Nightlife venues are fighting to stay open. Whos fighting for the workers?
Nightlife venues are fighting to stay open. Who's fighting for the workers? CHARLES MUDEDE

“March 12 is the doomsday date,” recalls Steven Severin, owner of several local venues including Neumos, Life on Mars, and Barboza. He’s thinking back to the moment in 2020 when performance venues shuttered around Seattle, around Washington, and around the entire country.

“Within three or four days, I picked up the phone and started calling every venue and manager around the state and said, ‘How are we going to get through the next few months?’ That’s all we thought it was going to be.”

At first, nobody had any answers, and “doomsday” looked like an increasingly inevitable scenario. “I expected that I was going to lose all of my businesses,” Severin says. “Music is all I’ve done — I started going to shows in 1982, all I’ve ever known was music, and not only was I going to lose it, but we were going to lose ninety percent of independent venues across the country.”

The Washington Nightlife Music Association, WANMA, was the industry’s response. A coalition of venues, primarily in cities, WANMA was formed early in quarantine and allowed venue operators to collaborate like they never had before.

“We tend to compete for the same shows,” Severin says. “Then we’re all out having drinks because we’re all friends in Washington. If you did that in LA or New York or San Francisco, they wouldn’t be in the same room with each other. But we’re much nicer than that.”

Among WANMA’s early projects was joining the chorus of voices from numerous sectors calling on lawmakers to approve unemployment benefits for non-salaried workers, like bar staff and bouncers. Once that was approved, Severin says, he turned his attention to securing grants for shuttered venues. It was a learning process — “I’m a rock n roll club owner, not a lobbyist,” he says — but late in 2020, months of Zoom calls and email-writing campaigns finally paid off with the passage of a federal omnibus spending bill.

Contained in that bill was an allocation of over $16 billion for shuttered venues. Applications for those shuttered venue grants opened last week, after delays due to technical issues.

When the bill passed, Severin says, “I was on my couch at home, checking email … I broke down in tears. I wept.”

The grants will help some venues survive until the end of the pandemic, but not everyone is eager for things to go back to the way things were. A few months ago, Charles Mudede spoke with a former Neumos employee who described how the nightlife industry fails its workers, with many unable to afford basic health care:

I have not seen a dentist in ten years. I'm not kidding. So, for me and my co-workers, we do want the industry to come back, but it was intrinsically flawed to begin with. It only made rich people richer and poor people poorer. We do not want to go back to that. Nor after the pandemic is over. We need to do things a different way.

When asked how his industry will tackle those issues in the future, Severin doesn’t have any specifics. “I try to think of the greater good, what’s best for the most people,” he says. “I think that’s something that’s going to carry forward and we’re really going to try and help each other. those that don’t have as much, let’s share the wealth.”

How, exactly, might the wealth be shared? “I don’t think that socialism is the way, but capitalism sure isn’t working, so we need to find somewhere in the middle. I’m not an economics guy,” he says, adding that his focus is on using WANMA to advocate for economic opportunities, as well as pushing to include more local bands on national touring bills and fostering BIPOC leadership in the music industry.

Severin estimates that Seattle’s music scene won’t be ready to open until September, and even then we may still have to keep our distance and wear masks. But once the doors can re-open, he predicts, “it will be glorious. Holy shit, will it be glorious.”