Music venues are in a particularly tough spot, all over the country, because we were the first to close and will be some of the last places to open. In order to have a show, you need lots of people in one room for hours at a time. And that’s kind of the worst situation for transmitting the virus.Hollie Huthman (Owner, Show Booker, and “Pint Puller” at The Shakedown, Bellingham, WA)
The Shakedown in Bellingham, Washington, along with its companion restaurant, The Racket, is a small culture and performance space in the City Center that has, for many years, been a place of intimate connection between music fans and bands. Their tiny green room means that many bands visiting the venue prefer to sit with the fans before they play, providing a rare opportunity to meet and speak with cool recording artists. In an era that has seen a surge in giant music festivals across the country, places that create great distances between bands and fans, the small performance hall can seem like both an inspiring anachronism as well as a place of rare communion.
Indeed, before the COVID-19 pandemic, many small performance spaces have been closing down because the economics and changing music tastes over the past ten years just haven’t penciled out for performers or venue owners. Those venues that have remained, like The Shakedown, have had to become more creative in how they attract and keep customers, as well as keeping their spaces on the radars of touring artists and fans.
Of course, it’s always been expensive and risky for bands to tour, especially young bands starting out. The economics have been crunchier due to the erosion of earnings caused by online streaming services, and from bands selling less “merch” (digital downloads, posters and T-shirts, CDs, LPs, and cassettes). Still, the all-important tour remains a major catalyst in the aesthetic, social, and economic development of every band.
Recently, The Palace spoke with Hollie Huthman about her venue, The Shakedown, which has been temporarily closed since Governor Jay Inslee issued his “stay-at-home” order on 23 March 2020. The initial idea was the closure would be for two weeks, but it was a crazy guessing game back then as to how long we’d all need to be isolated to slow the spread of the virus. Eventually, the order was extended through the last day of May. We’re now seeing Washington counties opening, in phases, following something called the Safe Start Washington plan. The pandemic isn’t over, but counties across the state are now in various stages (or modified stages) of being allowed to reopen, from Phase 1 to Phase 3. Indoor performance spaces (depending on how one defines them), for the most part, remain shuttered.
Visualizing what the “new normal” will look like for a performance space, for bands, and especially fans concerned about staying safe while enjoying live music, is almost impossible to predict today. Even more worrisome is the idea that many small venues might be forced to go out of business because they can’t survive the wait without income (a situation that could potentially last a year or more). It’s become a high-anxiety guessing game.
Huthman generously shared some of her thoughts about how hard this time has been for The Shakedown, as well as for her staff, her community, and her town, and some of the steps she’s taking to keep it all together, and to stay positive about her future.
First, thank you for taking time to talk to me. Can you give me a little history of The Shakedown as a performance space in Bellingham? I think you also own The Racket as well, the space next door to The Shakedown, right?
Sure. So, The Shakedown opened in March of 2011. The owners are me and Marty Watson. We actually met because we’re both live-music photographers — we are retired live-music photographers [Laughs]. We became friends, and we both clearly enjoy live music. The space has been music-venue businesses in the past. It was The Factory for probably a decade, and that closed in 2005. Then it was a restaurant for a good chunk of time, and then two very short-lived venues right before The Shakedown.
I think we were open for about four years when the space next to us became available, and we decided to expand to include that space in the business as well. And that’s the space we call The Racket, which is more of a traditional bar with a bunch of pinball machines. The Racket is open every day — or was open every day — from 11 AM until 2 AM. We serve food in that space. It’s connected, but in The Racket you don’t have to pay a cover to get in. But people who come into The Shakedown side can move between both spaces.
When you were in full swing, you had a lot of shows every year. Can you give me a ballpark number of how many shows you had each year before the pandemic hit and shut everything down? I’m sure it fluctuates with who’s touring at the moment, but on average it must be a lot.
Yeah, actually I don’t have a grasp on what that number actually is. We have everything from all local-band shows to national and international touring acts. We have three to five shows a week, and two to five bands a show. We try to stick to three as much as possible. Over the years, I don’t know how many that would be. [Laughs] A lot.
You host everything from punk to country to metal to pop music. Maybe mostly rock, but other areas as well. The Shakedown is difficult to typecast because you have such an open platform.
Sometimes as a venue — many venues are genre specific. And then some venues are wide open. I think, in a town our size, it’s tough to be too genre specific. When people ask me what we are, we’re probably the best at rock music — we’re the most familiar with it, and all genres of rock music just sound great in our room. It’s kind of built for that.
But also, when it comes to local bands — we’re huge fans of local bands — any genre of local band plays at The Shakedown. We delve a little bit into hip hop and roots and Americana, but historically the Green Frog (now the Firefly Lounge) specialized a little bit more in the roots, Americana, and bluegrass side of things. They have a really lovely, warm room with lots of wood, so it kind of lends itself to that sort of music.
And then the Wild Buffalo has historically focused more on reggae, jam bands, hip hop, and of course, the bigger national touring acts of all genres. So, between our three spaces we kind of cover things. But we do sort of specialize just a little bit in the genres that we’re best at doing.
Can you talk a bit about the importance of the economics side of a small venue like The Shakedown, how these spaces add to the local economies where they’re located? There’s an important economic component of having live music in a smallish college town like Bellingham.
Live-music venues — somebody who goes to a live show, generally, doesn’t just go to the show that night. They’ll go out to dinner beforehand or go for a drink and chat with their friends before they go to the show. Maybe they’ll get something to eat or another drink after the show. Some folks are coming in from out of town and they stay in hotels, and grab breakfast in the morning, too.
I feel like our town is the most alive — and the most Bellingham — when all three venues have something good going on. It’s one of the most exciting things to walk around town and everything is buzzing, you know? And knowing all of our business neighbors are having those folks walk through those places, too. Music venues are a big draw, both for pulling people in who live here, but also pulling in people from the surrounding communities. Without venues we would lose some of that pull into the downtown for all of our neighbors as well.
And Bellingham is a college town. It seems to me that there’s a natural affinity between live music and college students.
You know, I think that has kind of ebbed and flowed for us over the years, depending on what people are into at the time. I think, for a while, as we saw a disappearance of venues in town, people were maybe not as interested in playing live music themselves, because there wasn’t really anywhere to play — or as many places to play — in particular, the small venues are so important for that — motivating people to want to play music.
Then electronic music got really popular with younger audiences — people in their early twenties. [Laughs] So there wasn’t as much interest in seeing live bands. And lately, it seems like there’s not as much interest in electronic music now — the dance scene in particular — and more of that audience is interested in live music again, and in bands, and in being in bands, which is really exciting. So, for us, it’s definitely kind of ebbed and flowed.
Our demographic, for most of our existence, has been the 25-35-year-old group. More and more, we’ve started seeing people who are in the 21-25-year-old range, which was really exciting. So, I hope that comes back. [Laughs] After this is all done.
What’s it been like, for you and your staff, being closed — coping with all the layers of isolation and uncertainty? You’ve written a little about this in some of your emails to supporters. Can you give me a sense of how you’re all holding up right now?
I’m very grateful for unemployment insurance for our staff, because I know that they’re all taken care of. That’s been a big relief. I don’t have to worry that anybody is taking too big of a hit by not having a job right now. I’ve just been really focused on making sure we can open back up, of course, so that our people have a job they can come back to.
I miss everybody! I miss all of our staff so much. I want them all to come back when we can. I remain in contact with a lot of our staff. People are doing OK.
I know that you’ve been doing a lot of work to raise awareness at the local and state government levels — you’ve been reaching out to communicate the situation of performance venues trying to prepare for the future, but that you’re in a uniquely vulnerable position in terms of a plan to open safely. Have you heard anything about that?
Music venues are in a particularly tough spot, all over the country, because we were the first to close and will be some of the last places to open. In order to have a show, you need lots of people in one room for hours at a time. And that’s kind of the worst situation for transmitting the virus. We also have a unique challenge, with touring bands: it’s a very long process — that takes months and months, sometimes six months… up to a year — to get a band to finally show up at your place. So, restarting that system is going to push operations off even more for music venues.
And music venues also have really high overhead. We have big spaces, so we have lots of rent to pay. Liquor-liability insurance is really expensive, too, and sometimes it’s really difficult to find companies who will insure live-music venues. Those are two huge expenses that just don’t go away if we’re closed. So, if music venues are closed for a year or more, which is entirely possible in this situation, that’s an enormous amount of debt that nobody can get out from under. Which would mean music venues all across the country are closed.
And every music venue relies on the existence of every other music venue because of the touring bands. Touring bands need a whole network to be able to tour through to get to our spot.
There are two organizations: one is Washington-specific, which is the Washington Music and Nightlife Association [WANMA], and then there’s NIVA, the National Independent Venue Association. Both of these organizations formed as a response to the pandemic. And both organizations have also officially obtained nonprofit status. NIVA in particular, has, I think, almost 2,000 venues signed on.
We’ve got financial backing from ticketing companies, which are, of course, very interested in seeing venues reopen. So, they’re helping to fund a lobbyist at the federal level, which is wonderful because big corporations have the lobbyists — usually, it’s not the small independents that have that kind of political voice. That’s really important. So, we are getting attention.
There have been two letters that have been signed by senators, and one in the House of Representatives as well, backing special support for music venues. So yeah, we are getting some attention. We’re just such a specialized industry, and we’re an industry that doesn’t necessarily have a lot of political pull. So it might take a while to get the attention, but I think we are.
I think the arts and cultural economies in general — once we’re not quite at crisis level any longer — we’ll start getting the attention, and the funding, that we need.
So, there has to be a kind of “new normal.” We’re seeing some of that happening in restaurants that are reopening, providing takeaway food service, or social distancing outside seating, trying to come up with strategies to jump start their businesses again. In the performance space, it’s difficult to visualize how that might work. I realize it’s way early to make any kind of exact predictions. That said, however, are you beginning to think about that?
There definitely has been some brainstorming — like, OK, if we’re even going to try to do this, what would it look like? If you think about a music venue, how do you keep everybody six feet apart? How do you keep a punk singer from spitting on everybody in front of them, right? [Laughs] Do you have this sheet of plexiglass in front of the band? How does that work? There have definitely been some mental gymnastics trying to figure out how to do it.
I think right now everybody keeps coming to the conclusion that it’s just not safe. It’s not worth the risk.
You know, it’s a situation where nobody wants to be that place where there’s an outbreak. I think there was an example of that in South Korea that was a hotspot for an outbreak. Then it’s even worse than if you had never opened to begin with. So I think the general feeling right now is we need a vaccine, or whatever kind of guaranteed assurance, so that people can be safe in our spaces before we can reopen.
We’ve seen the live-streaming thing happening during the lockdown. Bands and record labels are trying to find new ways to bring live performances to fans while we wait for what comes next for venues. These are events anyone can easily watch from home. So, do you think people will come back to live shows in venues like yours, once it’s safe for you to reopen? Will the trust be there?
Yeah, I think it’s entirely possible that it’s going to take a while for people to feel comfortable to come back in. I also worry people will just forget what it’s like to be at a show. [Laughs] Watching somebody on a screen is so completely different than being in a crowd and feeling that energy. A show is a multi-sensory experience, completely. I worry about younger people who aren’t getting to experience live music right now, too.
Hopefully, this isn’t going to last that long. But who knows, it could. It’s just going to take one hundred percent guaranteed assurance that people aren’t going to catch the virus, in whatever form that comes in, before we can get back to what we were before.