Really tough times for the service workers of live venues...
Really tough times for the service workers of live venues... Charles Mudede

Three days after George Floyd died, I recorded a conversation with a former employee of Capitol Hill's main live music venue, Neumos. There's an interesting connection between Floyd, who was murdered by four officers of the Minneapolis Police Department on May 25, 2020, and the former employee. Both lost work the week most states imposed a lockdown to deal with a new and deadly virus. Floyd, you see, was a bouncer at a Minneapolis live music place called El Nuevo Rodeo. He was one of the thousands of Americans whose livelihood depended on businesses that depended on exactly what the pandemic made impossible: large indoor gatherings. A restaurant could still do takeout; a bookstore could still sell online; readings and lectures and book promotions could make the leap to Zoom. But live music venues? There was no place for it to go beyond the real. Indeed, it turns out that to thrive, sex needs much less reality or presence than a live show. Who knew?


Much of the talk about the real live-venue crisis, which hit this paper exceptionally hard, has, however, focused on the plight of the business owners and bands. Earlier this year, I wrote about the two (owners and players), but I failed to throw light on this other and apparently much wider and probably longer-lasting jobs catastrophe: the fate of live-venue service workers (bartenders, bouncers, stagehands, cooks, and so on) during the pandemic.

"We were laid off the first thing. And it was everyone. And without notice. Which is understandable, given the circumstances," says the former Neumos employee, who has, in the most positive sense, strong opinions about not only her industry (live venues) but capitalism as a whole. "But I feel we [those who do the door or who clean or who carry or serve stuff] have got a lack of support from the press and also the managers of these venues."

What she wants is not just a more equitable representation of the crisis but the recognition that, even before the pandemic hit, not all was well in Seattle's famous and booming music scene. COVID-19 only compounded the misery of many at the bottom of this industry. A good number of these people are paid very low wages, have no health benefits, and are often thrown into situations made dangerous by drunk or drug-addled people. And there's also the uneven seasonal aspect of this line of work.

The former Neumos employee:

People like me really work during the summer season because none of us get paid during the winter. To be honest a lot of us are out of work a lot, and so we wait for the summer, for the festivals, the Capitol Hill Block Party. We do not have regular schedules. We are either making money or we are not. That is how it goes. So, even if the industry went back to normal, we are not going to get back to normal by our standards until we have summer work.

And so, we have this order in the music venue industry. There are those who own the property of the venues, those who own the business (sometimes the property owner and the business owner are one), those who provide the entertainment (the popular bands never fail to get much more money than the less popular ones), and those who provide services (the largest and most precarious group).

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The former Neumos employee:

So, what's troubling is we keep hearing from venue owners and musicians about how hard things are. And I totally understand that. Places are all shut down and there's no money. But what I know is that the people who own these places, they are doing fine. They are not contracted. They had benefits. I have not seen a dentist in ten years. I'm not kidding. So, for me and my co-workers, we do want the industry to come back, but it was intrinsically flawed to begin with. It only made rich people richer and poor people poorer. We do not want to go back to that. Nor after the pandemic is over. We need to do things a different way.

This Slog post is part of State of the Arts, a new series that looks at the ways Seattle's arts communities are dealing with our darkest winter. Check Slog daily for fresh updates.