Music

Fighting for Their Lives

Dark days for nightlife

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

We thought COVID-19 was a health issue.

We’d never been in a pandemic before. We didn’t know what to expect. The future was not only unpredictable, but it was also unforeseeable.

When the shutdown orders started coming, we got an inkling. But that’s all it was, at least for me. It wasn’t until the event cancellations started crowding my inbox, one after another, that I finally got it.

This virus wasn’t going to just infect people’s bodies. It would eventually infect everything in some form or another. The economic effects of COVID would be felt nearly as strongly as its physical symptoms. Few industries, save for those supplying essential goods and services, would be left undamaged.

And for music venues, it would be a complete and total economic crisis.

Unlike other businesses that have shown themselves to be astonishingly nimble and innovative with regard to their own survival, venues don’t have many options—any options, really. They make their bottom line by gathering people together in large crowds, as many people as possible, as often as possible.

Without the ability to do that, revenue comes to a screeching halt. Nothing pencils. There’s no making that bottom line. There’s no hope of making it. The situation for our music venues is as dire as it gets.

Compounding and complicating things is the fact that, like so many other businesses that rely on the arts for income, the margins at which music venues operate are razor thin. Few have appreciable reserves. Maybe they should, but the plain fact is they don’t. Venue owners make a little profit, they dump it back into their businesses. It’s the way it has always been.

As well, the programs designed to provide financial relief, the ones that come with acronyms such as EIDL and PPP, aren’t tailored to fit the music-venue business model—even if such programs worked perfectly, which they don’t seem to for anyone thus far.

But venue owners tend to be both creative and gifted with perseverance. As well, they have a tendency to be collaborative rather than competitive. So when the writing appeared on the proverbial wall, a group of Seattle venue operators got together and formed the Washington Nightlife Music Association, and were joined in short order by both the Shakedown and the Wild Buffalo here in Bellingham.

Rather than bemoaning their situation and hoping something would come along to rectify it, the WANMA put together a series of specific goals to bolster, not just the member music venues, but all venues statewide, as well as actions the public can take to assist them in their considerable efforts.

Their requests are simple and immediate: They need cash assistance that does not have to be repaid (in other words, loans aren’t going to cut it), rent and mortgage forgiveness or reduction, financial payments and assistance for themselves and their employees, and tax relief as well as insurance relief and revisions. To get these things, they are flexing all the muscle they can muster as individuals and as a group, and they’re seeking help from us as well.

If you’ve ever partaken of any part of this state’s or this town’s rich and vibrant music scene—and odds are pretty good that if you’re reading here, you have—the first and easiest order of business is to sign WANMA’s petition on change.org. From there, they’d like all of us to call our state senators—Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell—as well as our representatives, and their handy website will even tell you what to say if you find yourself to be a bit shy when it comes to reaching out to public officials.

As for efforts you can take locally, in Bellingham we are lucky to have Shakedown owner Hollie Huthman on the city council, where she’s doing all she can for the city’s small businesses and residents, while also acknowledging that the level of relief needed cannot be accomplished at the municipal level.

Despite the magnitude of the current issues facing our music community, Huthman retains her customary pragmatism and trademark optimism. “Live music is the heartbeat of downtown, from little places to the big venues and outdoor festivals,” she says. “While the wide net of economic loss from an absence of music venues in Bellingham can be measured to a certain degree, what can’t be measured is the loss of a sense of community that venues and a thriving live music scene provide us. But the Bellingham music scene has always been a bit scrappy and finds a way, even when the odds are stacked against it.”

For more information about the Washington Nightlife Music Association, go to http://www.wanma.info.

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