June 2020: Live music venues are banding together to ensure Seattle's live music scene survives. We spoke with Dana Sims, of El Corazon/Funhouse, to learn more about what it will take and how Seattleites can help.
Dana Sims opened El Corazon in 2004, but the space has acted as a live-music venue since 1910. In the 90’s, under the name “Graceland”, the space was ground zero for the grunge movement – Pearl Jam played their first shows there and Soundgarden, Alice In Chains, Mudhoney and Nirvana also performed in the space.
You came to Seattle in the 90’s, via an MBA from University of Virginia, which led to an internship at Microsoft and subsequent work at Sub Pop. What drove you to open El Corazon? What gap were you hoping to fill in our city’s music scene?
I was trying to maintain this legacy venue, focused on touring all-ages shows. I've been into music since I could breathe. And I missed a lot of my favorite bands growing up simply because I wasn't old enough. And so, the fact that I can let kids discover music and offer them that same feeling that I did is very personally satisfying for me.
The one thing that really makes me happy is when you talk to people that grew up here, whether it was Graceland or El Corazon or even the Off-ramp…most kids, their first concerts were in this room. Because they were accepted and given a safe place to discover and enjoy music at an early age, most of them are happy to continue that patronage in their adult years.
Your business is 15 years old, the venue is over 100 – you were pretty established heading into this year. Take us back to January. How was the business doing? How were you feeling about its trajectory?
The trajectory was awesome. We had just finished the best year that we had ever had. In fact, the year prior was the best year we ever had and we beat it by 12%.
And, even though in January is traditionally the slowest month in our business, we were already seeing another increase heading into 2020 and our calendar was packed.
We had just come out of the slowest part of the year and business was already up and, literally right before the weekend where it truly starts to go gangbusters for the foreseeable future, that is when we got shut down.
What do you think was driving that growth?
The quality of our bookings. And the power of the live entertainment experience. Even at a time when there are so many options to grab our attention, there’s nothing that beats a true rock and roll show.
You shut down on March 13th, what does that mean for your business?
We have made zero income since March 13th. We have laid-off our entire staff. Fortunately, we made the decision to purchase our building 5 years ago but, all that means is that I don’t have someone breathing down my rent for neck. But, I’m not paying property tax on time for sure.
Have you received any support?
Amazon actually gave us a grant, unsolicited. Amazon has done more for me than the government has.
That’s a good segue, what do you wish that the government understood about what’s happening to your business and industry?
We were the first type of business to be closed and we will be the last type of business to reopen. On top of that, we are not a cookie cutter type business and the government keeps trying to roll out templates and apply them to everyone – that doesn’t work. For example, yes, I got a PPP loan. But, how do I use it in a meaningful way when we had to shut down entirely? You can't take live music curbside. The loans will expire before we're even allowed to reopen and could put it to use.
Every venue is scared right now because there is no money coming in and the rent is piling up.
Even when we can re-open, there won’t be a tour bus there waiting. The governors of California and Oregon have already said they're not going to allow any live music until there's a vaccine, so all of the tours that make the money and put the bodies in the room are all pushing back to 2021. Our calendar is gutted. We have nothing of financial value in the foreseeable future.
We need the government to understand the cultural and intrinsic value of our industry.
And the financial value. It's not just the rooms, it's the thousands of musicians that come through our rooms, it's the hundreds of thousands of patrons that come through. If you start looking at the multiplier of this industry and what it contributes to an urban area from hotels to transportation, food, beverage and merchandise…the economic impact of our industry is profound.
But, the main thing I want them to know is that we want to take care of our employees.
You haven’t been able to pivot or go curb-side, but you’ve still been busy. What have you been doing during this shutdown to maintain the viability of your business?
The venues have bound together. I mean, that’s the only way we're going to survive. By joining together we have enough of a voice and enough attention to get the point across: If you want this entire music ecosystem to survive and provide the culture, the growth and the entertainment for millions of people, you're going to have to help us.
And, honestly, that’s hard for us - we're all independent and in normal times, none of us would ask for anything. We are doers and movers and shakers. And we're pretty headstrong. But, I have joined together with all my fierce competitors and we're working together to save ourselves.
In what ways have you leveraged this new coalition?
At a local level, we’re working statewide through WANMA – the WA Nightlife Music Association. Our first success was a couple of weeks ago, when we were able to get the King County Council to include live music venues as part of a relief package, in which the venues will receive $750,000. Dow Constantine is a great leader and he's avid fan of music. This package is $750k more than has been provided to any other live music venue in the country.
What we're doing is we're taking that money we're going to try to try to multiply it. Our goal is to raise $10 million, by the end of the summer.
What has surprised you most through this transition from venue owner to lobbyist?
It has been surprising that mobilization was pretty easy. especially with our competitors. It's amazing to see how well everyone's worked together because we're all in the same boat. I also think that the amount of feedback that we've gotten from stakeholders in our business, not just the people that run the businesses, but the people that attend our shows or the artists, has been so motivating. I mean, it's a very personal and emotional product that we put out there. We provide experiences, that people will remember for the rest their life. And we provide environments where people make lifelong friends and experience things that blow their minds.
Everyone remembers their first show. It's never somewhere big. It's always somewhere tiny. It's in the back room somewhere. And that's the one that you remember more than anything.
The road ahead for your industry is difficult. What is keeping you going?
We do this because we love rock music and we love to make sure that people have experiences they’ll remember. Most of us are motivated by the fact that we want to continue to provide those experiences. Believe me, right now, there are no discussions about how we can get our margins or our profit levels back up. Right now, we’re talking about how we survive and continue to provide these experiences.
Can you imagine a Seattle, where there's no live music? I really, really hope that we can all make it through. But, you know, the longer this goes on the more difficult it will be. The longer this drags on, the more that what we take for granted. When we drive down any street of any population, it's going to look drastically different.
Hey, Seattle, here's how you can help!
Check out the COVID-resistance fest: active for a few more days!
View/Share this beautiful video by Shaina Shepherd, singing/talking about the power of our live music venues.