Back in April, weeks after their businesses clamped shut for the foreseeable future, local music venues formed the Washington Nightlife and Music Association. Its first press release announced a dire situation: “We estimate that the majority of Seattle music venues will close permanently within the month without help beyond the Paycheck Protection Program.” By May, Re-bar announced it wouldn’t reopen in the Denny Regrade. King County pitched in $750,000 as part of a $60 million emergency funding package—helpful but not nearly enough.
Months later, perhaps you’ve started to see large signs hanging from venues like Neumos, the Tractor, and El Corazon. Coming Soon! they read, above an image of a mixed-use condo situation. Well—exhale—those are another warning, a gesture toward what may become of the land if venues aren't saved. Last week venue owners and others launched Keep Music Live Washington, a relief fund for independently owned venues that hold under 1,000 people. KMLW hopes to raise $10 million.
Based on WANMA survey, 63 percent of the state’s independent venues say they’ll go under by February without help. By midway through next year, that number jumps to 83 percent. They’d been hoping for a federal assist through national campaigns like the Save Our Stages portion of the Heroes Act, which sought a $10 billion bailout. It’s gotten bipartisan support. Venues are in a tight spot where other forms of relief don’t apply well. But they’re integral to our economy—and, in Seattle, our whole identity. Tourism, nightlife, and restaurants rely on our music scene to draw people out. Working musicians make most of their money playing shows. So far, though, the act has passed the House but not the Senate.
So what’s kept these businesses going? “If the venue was a turtle, I’m in my shell right now,” says Dana Sims, who runs El Corazon. “Got everything locked down, not really spending much.” The trouble is that he, and many other owners, have been getting rent deferred, not forgiven. And most of the city’s venues are located in highly populated areas—space is expensive. Landlords have been sympathetic, but they still owe taxes. “If you’re a tenant like me,” Sims says, “that occupies 65 percent of the building, and the property tax is coming due, where’s that landlord supposed to come up with the property tax?” And what happens when venues can return and that back-rent is due along with reopening costs?
Instead of waiting to find out, Sims and others with KMLW are looking to raise funds for themselves from businesses, private donors, and pretty much anyone who’ll chip in. “If our regular patrons just donated the cost of one night coming to a show, buying a ticket and a couple of drinks…that would add up quite nicely,” Sims says.
That money, though, needs to get distributed equitably. Eva and Cedric Walker—the twins who make up the severely good Seattle rock band the Black Tones—joined KMLW’s board this summer. They, like nearly any band, came up playing small venues. “We felt obligated, of course in a good way, not forced, but obligated to help these venues that have helped our career,” Eva says. Once KMLW has funds, the eight-person board, which is half people of color, will sort of “audit” venues to dole out money properly.
She says the board is still in the process of figuring out what these audits will focus on. Maybe they’ll look into hiring practices. Or what even qualifies as a venue. Does a DIY space? How about, Eva says, offering a hypothetical example, “that Ethiopian restaurant that hosts music where a lot of POC people feel comfortable”? She’s seen people posting concerns about such things already and says she's been taking that feedback to meetings. “These conversations are happening. Especially someone like myself, who has Black Power tattooed on her arm, who’s involved in this board—those conversations are definitely happening.”