While business is generally steady, local music venues face threats from development and rent increases.
Music has been so central to Seattle’s cultural identity over the past few decades that it is almost impossible to imagine the city without a vibrant music scene. Music — along with technology, airplanes and coffee — sits as a big part of what Seattle is known for.
It’s been more than 25 years since Nirvana debuted “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in a small Pioneer Square club, and soon after, grunge became, for a time, the dominant style of rock worldwide. In the decades since, Seattle has become internationally famous as a place with thriving clubs, but they face many of the same challenges as other brick-and-mortar businesses in the city. While parking, liquor-consumption patterns and noise are issues for almost every club in town, paying rent in a city of skyrocketing real-estate costs is by the far the most pressing concern.
Nightlife trends emphasizing drinking over live music have made establishments that operate solely as bars more lucrative. Meanwhile, clubs that feature live music have more expenses that cut into their profitability.
Labor of Love
It’s become a difficult economic balance. Most of the people who own or book Seattle clubs are generally motivated first by a passion for music. “It doesn’t make anybody rich owning a club in Seattle,” says Pete Sikov, who owns El Corazon on Eastlake and the Columbia City Theater. “I’ve put on shows because music has given me so much meaning in my life. Not every landlord thinks like that, and it’s not an easy thing to do.”
Most major clubs report that business has been generally steady, but festivals tend to negatively affect clubs in the summer. Music festivals have become an increasing part of the concert industry, but they can actually hurt local clubs by pulling consumer dollars out of a market. And “blackout clauses” can prohibit bands from performing locally before and after a festival gig — sometimes for months.
These clauses aren’t new, but as festivals have multiplied — there are now two dozen major festivals in Washington state every summer — so have the blackouts. Even small clubs face this because sometimes the clauses are applied to a tiny band opening a remote stage at a festival. “Blackout dates are a pain,” reports Jason Josephes, who has booked the 100-seat Blue Moon for 15 years. “It’s really only a problem during the summer, though.”
On a more ongoing basis, many club owners feel that an influx of young, tech-centric newcomers to the city has led to a less cohesive music scene and less engaged audiences.
“The experience of going to clubs to see bands, and interacting with other like-minded people, has been essential to the Seattle experience,” observes Ben London from Seattle band Stag.
However, newcomers who move to Seattle “in part because Seattle has a reputation for being ‘cool’ due to the music scene, don’t always then support the arts, and they should,” says Darrell’s Tavern owner Dan Dyckman.
Even when audiences do show up to concerts, it can be hard to capture their attention away from their cellphones — although that’s not necessarily a problem unique to Seattle.
Changing demographics can lead to programming changes as well. Greg Garcia has booked Ballard’s Tractor Tavern and Sunset Tavern for years and has seen business shift as the neighborhood has filled with trendy bars. The Tractor’s strong reputation keeps bookings steady, but the club’s offerings have also expanded with more tribute and dance bands to cater to the neighborhood.
Ballard’s changes have led to an increased cost of doing business as well. “We’ve got a great landlord,” Garcia says, “but our rent has gone up exponentially.”
In the end, nothing trumps real estate as a potential threat for clubs in Seattle.
In the core of the city, clubs like El Corazon face constant nearby development. And even a place as venerable as the Blue Moon, where Beat legend Jack Kerouac allegedly drank, isn’t protected as a landmark by the city. Landmark status acts as a curb on development because it means that the owner of the building can’t profit from development. Most clubs rent their spaces, so they are at the mercy of building owners when it comes to development and rent increases.
The Crocodile in Belltown is another of Seattle’s storied clubs, and one of three places left in town where Nirvana played, but it too lacks landmark status.
“Everybody is seeing the increases of rent and labor happen, and that definitely affects overhead,” says Crocodile booker and co-owner Adam Wakeling. Bar sales keep most clubs afloat, but the Crocodile puts on many all-ages shows, which means less revenue from alcohol sales.
As Seattle gets more dense, some of the scene is moving outside the city. Sikov owns a few buildings in Everett, where a scene is slowly developing. Closer in, Darrell’s Tavern in Shoreline has become a busy and popular club for bands that used to play only hipster Seattle venues.
Darrell’s, unchanged since 1967, feels like “old Seattle,” and owner Dan Dyckman has also made a conscious effort to book veteran bands. That would include London’s band, Stag, which draws crowds with its fresh classic-rock sound.
But whether it’s a divey Shoreline bar or a legendary Seattle palace like the Showbox, Dyckman says that the magic of what happens when you watch live music can’t be re-created in any other form. “When you see a band play live, it’s like going into a haunted house,” he says. “You never know what’s going to happen, but you know it’s going to be exciting.
“It’s something that only can be experienced in real time, and in real life,” he adds. “And that’s so much a part of what Seattle is, we need to value that before it disappears.”