Seattle Music Venues Wonder if Their Businesses Will Survive Pandemic

by Alexa Peters 

After this is all over, do you want to be able to see live music in Seattle? 

This is the question being posed by Washington Nightlife and Music Association (WANMA), a new coalition of thirty small- and medium-sized music venues throughout Washington that since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic have been forced to cancel or postpone all events, lay off employees, and board up — perhaps for good.

“The true fact of the matter is that the majority of the venues in the coalition, if this goes on for two or three months, [will have] no logistical way without cash assistance to open doors on the other side of this,” said Dana Sims, owner of El Corazon and the Funhouse.

After all, running a venue in Seattle isn’t cheap — and it hasn’t been for a long time. With the spike in the cost of living in Seattle over the last five years, many legendary spots have been forced to close purely due to the astronomical cost of rent. Now, with a shelter-in-place order that prevents any money from coming in the door, costs such as rent, insurance, ticketing, non-refundable deposits to booked bands, bus rentals, crew formation, merchandise production, and work visas for international artists could all run the remaining venues into the ground.

The Seattle music industry brings a substantial amount of cultural and economic value to the city. According to an Economic Impact Study commissioned by the City of Seattle, the Seattle music economy generates $90 million in state and local sales taxes and B&O taxes annually. It also creates 11,155 jobs, with 2,618 businesses — like many of these independent venues — generating an annual $1.2 billion in sales and $487 million in earnings. Much of that revenue could disappear if they don’t receive cash assistance quickly, WANMA says.

WANMA formed on April 1, when venue owners throughout Washington saw this writing on the wall and began seeking advice and support from others in the Seattle music industry. 

Their collective panic stemmed from a realization that emergency government aid like the Small Business Association (SBA) loans, which can help businesses meet costs, and the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), which can help with employee retention — would be insufficient to save local music venues. They’re also working to illuminate just what a different beast running a music venue is as compared to bars and restaurants, because their main revenue source, live music, must be booked much further in advance and depends on people’s willingness to go out. 

“It’s basically like professional gambling,” said Craig Jewell of Bellingham’s Wild Buffalo. “We have to be constantly on top of what is relevant and what can sell tickets, juggle our calendars, and take big risks on shows. Sometimes we will spend tons of hours and money on a show that doesn’t end up working out.”

Likewise, Erin Carnes, owner of Chop Suey, acknowledges that the emergency federal SBA loans are a great option for a lot of small businesses, but not so much for live music venues because of the amount of money they have on the line at any given time. Jodi Ecklund, co-owner of Beacon Hill’s Clock-out Lounge, agrees.

“We don’t need loans. We need grants, we need cash assistance, we need rent forgiveness and reduction, we need mortgage freezes. Just deferring stuff is not going to help, it’s not sustainable for any of us. The amount of debt people are racking up — we’re going to go back into this robbing Peter to pay Paul,” said Ecklund.

Clock-Out Lounge (Photo: Susan Fried)

Even if a venue can weather this storm, it will continue to sit empty for at least a month after things go back to normal, owners say. Venues, which make the bulk of their income from national and international touring bands, spend three to nine months booking their calendars and getting logistics in order. As Steven Severin, owner of Neumos and Barboza, said, “2020 is done.” 

Sims says that even if El Corazon is given the green light to reopen tomorrow, it’s impossible for them to bounce back like retail stores, bars and restaurants — especially because they’re just leaving the slow winter season when venue margins leave little to no room for savings.

“Say, in a month the governor says we can go back to work,” said Sims. “A retail store has their inventory, they can sell it, a restaurant has their kitchen, they can cook food and people can eat it, a bar has shelves of liquor, they can pour drinks, people can drink it. When we’re told the next day that the lights go on, a tour bus isn’t going to roll up.”

It’s also unlikely that live music lovers, many of whom have been out of a job for several months, will be buying tickets right away once shelter-in-place orders are lifted. This will also be devastating because booking shows is complicated and expensive, and if people don’t show up the venue has no choice but to eat the cost.

“Who’s to say they’re going to have a ton of disposable income lying around to go to shows every night when they haven’t worked for two months?” said Sims. “[After the pandemic], we might be in a situation where every night of the week Seattle has 5–7 amazing, totally kick-ass rock shows, but is the market going to have enough people to support the calendar?”

Hence, instead of relying on government aid — the coalition has taken things into their own hands. WANMA has proposed a five-step plan for financial relief that will actually help venues: cash assistance (not loans), rent forgiveness and reductions, financial assistance for their workforce, tax relief, and insurance relief and revisions. 

WANMA has published this vision on their website and members have disseminated posts and videos on social media over the last week, urging the public to reach out to their local representatives and sign their petition. They’re also asking people to contact King County Council representatives to vote to include support for venues in funding already set aside for local cultural institutions. 

As of April 9, the petition had 1,999 signatures towards the goal of 2,500, but not everyone has been so supportive of WANMA’s call for aid. Local musician Marshall Hugh, leader of the Marshall Law Band, made a public post on Facebook questioning the venues. 

“Seattle creatives, not the venues, have been, are currently & forever will be the staple of our arts community. We (especially POC artists) struggle to get: fair wages for our performance, event promotion, bar sales & basic respect. Now they need our help? Welp, we’re listening,” wrote Hugh.

Members of the coalition say this attitude towards venues is not uncommon, but that it comes from a misunderstanding of just how little venues make in a night — even if the room is full and the tickets are sold out. 

“[The money] gets cut up so many ways,” said Severin. “A band comes through on a Thursday night and it’s packed, and people think ‘wow, they’re making a lot of money.’ [But] there are five people on that stage, they have a sound tech, they have a tour manager, they have an agent they have to pay 10%, they have a manager they have to pay 20%, that pile of money just gets split up. Just like that money we get through the door, 90% of that goes to the artist and we get the money from the beer, but [we‘ve] got to pay the rent, our talent buyers, our marketing managers, for the beer itself, and taxes — at the end of the day, it’s a lot of misconceptions.”

Other WANMA members like Ecklund think it’s more important than ever to come together and focus on how the plight of the venues is connected to that of artists during COVID-19.

“It’s important to note that most of us that run independent music venues work on very thin margins,” said Ecklund. “The staffing required to open our rooms for live music to happen is costly. We are all in this for our love of music and it’s a labor of love. It’s vital to the music economy that the venues are able to re-open so artists have a place to play.”

In contrast to Hugh’s damning portrait of venue owners, Eckland says one of her biggest concerns right now is the fate of local artists, many of whom she employs as bartenders at  Clock-Out Lounge. Ecklund says that most of them don’t qualify for unemployment benefits because they work part-time, and though she says she applied for a PPP loan to help them out, she hasn’t heard anything back yet.

 “This isn’t just about the venues, it’s about the artists … Like [my bartender] Lelah, from the band Tacocat. She doesn’t qualify for unemployment because she doesn’t have the 680 hours [required]. Now there’s a bunch of artists’ grants and things out there, but there are so many people applying to those, they’re just getting responses like ‘you’re on a waiting list.’ That’s a really hard reality for me to face. What can I do? I don’t have income coming in either,” said Ecklund. 

Other venues, like The Tractor Tavern and The Sunset, have started GoFundMe campaigns to help support their employees, but Ecklund says she’s hesitant to do the same, purely because she can’t even afford to give money to all of the existing fundraisers.

“I feel odd about saying ‘help us, but I can’t help anybody else,’” said Ecklund. 

Instead, WANMA venues are focusing all their efforts on getting access to these King County funds through their petition, especially because, as Sims says, the music industry around Seattle is a big reason people visit, move to, and remain in the county.

“To give you an idea of the might of the Seattle music scene, there’s a company called Pollstar and they track all concert ticket box office revenues worldwide,” said Sims. “They track this worldwide. And consistently for the last decade, Seattle has had 7 of the top 100 venues worldwide in ticket sales.”

But WANMA also makes it clear that the stakes are higher than lost revenue — it’s about saving the soul of Seattle, which has long been connected to the health of the local music scene. 

“[This effort] is not about a personal ‘I need this,’ it’s like, ‘we all need this,’” said Ecklund. “If we lose venues, this city loses a huge part of its identity.”

Alexa Peters is a Seattle-based arts and culture writer.

Featured image: Clock-Out Lounge (Photo: Susan Fried)