were before. And a lot of people are starting to think about throwing in the towel because it's just, it's too tough. 

Has anyone had to throw in the towel? Last time we talked was, maybe, later last year when we knew that this was going to pass, and a lot of people were kind of holding out for this federal kind of bailout money through the Save our Stages Act — people were like, OK, but if we get this, we can hold on. And now it's been four months later. Have you heard of other venues having to just say we can't wait any longer, as you know, in Washington state? 

Not, not here. Some other places, yes. But not here. Everybody is either hanging on or not saying anything. 

And do you have a sense when that money does finally come? I mean, how much does it really mean for like, if I am an independent venue, like if I'm Neumos, how much money does that mean for your venue or do you have to just wait and see? You're not sure how much money will be coming in through this federal money? 

We do know how much money is coming in, but it has to be spent a certain way and we don't know whether we'll be able to use all of it. It's hard to say exactly what it's going to do. It's definitely going to help. It's going to help immensely. But, you've got 13 months plus of no income — that's hard to get over. And that's the thing about a spot like Neumos or Crocodile or Nectar or Chop Suey or The Tractor — we book six months to a year out. We're not going to be back to normal until the end of 2022. I was talking with Senator Cantwell and was explaining that, because that's not something that they understand. It's going to take us another year. If everything comes back normal, which we don't know what is going to happen, consumer confidence, it can take up to another year for us to get back. 

Do you have any idea of when Neumos is comfortable to start booking shows again? Do you have things on the books? Is there any idea of like maybe around this time we might feel comfortable scheduling things again? 

I think starting September 1, we should be back. That is my hopeful expert, math-driven analysis, September 1. Enough people should have gotten the vaccine. We should have reached herd immunity. We have shows — we just announced Bully on September 4th. I think we've announced a few other shows. But the fall, we should be back. 

We were talking about the federal money that's supposed to come in, hopefully soon, to help independent venues through Save our Stages. But I also understand that Neumos has been involved in a different fundraising effort. And this is involving NFTs, non-fungible tokens, the buzzword in the tech community right now. You know, it can be, again, for people that aren't well versed, this could be like a piece of artwork that's a one of a kind and, you know, sells in some cases for millions of dollars. Grimes did this. Other artists have been getting involved. And I understand there's been a fundraiser for independent venues that Neumos has been involved in involving NFTs. Tell me how that worked. 

So, we worked with the group Goldflyer and the artist, Young and Sick, and they picked ten venues around the country and Neumos was one of them. So we did, we went through it. It was weird. And they had some glitches, too. It didn't go smoothly. Dillon Francis, who I personally love, we love as a venue, the city loves him — he bought it. 

How much did he buy it for? 

It ended up being $4,500 bucks. 

And so that does that go straight to Neumos? 

Most of it does. It goes to the company that does it, that did all the work and then to the artists, and then the rest goes to us, and it includes a golden ticket which allows you to get into any show for a year. So yeah. Weird, weird thing. I can't say it won't be the last. 

I was going to say. I mean, do you do you think that NFTs could be part of, you know, just fundraising for venues moving forward as we're trying to struggle to dig out of this pandemic? 

I don't know if the idea really works. I don't know if people will pay the money to have that thing. It seems like it's already started falling. I mean, I don't think that the numbers hit what people — it didn't hit what the company thought it would do. So, we’ll see. I have a page of notes of different ideas that we could do NFTs of that are really cool, if it was to do something. I've got my notes, so we'll see if it's something that makes sense following up with or not. 

You had a Facebook post that stuck out to me recently. You had asked artists on your Facebook timeline, what they wanted to see change in the live music industry. And I'm curious, reading through all those comments, and you got a lot of them, what were some of the themes you saw come up what changes do people want to see in the live music industry? 

That was really fun to do. I like to get people talking about different ideas on both sides because it's the only way you're going to learn anything. And we've been talking about how we get artists more involved in what we do since we started this. One of the main things that [local musicians] wanted is they want to be able to play on more shows that have larger national touring acts. And this is the sword that I died on. And part of the reason that I retired from booking shows, because I used to get in arguments with agents about wanting to have a local first of three on a show, because if the Black Pumas come through and they bring somebody, I want to have somebody local getting to play in front of that audience. Those bands need to get that experience of playing those type of shows over and over again. They need to have their names getting promoted with those bands and they need to play in front of different fans. And I used to get in arguments with agents about it and I ended up starting to lose shows. And I hated that that is the way that the industry was changing, and artists were angry with me that I wouldn't get them on shows. And I would try to explain that it's not my choice. It's like I have gone to bat and battled for this and I lost and I ended up kind of tapping out and being like, I did 20 years of booking shows, I'm good, I'm out. And so, putting that out there, the great thing that happened was this is all across the country. So my post that I made, other people in other states that own venues reposted it and it was the same everywhere. Everybody wants to be able to play with other artists, and so we've taken this to, to agents and managers in larger bands and we're like, hey, this is what people want. And I've gotten some really interesting conversations. Some people are like, well, you should demand that that is, that's the only option. If you want to play Neumos, you have to allow local bands to play. And the only way that works is if all venues do that. All venues here in Seattle do that because I say that, which I used to say that, and then they just went to another room. It's a conversation that we're now having and it's going OK. It's not going as well as I'd hoped. 

So finally, as again, we're getting a little closer, hopefully, to venues opening back up, I want you to read your ten rules that you have for people as we will eventually start to see live music again. This is a Facebook post that you did a while back or a few weeks ago. And I want you to read it for us, because I found it to be pretty insightful and interesting and some things that I was like, oh, I don't think I would have done that unless Steven Severin of Neumos told me to do that. 

So, I will say I didn't come up with this myself. Somebody else did. And it's to be read tongue in cheek. It's supposed to be a little entertaining and funny, but there is a lot of really great points in it. So. All right, here we go. 

Yep. The rumors are true. Concerts are coming back. But before we get started, here’s a handy guide on how things are gonna go.
RULE #1: No guest list.
Don’t ask. Not now. Not ever. Everyone in the live music industry has been out of work for 13 months and we all need your support now more than ever. Buy the damn ticket.
RULE #2: Support local.
Before you buy that high priced ticket to see that big name artist at that big corporate venue, consider putting that money back into your own community. This is the best way to ensure that a thriving arts & culture scene will return to cities across America.
RULE #3: Wear a fucking mask.
If you’re going to a show, tiny cloth go over mouth & nose. Period.
Vaccinated? Don’t care.
Already had it? Don’t care.
Rona is a hoax? Also don’t care.
We only get one shot at restarting this machine. Please don’t be the one that fucks it up.
RULE #4: We are not babysitters.
We get it. Social distancing sucks. Masks suck. You’re tired of washing your hands. After more than a year of isolation, all you wanna do is lean in close and spew your spittle on friends and strangers alike.
But it’s been 13 months. You know the rules by now — please follow them.
RULE #5: No free drinks.
Don’t ask. Venues have been shutdown for 13 months waiting for this moment. Support them.
RULE #6: Tip your bartender.
20% is ok. 25% is better. More than 25% is best. Anything under 20% is a non-starter.
RULE #7: Support the scene.
Can’t make the show? No problem. It costs $0.00 to support us in other ways.
Share the posts. Listen to the music. Invite your friends to the event page. In order for this to work, we need all hands on deck.
RULE #8: Be kind.
Look — it’s been awhile. We’re gonna be a little rusty. Plus, so much of what needs to happen in order to bring back live music safely is new for all of us — fans, venues, promoters and artists alike.
There will be hiccups. There will be lines. There will be unforeseen circumstances. Be nice anyway.
RULE #9: Go to the merch table.
Support the artists.
Buy the t-shirt.
RULE #10: Have fun.
You’ve been waiting for this moment for more than a year — so enjoy the fuck out of it.

So, those are the ten rules to how to conduct yourself at live music when it opens back up again. Very, very, very soon.

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