Bartell Drugs wants to give Seattle’s music scene a shot in the arm

One longtime employee is leading the in-store effort to ensure the live music scene he loves survives.

“Keep Music Live” fundraiser merchandise inside Bartell Drugs in Upper Queen Anne on Dec. 4, 2020. Howie Cohen, a longtime Seattle music fan and merchandise manager at Bartell's, is hoping proceeds from the shirts, hats and masks will help independent music venues stay afloat during the pandemic. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

Like so many other Seattleites who came up during the city’s grunge heyday, Howie Cohen is fanatical about the local music scene. At age 19, in his first job as a cashier at Bartell Drugs, Cohen was notorious for ditching work early to catch an impromptu show by Tad or Mudhoney. Thirty-five years later, he’s still with the Northwest drug store chain colloquially known as “Bartell’s.” Now a category manager for general merchandise, he’s just as committed to supporting local music.

“Shout out to all of my managers who let me leave early,” says Cohen, chuckling about his younger days. “That was a fantastic time to [see] so many amazing bands in small clubs that went on to sell out huge arenas and worldwide tours.”

But Cohen, 54, isn’t a grunge-era purist. He’s an enthusiast of all Seattle music. Before COVID-19, Cohen regularly went out to catch current local groups like Tacocat, Dude York, and Antonioni, and says the scene is as vibrant today as it was in the ’90s.

What is less certain is whether all this local talent will have a place to perform in the region — and a way to make a living — after the pandemic.

A Washington Nightlife and Music Association (WANMA) survey shows that in 2019, about half of Washington’s small, independent venues produced 10,157 shows, hosted 41,437 artists and paid $13.3 million directly to these artists. With the pandemic, that income — for the artists, and for independent venues essential to supporting them — has completely evaporated.

It’s so bleak that local venue owners have expressed concern that a big entertainment corporation like Live Nation may acquire and homogenize all of Seattle’s unique venues — or that all indie clubs will go dark for good. In fact, that same WANMA survey revealed that, without financial relief, 63% of independent Washington venues would close permanently by February 2021 — a mass extinction that would be catastrophic for local music and for the regional economy.

As a Bartell employee, Cohen knows something about changes in the regional economy. This past November, the local chain — founded in 1890, just five years after Washington became a state — announced that it would be purchased by national drugstore giant Rite Aid for $95 million. After local uproar over losing the legacy Northwest business, Bartell staff ensured customers that the company would retain its local leadership and continue to promote the “health and well-being of local communities.” This message is reiterated at Bartell stores all over the city, with seasonal marketing banners reading, “Celebrating 130 PNW Holidays.”

Now Cohen is combining this commitment to Northwest business with his passion for local music.

A “Keep Music Live” mask for sale inside Bartell Drugs in Upper Queen Anne on Dec. 4, 2020. Proceeds from Keep Music live merchandise will go toward sustaining Seattle music venues during the pandemic closures. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

“It’s such a big part of Seattle,” Cohen says. “[There’s] so much money spent on going to shows, seeing bands, the drinks poured in the bar — that cascade[s] through the beverage industry, the food supply industry, all the band merchants out there. While it would be tragic to lose even one club in our area for the history and everything it means to the music community, there's an economic impact as well.”

On Nov. 12, Bartell Drugs announced a new partnership — spearheaded by Cohen — with Keep Music Live, a fundraising campaign aiming to generate more than $10 million to sustain independent music venues during the pandemic.

Through the promotion, Bartell will carry Keep Music Live merchandise — hats, sweatshirts, masks emblazoned with the turquoise and orange logo — in 65 local neighborhood stores, with 50% of the proceeds donated to the campaign. From there, money will be distributed to local clubs like Tractor Tavern, Neumos and Clock-Out Lounge to help them cover rent and utilities until they can reopen. Cohen reports the shirts are selling out in many locations; he’s working to keep the shelves stocked.

Late last month, Seattle-based Elysian Brewing Company joined the effort by creating a Keep Music Live IPA, which will be sold in Bartell stores. Elysian is donating all but the cost of materials and labor to the fundraiser. The flavor profile of the beer was specifically designed by Elysian co-founder and longtime Seattle music supporter Joe Bisacca in tribute to the perfect live music beer — hoppy, but light enough for music appreciators to make it to the encore.

“It's the sort of thing you can drink five of and not be lying on the ground when you're done,” says Bisacca, who recalls, with a sigh of nostalgia, the era when Elysian hosted live shows at its Capitol Hill restaurant every Saturday, back in the ’90s. In his opinion, COVID-19 merely accelerated the decimation of Seattle’s music scene, which was succumbing to high-rises and tech transplants even before the pandemic.

“We were the coolest city in the nation. And now we're kind of an office park with food trucks,” Bisacca says. “Pre-COVID, [clubs, bars and restaurants] were down 30% to 40% off of where they used to run because techies aren't going out and they're not spending as much.”

Elysian’s collaboration with Bartell Drugs for the Keep Music Live campaign is, to Bisacca, a last-ditch effort to preserve some of the only places that still generate and support authentic, fresh Seattle music and art — the small, independent venues where artists can try out new songs and experiment in front of a crowd. “That art process is at risk,” he says.

Bisacca, who co-founded the local brewery in 1996, intimately understands the complexities of maintaining your authenticity, as well as a local business’ bottom line. In 2015, Elysian was acquired by alcohol industry behemoth Anheuser-Busch, much to the chagrin of locals. Five years later — through Elysian’s tenacity and Anheuser-Busch’s support — the company still brews its beers in Seattle and retains much of the indie flavor that first made Elysian popular.

“As a brewery grows in volume and geographic range, there are natural pressures on styles, art and marketing that occur. The bigger you get, the more pressure there is from the market to streamline — dumb down,” Bisacca says. “That’s where tenacity comes in. We spend our efforts educating and convincing the markets that these cool ‘indie’ beers are something to get behind. Convincing [Anheuser-Busch] has never been a problem. They actually want to maintain it, understanding that it’s a core part of what made Elysian successful.”

Leigh Bezezekoff, of live music venue Tractor Tavern in Ballard, shows off her Keep Music Live gear (and her cat). (Leigh Bezezekoff)

Still, Elysian’s story is a best-case scenario. Bartell’s ability to maintain its Northwest focus under Rite Aid’s ownership remains to be seen. What’s more, it’s rare to find an example of a historic music venue — let alone an entire city’s music scene — being “saved” by a corporation, according to Leigh Bezezekoff, marketing and ticketing manager at Tractor Tavern.

“Sometimes that model makes sense for a venue, but sometimes it really doesn’t,” says Bezezekoff. “What we and all the other partner venues in WANMA are trying to avoid is for the city’s venues to be scooped up by people who are taking advantage of them when they’re vulnerable.”

For his part, Cohen is hopeful that the Bartell initiative will help offset the vulnerability that indie venues are feeling, at least long enough for widespread distribution of a coronavirus vaccine. In the interim, he’s making and sharing local music playlists (recent picks include “Mary Bell” by Antonioni and “Impossible Weight” by Deep Sea Diver) and reminiscing about seeing indie-pop New Zealand band The Beths at Chop Suey last year.

Most of all, he’s anticipating going to his next live show, when the backlog of material Seattle artists have been creating during quarantine can finally be enjoyed in a crowded room of likeminded listeners.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Alexa Peters

Alexa Peters is a freelance writer and editor based in Seattle.