Conor Byrne Pub Moving to Innovative Co-Op Model


Connor Byrne Pub photo by Brady Harvey


Though the doors of the venerable Conor Byrne Pub closed in Ballard a few months ago, plans are afoot already to reopen under a radical new format. The new non-profit Conor Byrne Cooperative aims to bring the venue back as a co-op, supported by the artists and fans themselves, and beholden to its own members. It’s a bold vision that could be a saving grace for any number of beloved Seattle venues as rising rents and decreasing alcohol sales start pushing them under.

Amidst a shower of pints on St. Patrick’s Day and a flood of singer-songwriters for one more of their famous open mic nights, Conor Byrne Pub quietly closed the doors at the end of March, ostensibly ending a 120-year-long run as a beloved pub in the heart of Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood. Though they may have taken a break for a few years during Prohibition, alcohol has poured through this bar since it opened as the Owl Saloon in 1904. When I first moved to Seattle in 2004, this was the place for Irish traditional music. 

An Irish fiddler, Conor Byrne, had bought the pub and turned it into a truly authentic Irish pub under his own name. Byrne was a ferocious fiddler who loved to jump into the middle of jam sessions with abandon. Though he returned to Ireland some years later, the pub kept its Irish ownership and its traditional values. It became more of a focal point in Ballard for the burgeoning folk and Americana scenes, hosting smaller bands on their way up and developing a fabled open mic night that led to the discovery of major bands like The Head and The Heart.

Jazz bands have also long held court between the brick walls of this pub and under the beautiful, antique chandelier above the stage. “Conor Byrne has always held the door open for new music,” says local neo-soul and jazz band Nodaphone. “It’s the first stage we ever played on as a band and we fell in love with the warmth of the place, the staff, and that chandelier! Our music draws on a wide range of genres and styles, and we’ve seen so many shows on the Conor Byrne stage that have shaped our sound and how we write together.” Local music producer, Kevin Sur of Artist Home, points out that venues like Conor Byrne that are willing to take chances on rising artists are a critical part of a local music ecosystem. “Every band needs to work their way up the ladder,” he says, “and Conor Byrne and venues of that size offer the first few rungs of the ladder that they climb.” If smaller venues like Conor Byrne disappear, he points out that it can have a critical impact on the local music scene, something he’s seen previously in the Bay Area. Angela Moorer of neo-soul group Ava Blue agrees, “Conor Byrne holds a special place in our hearts as the first public venue in Seattle to embrace Ava Blue’s sound. The pub’s commitment to fostering a vibrant, community-oriented music scene has not only nurtured emerging talents like us but has been instrumental in keeping the spirit of live jazz alive in Seattle.”

Following Conor Byrne’s closing, a coalition of employees and industry workers put out a call to action to raise money to start a cooperative venue under the Conor Byrne name and in the same space. They’ve already blown past their initial fundraising goal, and seem to be on track to reopen soon as a co-op. The group is currently raising money through membership pre-sales, offering a suite of exclusive membership perks like member events and voting rights. The venue’s president, Adria Dukich, says that this is a new model for music venues and hopes that this model “could also create a path for smaller venues facing the same fate.” According to her, this is a “business model that is held and shaped by our community, where we all share in the successes, support, and growth and have a say in what’s important to us. Our hope and belief is that this model can and will be more sustainable for everyone and fit into the values of the artistic and creative community.”


Posted on

May 29, 2024