Seattle is a music town. Music is as much a part of our cultural identity as mountains and judging people who drive through Pike Place Market.
That heritage traces back to 1940s Jackson Street, when teenage Quincy Jones, Ray Charles and Ernestine Anderson worked its swinging after-hour jazz joints, and followed on to the pack of flanneled longhairs who made rock ‘n’ roll history 50 years later with a sound simmered in dark Seattle bars. A wave of indie rockers grabbed the guitar-town crown in the 2000s, having climbed up through clubs like the Crocodile, where a legion of mic-passing indie rappers were doing the same. It continues today with boundary-pushing hip-hop artists, electronic beatmakers and indie-rock disciples who make up a scene that, perhaps now more than ever, can’t be pinned to any one style (as if it ever could).
But with the coronavirus pandemic ravaging the live music industry, a coalition of Washington music venues has warned that without assistance, a number of independent clubs — breeding grounds for the next torchbearers — may be endangered.
“The music scene’s our civic brand,” says Steven Severin, co-owner of Capitol Hill club Neumos. “It’s our identity. I mean, you fly into Sea-Tac and you have Eddie Vedder telling you to not park in the load/unload zone and Duff [McKagan]’s telling you to make sure that when you pick up a bag it’s your name on it. Then you cruise by the Sub Pop store and Tomo Nakayama or Sera Cahoone’s playing.”
While some businesses cautiously begin to exhale at the thought of the economy ramping back up, many venue operators aren’t breathing easier yet. Under Gov. Jay Inslee’s four-phase reopening plan, music venues could reopen in mid-July at the earliest. However, many summer tours have already been scrapped or rescheduled, ensuring a much longer recovery process. The CEO of the world’s top concert promoter, Live Nation, recently said its goal was to resume “full scale” touring in 2021, according to a Variety report. And who knows whether fans will be ready to come back in droves.
Tech-boom rent hikes have already clamped local artists and venues in an ever-tightening vise. With slim margins and the foggy road ahead making club ownership “one of the stupidest investments you could do right now” (Severin’s words), it remains to be seen which ones will make it to the other side. Already, nightclub/fringe theater Re-bar has opted to leave its 30-year home in the Denny Triangle, eyeing a move to South Seattle next year.
There’s more at stake than losing some favorite hangouts. Hanging in the balance are tangible connections to Seattle’s musical heritage and an ecosystem keeping that tradition alive and forging forward.
Those local clubs “gave a lot of artists a home, a place for them to build,” says LIV+, a rising R&B singer. “I don’t believe that foundation, as far as the music history of Seattle, would exist without venues.”
For the past 30 years, Central Saloon owner Guy Curtis has presided over the grunge haunt that stands alongside the Crocodile and El Corazon (previously Graceland and the Off Ramp) as the city’s few remaining clubs with close ties to its defining rock movement.
He’s navigated the Pioneer Square bar, one of the city’s oldest, through tough times before (Bertha’s prolonged boring comes to mind). But nothing quite like this. “This is much worse,” Curtis says. “We don’t know when we’re gonna open, we don’t know what shape the city’s going to be in.”
Reopening with reduced capacity could be more expensive than staying closed, he says, especially if the nearby stadiums remain empty. He also fears restocking the bar and kitchen only to be shut down again if the virus flares up.
“We’re actually in pretty good shape compared to most people that I’ve talked to, but I guess there sorta comes a point where if we don’t open July, we don’t open August, after a while …” Curtis says, trailing off. “I’ve had it too long to stop now.”
Though he plans on keeping the Central alive, those vanishing cruise ships won’t help either. The bar was a frequent stop for tourists itching to take selfies by the stage that hosted a handful of bands that made rock history. A collection of old show posters hangs on the wall bearing lineups that now read like fantasy bills. Back then it was just another Thursday.
“One night Soundgarden’s on stage and I’m standing next to Mother Love Bone,” says photographer Karen Mason Blair, who’s contributing photos to the growing shrine. “The next week, Mother Love Bone’s on stage and I’m standing next to Soundgarden.”
Over the years, the Central lost some of the cachet of its heyday, back when managers for Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and Soundgarden had office space upstairs. But the club started regaining relevance after booker Michael Gill took over in 2015 and a new partner sprang for sound and lighting upgrades. As it was for bands like Nirvana a generation ago, the Central is once again a viable starting block for local up-and-comers, even as most of its grunge-era peers have vanished.
“You can’t replace these things,” she says. “You can have a new club and you can start a new heritage, but our heritage is there. … If you lose your historical places for people to go to, then what does that say about you as a city?”
As the Northwest indie-rock boom in the 2000s chased grunge’s aftertaste like an icy swig of Rainier, a folkier second wave emerged. Conor Byrne Pub became a hub for some of its artists and singer-songwriters, most notably folk-rock juggernauts The Head and the Heart.
A decade ago, THATH co-founder Josiah Johnson was the Ballard pub’s eager open-mic wrangler on the cusp of releasing one of Sub Pop’s bestselling albums of all time. In Conor Byrne, the Southern California transplant found a supportive crowd and a community of artists — including the musicians who became his THATH bandmates — all “working hard at having fun or working hard at crafting songs.” Johnson recalls a night when one artist waited six hours for the last open-mic slot, only to have the bar close before he could take the stage.
“I took him outside, I took the whole crowd out, and he played on the bench out on the street,” Johnson says. “Everyone from inside was loud and raucous and just hushed up and listened. There were hundreds of [moments] like that.”
Earlier this year, Johnson returned to the tiny stage he helped make famous, gearing up to launch a solo album after leaving the band to get sober. “It felt like celebrating with family,” Johnson said of his February gig. “Whether or not you were part of that time 10 years ago, you being there that night, it was just like you were adopted in.”
Johnson praises Seattle’s “abundance of venues you don’t have to be anybody to play. … There’s just steppingstones every step of the way and I don’t know that every city has so many rungs to their ladders,” pointing to small rooms like the Sunset Tavern on up to the venerable Showbox.
For Jordan Stobbe, singer/bassist with promising folk rockers Charlie and the Rays, playing Conor Byrne Pub was an early-career goal, because of its history as the birthplace of The Head and the Heart and the attentive crowds there. Stobbe was still in high school when Johnson was honing his craft in Ballard. Like THATH, Stobbe and her sister/co-bandleader, Rebecca, used to busk at Pike Place Market; they even covered THATH’s early hit “Lost in My Mind.”
“When I’m on a stage that I know somebody that I look up to has played before, it’s kind of an adrenaline, a motivation that I feel,” Stobbe says. “It gives you a feeling like ‘Wow, I can do this too.'”
The Seattle music scene is spoiled with such stories and shows that reamplify the echoes of its past. When Brandi Carlile and the Hanseroth twins’ pristine harmonies ring through the Moore Theatre, it’s hard not to think of Mudhoney, TAD and Nirvana nearly destroying the place three decades earlier during Sub Pop’s infamously rowdy coming out party. When leading local rockers like The Black Tones sell out Capitol Hill club Chop Suey, they join the likes of seminal Seattle hip-hop duo Blue Scholars, who did the same 15 years before them.
These very Seattle experiences create a shared cultural tissue that transcends age and genre.
Cultural calling card
For the past two months, Neumos’ Severin has been talking a lot about “economic multipliers” — fan buys a concert ticket, grabs dinner with friends before the show, maybe a beer or two, and a handful of people get paid. It’s the sort of thing that perks government officials’ ears, but it’s more than dollars and cents on the line.
Seattle’s reputation as a strong music city is one of the cultural calling cards that make the most hikeable corner of the country an attractive place to live.
“People move to Seattle because of the music scene,” says Severin, who includes himself in that camp. But without a robust network of venues, artists have fewer places to perform and develop, ensuring that rep’s more than just glory-day tales. “If we lose that, then what are we? A tech town?”
While some new clubs have opened recently, including Belltown Yacht Club and Clock-Out Lounge (a fast favorite on Beacon Hill), affordable performance space is getting harder to come by. Knowing for years their locations had expiration dates, the owners of Tula’s Restaurant and Jazz Club and Highway 99 Blues Club hunted for suitable new homes within their budgets. Finding nothing, they folded.
If the pandemic pushes more clubs into an early grave, Severin believes they’re unlikely to be replaced, especially in Seattle’s pricey nightlife districts. “All of those places,” he says, naming several mid-sized clubs, “the rents are going to be way too high for somebody else to come in and open a venue.”
He’s hoping it doesn’t come to that. After the pandemic hit, Severin helped organize the Washington Nightlife Music Association (WANMA), a group of 40-plus venues around the state that has been lobbying for local and federal aid. Earlier in May, the Metropolitan King County Council approved a $60 million economic relief package with a $750,000 slice for ailing music venues. It’s less than what WANMA was gunning for, but it came with a pledge from King County Executive Dow Constantine to help raise more relief bucks from the private sector, Severin says.
To his knowledge, it was the first such local government aid in the country allocated specifically to music venues. If not quite a light at the end of the tunnel, it’s at least a welcome lantern halfway through.
Even beyond the music scene, Severin worries that a large swath of what gives the city its character and soul might be forever changed. He credits several Capitol Hill nightlife entrepreneurs with showing him that people with less conventional backgrounds could run their own businesses.
“I didn’t think you could be some punk rock kid that could open a business,” says Severin, who also co-owns vegan vinyl bar Life on Mars. “That’s the independent spirit that we have had in Seattle for so long. If that changes, it does not go back.”