Seattle music clubs say reopening is still months away

Vaccination rates are rising and some restrictions have been eased in Phase 3, but club operators say they’re not ready to rock again just yet.

A shuttered Moore Theater.

A pedestrian walks past the shuttered Moore Theatre in downtown Seattle on May 25, 2021. Like all music clubs, the Moore closed in March, 2020. Most venues are still figuring out how and when to reopen. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

If you’ve spent any time on Capitol Hill over the past couple of weekends, you might have thought it was summer 2019. Ever since Gov. Jay Inslee announced that pandemic measures will be lifted statewide by the end of June, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued its (somewhat confusing) guidance about masks, people have crowded onto restaurant patios to socialize and soak up the sun. The return to beloved activities seems tantalizingly close. 

But the question remains: When can we go out to hear live music?

Like all arts venues, music clubs shut down in March 2020, when Inslee first issued shelter-in-place orders. As the state has pinballed between various phases of economic reopening, venue operators have struggled to find revenue and hours for their staff.

Most venue workers are still furloughed. And operators are struggling to pay the bills, as they have been for more than a year. Many have their hopes pinned on the financial relief slated for shuttered businesses in the American Rescue Plan. But because of the many uncertainties, it’s still a long road to opening.

“I don’t think there’s a good plan in place for venues our size, or venues in particular,” says Jodi Ecklund, owner and booker of the laidback Clock-Out Lounge on Beacon Hill. Like most club operators, she’s been struggling with how, whether and when to reopen. 

“It’s really hard to make these calls,” she says. “You ask your employees to come back to work, and then you don't have the hours there for some of them. They have to go through the whole process of unemployment, which can be a pain in the butt,” she adds. “It keeps me up at night. How do you plan for this?”

As of May 18, all counties in Washington state are in Phase 3, which allows indoor venues to host 50% of audience capacity (or 400 people, whichever is less). For venues larger than 100,000 square feet, the maximum number of people is 600, or 50% capacity, whichever is less.

In practice, venue operators say, this means that clubs can’t open yet.

The only way for such limited capacity to produce viable revenue, Ecklund says, is to increase ticket prices. “For a local show, I’d have to charge at least $25 to even make it work,” she says. “And then it’s not accessible to everybody in the community.” Because that’s not a standard she’s comfortable with, “it just won’t be worth it.”

Shannon Welles is general manager of The Showbox, the 82-year-old historic landmark that has been struggling to remain a music venue in the face of downtown development. She, too, is frustrated with guidance from state officials.

“It’s been really hard for us to get our voices heard,” Welles says. She feels those setting the guidelines don’t understand the realities of the live music business model. “How can we work together to figure out something that is going to work?” she asks. “I don't think there’s been a lot of consultation with live music clubs at the state level with what our needs are.”

In response to that assertion, RaShelle Davis, a senior policy adviser to Inslee, wrote that “music venues have been involved to some extent in developing the guidance.... We have included wide input from across the state as guidance documents have been developed, though that does not mean everyone was directly involved. The documents are not perfect and we routinely update the documents based on feedback.”   

Another factor in deciding when to reopen: musicians have to be rehearsed and ready to play. Welles, who primarily works with bands that tour nationally, says artists and management have been wary of making commitments before October. 

“I have a couple [touring] shows that were rebooked — they’ve been re-booked now three different times because of COVID — that are on sale for September,” she says. “But I’m expecting they might get pushed back to 2022.”

Local shows, which Ecklund prioritizes, might start sooner. With vaccination trends in mind, she says she is making tentative steps for booking shows from local acts in August at the soonest, but that she will wait for officials to allow shows at full capacity. 

Mike Gill, the general manager and booker of the Central Saloon in Pioneer Square, is also very tentatively working on bringing in local shows. “I’m placing holds for July,” Gill says. “The big conversation is that we want to first and foremost support the local music community and local artists. There’s going to be people available there; people are hungry to get back at it.” 

Eva Walker, who sings and plays guitar in the rock band The Black Tones, emphatically agrees.

“We have been doing the livestream thing,” she says, but confesses the online shows “got old” — despite the band’s efforts to put on the most energetic performances they could under the circumstances. 

Walker jokes that the virtual concerts “reminded me of our first shows,” when they played to near-empty bars. “It kind of humbles you, although … playing in front of five people should be as important as playing in front of 500 people or 5,000 people,” she says. “I take every show seriously.”

Exactly when audiences will be able to experience one of those shows is still in flux. “We have been booked for outdoor stuff, because that’s probably going to come back first,” Walker says. “We did put a couple of hold dates on some [indoor] venues just in case,” she adds, with cautious optimism. “There’s been talk with Nectar Lounge in Fremont about possible July gigs. But I don’t know what venues are going to look like.” 

With all the uncertainty about booking, venues have had to figure out ways to pay the rent and their staff. When the reality of the pandemic first set in, many decided to furlough most, if not all, of workers, so they could then collect unemployment.

But Welles says the furloughs have decimated a workforce that, even before the pandemic, struggled with the high cost of living in Seattle. 

“Some people moved away because they couldn’t afford to live in Seattle on unemployment income,” she says. “There was a time where there was no extra money from the federal government. Nobody knew how much money they were going to get each week, or how long they would get it. So some people just threw in the towel on Seattle.” Welles says she knows people who decided, “‘I can't be here anymore. I'm gonna go back to the Midwest and live with my family.’” 

Venue owners also need funds for basics like rent, utilities, maintenance and equipment. As part of the December 2020 Save Our Stages Act, Congress approved $16 billion in grant money for live event venues, including nightclubs, across the country. Applications for the grants, called the Shuttered Venues Operator Grants, only became available in April. The application process was full of glitches and generated massive complaints; the soonest the funds might be disbursed will likely be at the end of this month, according to Variety.

At the local level, some music venues — such as Café Racer, J&J Public House, PRŪF Cafe & Bar, Rumba Notes Lounge, Salsa Con Todo and Sea Monster Lounge — benefited from the city’s Small Business Stabilization Fund. In addition, the King County Council appropriated $750,000 to live music venues at the request of County Executive Dow Constantine. The money was disbursed to 35 venues

The local music industry itself has also rallied. Venue owners and managers, musicians, and other industry players staged several fundraisers under the banner of the Keep Music Live campaign, and distributed funds to 77 venues across the state. The Washington Music and Nightlife Association also held fundraisers and shared resources for affordable health care and artist relief funds.

But even with funds secured, the decision to start back up is complicated, according to Central Saloon’s Gill.

“We can basically open as a bar and restaurant once we feel comfortable,” he says. But that depends on getting staff “trained up on new safety protocols.” And there are also concerns about new equipment costs. 

“We’re buying a bunch more microphones,” he says, explaining that Central Saloon wants to switch out mics for deep cleaning whenever a new vocalist comes on stage. “So we’ll tag in and out tons of microphones per night. All of us have safety anxiety. There’s going to be so many of those small nuances that we don’t even know or see right now.”

He’s already encountered such issues. Before streaming virtual COVID fundraisers for the music scene, Gill had to reacquaint himself with some of the music club tech. “Even powering on our PA” was a challenge, he says. “I was like, ‘Wait, how does this work again?’ ”

Get the latest in local arts and culture

This weekly newsletter brings arts news and cultural events straight to your inbox 

By subscribing, you agree to receive occasional membership emails from Crosscut/Cascade Public Media.