Sir Mix-a-Lot at Bellinghams Wild Buffalo
Sir Mix-a-Lot at Bellingham's Wild Buffalo Matt McDonald

Almost all of our leaders in government have yet to understand how unprecedented the current crisis is.

Adam Tooze, a historian at Columbia University, put it this way in a short essay for Foreign Policy: "As the coronavirus lockdown began, the first impulse was to search for historical analogies—1914, 1929, 1941? As the weeks have ground on, what has come ever more to the fore is the historical novelty of the shock that we are living through."

And yet, our leaders are still resorting to conventional tools (budget cuts, tax cuts, low interest rates, small business grants) to fix something that, by all appearance, has never happened before. What exactly has made this crisis exceptional? It is a principle established in 1972 by the American physicist P. W. Anderson: More is different. What did he mean by this?

Simply, there is a point when you have so much of something—so many cells, so many ants, so many people—that something new emerges. In the present case, that something is the terrific scale of COVID-19's economic impact.

Again, Tooze: "As recently as five weeks ago, at the beginning of March, U.S. unemployment was at record lows. By the end of March, it had surged to somewhere around 13 percent. That is the highest number recorded since World War II." And it's only going to get worse, because this is the first and direct part of the crash. The second and indirect part will issue from the turbulence in the stock markets.

If the novelty of the present downturn is still nebulous to our city and regional and federal leaders, then maybe the real-world example of how the lockdown threatens to completely wipe out the music venue industry in the coming months will make things unambiguous.

Macklemore at Bellinghams Wild Buffalo
Macklemore at Bellingham's Wild Buffalo Matt McDonald

According to one of the members of the WA Nightlife & Music Association, Craig Jewell (he is also the owner of Wild Buffalo in Bellingham, and a talent buyer for Summer Meltdown), the disruption caused by the extreme measures taken to stop the spread of COVID-19 is profound for two reasons. One, live shows that were scheduled to occur during March, April, and May were planned well in advance. Even if the lockdown ends, those cancelled shows will not just happen right away, but several months later. And then there is the added problem that planning can only take place when there is some certainty about the future. At the moment, there is no such certainty to be found. And we can expect certainty not to make an appearance until, at the least, around the end of June. This amounts to five straight months of no revenue for venues.

Now, consider Jewell's situation. He is currently paying $18,000 a month for Wild Buffalo's space. What our leaders expect him to do as a business owner is to continue paying that rent with no revenue until late fall. Consider that reality against the Governor Inslee's response to it so far, which amounts to grants that "will provide up to $10,000 for small businesses under 10 employees." The business "can use this money to pay for rent, utility bills, supplies, inventory and other operating expenses." This is, as you can see, a drop in the bucket.

"Let's say normalcy, whatever that means now, returns in July, and even that is very hopeful, everyone will be flocking to bars because they want to interact with people," said Jewell in an interview. "The problem with the live music industry is all our tours have been cancelled and rescheduled for November, December, and early 2021. You see, touring acts are the foundation of our business. This is our business model. We need touring bands because they draw big crowds. That is how we stay afloat. But now, 80 percent of our year is gone. And so, we will not be able to bounce back once normalcy returns, because we do not have those tours for months out."

And there is also the fact that music venues like the Tractor, El Corazon, Clock Out, Neumos/Barboza, need a crowd, and it's highly unlikely that crowds will appear immediately after the lockdown is lifted. "Understandbly," says Jewell, "people will initially be weary about being in crowded places."

What should the government do about this situation? It must do what it should do not only for music venues, but also every unit (domestic, private, public) of the whole local and regional economy:

• Cash assistance (not loans!)
• Rent and mortgage forgiveness and reduction
• Financial payments and assistance for the workforce
• Tax relief
• Insurance relief and revisions

These requirements, which are specified on the Washington Nightlife Music Association website, are universal. It is not just live music venues that are facing extinction but also businesses that are connected to those businesses, and the businesses connected to those other businesses. But more than that, and this is something Jewell stressed, it's about the richness of Washington State's culture. Those who own or manage live music venues do not do so to make tons of money. It's about participating in the joy of music, the highest art form there is, according to some 19th century cultural critic.

And so, what can you do? WNMA says:

WE NEED YOU to contact your County Reps IMMEDIATELY and let them know that music venues need their immediate help by directing that funding to music venues despite being for profit businesses. Many venues CANNOT survive due to high rents & expenses that we’re shouldering while venues are closed.