The masks are mostly off, the vax card requirements have been waived, and the show calendars are mostly full, but Seattle clubs are still hobbled by a wicked case of long COVID. Interviews with local talent buyers reveal beleaguered employees fighting various obstacles to return to the more predictable uncertainty and risks that shaped the entertainment-business ecosystem before March 2020.
Even in late 2022, venues are struggling to be profitable after more than a year of being shut down, with a global pandemic causing unprecedented challenges for those tasked with drawing music fans to their rooms.
We spoke to representatives from the Crocodile, Neumos, Sunset Tavern, Clock-Out Lounge, Triple Door, and Royal Room to try to square what's happening in Seattle with the bleak scenarios detailed in articles like “Live Music Is Falling Apart” in Music Business Worldwide and this one by “Musicians like me can't afford to tour” by Canadian rapper Rollie Pemberton.
The Stranger: How is business now compared to pre-pandemic days?
Hunter Motto (Crocodile): Things are down 30-40%. It's really artist-specific, but yeah, way down. And that includes bar sales; people aren't drinking.
Jodi Ecklund (Clock-Out Lounge): Business is unpredictable and it's hard to gauge what will happen from one week to the next. Revenues have still not returned to pre-Covid numbers. However, we are slowly creeping back to [those figures].
Adam Prairie (Sunset Tavern): It was pretty rough in the summer. In June, we had a third of our shows canceled. We had at least 10 shows that were affected by one or two bands canceling. Most of the shows ended up being completely dark. But we're seeing some encouraging signs over the last six to eight weeks. We're wondering what it's going to be like in the winter. You never know when you're gonna get whacked by another wave and how people are going to react to it and how dangerous it's going to be.
Evan Johnson (Neumos): While we have returned to some normalcy, we’re still seeing the ripple effects of the pandemic throughout the industry. I’d say we’ve recovered a bit, but are not in the place we were pre-Covid. I attribute the difference in business to inflation across the board, product shortages, many industry employees not returning to the business, and folks still not being used to the lives we all had been living pre-2020.
Aleida Gehrels (Royal Room): Attendance at shows has been harder to predict than prior to the pandemic. I suspect folks may be less willing to make plans in advance, so it has been hard to staff appropriately based on ticket sales. And this goes both ways! We've had artists underperform that sold out in 2019, and shows that sold 20 tickets online sell out at the door.
What steps are you taking to try to improve business?
Motto: We have to get through this part and prove that shows can happen. We have to rebuild confidence and that's going to take time. Artists and venues really need to make an effort to have these shows play out. Some things are way out of our control [such as a recession]. There are greater concerns and fears and existential angst that we can't control.
Ecklund: I think it will take another year or more to rebuild the live-music market in Seattle. Smaller crowds and an increase in no-shows rates continue to impact our bottom line. We have been creative with our marketing efforts, taking a more think-outside-of-the-box approach to things.
Ticket prices are rising and people are obviously unhappy about it. What is the reason for this increase?
Motto: There are two simple answers. One is that the cost for artists has gone up. In order for an artist to tour, they need to make more money. If they're coming back to play the same room and doing the same numbers, the ticket price has to go up for them to make any money. Because expenses are not going down at the venue. That's point number two, which is, expenses have gone up at venues across the board, just like everywhere else. It costs us about 30% more to operate this venue. We pay our staff more than we used to and we offer benefits to full-time staff members now. Still to this day we staff a little higher than we used to, because it still takes a little more to deal with crowds. Our rent and costs have gone up.
Ecklund: I think inflation plays a huge role in the increase of ticket prices. Supply and demand is another factor. Production costs have risen significantly. After two years of forced closures, many gig workers relocated or were retrained in new fields. Many have been forced out of this industry due to a cost of living increase. Wages are not going up at the same rate of cost of living. From an independent-venue perspective, the increase in ticket prices was long overdue.
Prairie: Guarantees for talent definitely have gone up. For people to afford to be on tour now, there are extra costs. Frankly, they deserve it, because there's so much risk in being on the road right now.
Johnson: Seattle has become more expensive than ever. Ticket prices are higher in order to cover the higher touring costs artists are facing, which are higher because of the inflation we’re facing in every industry. Ticket prices have always been primarily dictated by artists, but we’re doing our best to be conscious about it as we work on upcoming shows, because we also recognize that there is a limit that the consumer will reach.
Scott Giampino (Triple Door): When we first re-opened, there was industry talk of “We gotta work together.” People were theorizing that artists would be taking less money just to get out on the road. I haven't seen that at all. An artist who had a $5,000 guarantee pre-pandemic still wants that figure—or even more now. It's expensive to go on the road, so it trickles down and gets passed on to the customer.
Gehrels: Since the pandemic, most ticket prices at the Royal Room have gone up less than $5. We've needed to make this change in order to cover our staff's wages, which we have had to increase in order to retain and hire new employees. The labor shortage in this industry is real!
With so many bands thinking that touring is a money-losing proposition, has it made your job significantly harder to find acts to fill out your schedule? Is there more conflict now between bookers and artists with regard to fees?
Motto: It is harder and we have to be creative at certain times of the year. We're seeing oversaturation. There are too many artists touring all at once. Then there's December and January and summertime, when it slows down. So during those times, we have to dig in deep, look locally, and get creative.
Johnson: I wouldn’t say that it’s become harder to find acts to fill the schedule generally, but we are seeing a slower slow season (January and February) than normal. I think many artists are just realizing that the financial risk of going on tour needs to be a little more thought out than it used to be. Touring is still a primary way artists are able to make money, but it’s also becoming an easier way to lose money if they’re not strategic about their plan. As for more conflict between bookers and artists in regards to fees, both sides are trying their best to protect their bottom line, because there’s more to factor in these days.
Gehrels: The Royal Room is lucky to have a partner non-profit 501c3, the South Hudson Music Project, which enables us to continue to financially guarantee some larger national touring acts while still making space in our calendar to support local musicians. I don't think that conflict between bookers and artists has increased. Most folks I've worked with since our reopening last fall understand the financial realities venues are facing and appreciate that we are doing our best to support musicians and keep our doors open.
Ecklund: Constructive conversations between artists and bookers is crucial. Artists should understand exactly what the costs are associated with playing our rooms. Bookers need to make sure the artists fully understand the terms.
What do you need from bands and the public to make your job easier?
Motto: From bands, what we hope is that they can have the support to keep making their music and keep creating exciting reasons for folks to come out and see their shows. And to make great merch and to sell it, because that's where people make their money, touring at least. Maybe some of this attitude is going to go back to the punk-rock ethos of yesteryear when people were touring in their sedans and getting creative about how to keep costs down. My hope for musicians over the next year or two is that they're going to get really smart about how to keep the budget low and how to keep tours profitable. And from the general public, come to shows. Look at the calendars of venues you love and buy a ticket.
Giampino: The public is mostly very forgiving of our venue and where we're located [Third Ave and Union St]. It's been two-plus years now and everyone wants it to get back to normal. We need the city to get cleaned up. But it's complex. I don't have a solution.
Gehrels: From bands: we need your help to promote promote promote! Even though we have a press and social media team, they aren't able to help build audiences if they don't have the content they need far enough in advance (ideally, eight weeks out). From the public, we'd love it if you bought advance tickets instead of waiting for the door—they're cheaper and we honor refund requests if you get COVID.
There's a perception here that local bands are not getting as many opportunities to open for touring acts as they used to. Are you going more heavily with local openers or is that not financially feasible or not as attractive to customers?
Motto: This is not a new phenomenon. There have been fewer and fewer opportunities for me to suggest and have local support added to shows at the last 10 years of shows since I've been working for the Croc. Every year there are fewer opportunities for me to do that. During Covid and whatever world we're in now, that is even more true. A lot of touring musicians [are] still trying to keep their bubble small and trying to reduce their interactions with people they don't know. We've also found that the tour support that would go out with a national headliner, a lot of those have canceled at the last minute because they've gotten sick or some other issue has come up. So last minute we have to fill in with a local act. That's happened more now than ever before.
What has happened over the past bunch of years is that national touring acts looked at support—which was a normal thing when I started booking shows 15 years ago and even when I started at the Croc 10 years ago—it was so normal to put local support on shows and have a three- or four-band bill. That doesn't exist in the industry anymore. Artists and managers said, we don't want to have to soundcheck earlier to accommodate a local act; we don't want to take money out of the pot to pay the local artist when it's really expensive to tour. We also don't know them and don't always trust the local artist to be good. And they really don't want to share green room space. For all of those reasons, local support has dwindled every year since I've been working at the Crocodile.
Ecklund: We primarily book local acts. I place a huge focus on incubating up-and-coming artists. It's crucial to the local music community to give these artists a platform. Our local shows do well, but nowhere near the volume that touring acts bring in.
Giampino: It's 70% nationals and internationals to 30% for locals—maybe even 80/20. I like to do local openers, if we can. It comes up not as much as I wish it would. That's because the touring act is carrying support or they just want to have “an evening with...” Because of the nature of a lot of the acts we do—singer-songwriters, mellower folk, country-ish, some rock—if we can fit a local opener in, we will. We used to have late-night music for free in [the Musicquarium] and happy-hour music. We don't have music in the lounge at all now, because it's a big expense. It's not going to be a big draw at this point.
Johnson: The touring artist decides who opens for them, not the venues. I’d say the majority of the time they bring a touring opener but on the off chance we’re able to add local support, we still need to submit options to the headliner to choose from. We do our best to advocate for locals on bigger shows, but there’s only so much we can do.