AUSTIN — Because state and local government officials have perpetually shut down Texas’ capital city for nearly six months, they are now close to killing off the music that has earned Austin the moniker of “the Live Music Capital of the World.”
“We’re at the end of the road,” said Rebecca Reynolds, president of Music Venue Alliance Austin, in a recent interview with Austin360.
Officials, including Mayor Steve Adler, have barred local music venues from opening their doors since mid-March. And despite no money coming in, venue owners have still had to pay a growing mountain of bills and debt—which for many is tens of thousands every month.
“Landlords are feeling the pain on this, too. They’re not in a position to say, ‘You can’t pay me the $30,000 in rent that you owe me. I can make that up,’ right?” said Cody Cowan, president of the Red River Cultural District Merchants Association, in the same interview. “But the businesses don’t have it, because there’s no income.”
Some landlords were willing to prorate or reduce rates early on, Reynolds added, but they could only hang on for so long. Nearly six months without a living income, and Cowan said the downtown cultural district is on the “precipice” of losing 70 percent of live music venues—and that’s a conservative estimate.
“We’ve hit that moment where the cards are on the table,” he said.
Officials’ shutdowns could wipe out nearly all of the venues across the city as well, according to local owners.
“I think there’s a real risk of losing 90 percent of independent music venues in the next few months,” said one respondent in July to an Austin Chamber of Commerce survey of shutdown-harmed businesses.
“Of the 50-something venues in the city, there’s going to be five or 10 left after this,” said Steve Sternschein, co-owner of Empire Control Room and co-founder of the National Independent Venue Association. He said even venues owned by large corporations are on the brink of dying.
“It’s not maybe a couple of little places are going to go away. It’s like all of the music venues in Austin are going to be gone,” he said. That’s what’s going to happen really soon.”
Venue owners tried to get some life support from city and federal relief funds, but they were frustrated by the process and results. Some were denied, some were ineligible, and some who were lucky enough to get funds said it wasn’t enough to stay afloat for very long. Congress is currently considering a music venue relief bill, but with lawmakers currently on recess and not working, even that potential lifeline will probably be too little too late.
“There is no new math that’s going to be injected into the current situation,” Reynolds said. “So those sort of ‘it’s now or never’ conversations between landlords and tenants are beginning to happen more frequently.”
Reynolds also said local owners feel betrayed by city officials and their “decision to let venues just wither on the vine” without acknowledging “what they have contributed to our family as Austinites.”
“It was a very slow and tragic realization to get to where we were a couple of weeks ago when we were told, ‘The money is all gone and we spent it on other things,’” she said.
Officials terminating Austin’s live music venues won’t just be killing off the local industry, but crippling the entire local economy.
“Even if you never stepped foot in a music venue in Austin, you benefit greatly from the fact that they exist and what they have done for our community,” Reynolds said, explaining that the city’s vibrant music culture over the past several decades has stirred up the blossoming hotel growth and tourism, and helped lure big tech companies to town.
“No one’s talking about it, but is South by Southwest coming back?” Cowan said. “They took this year off. If they have to take next year off, which they likely will, what is going to happen downtown? What does homelessness look like in Austin? What does distressed downtown look like? What happens to office space and commercial real estate property values?”
“We are hearing from [Austin musician] clients that they can see now that the city does not care or support the music industry, so they are moving out of town,” said Patsy Dolan Bouressa, who directs a nonprofit that provides low-cost mental health services to musicians. “Last week, I personally spoke to three longtime clients who are moving to New Mexico. I also spoke to another who moved to Boston.”
“It is absolutely shameful what is happening,” she added. “I 100 percent believe the city should remove the ‘Live Music Capital of the World’ moniker from all websites and materials.”
Democrat Mayor Adler and other officials’ shutdown orders over the past several months have forced at least 132,000 Austinites out of work and into a new crisis of struggling to afford food and rent for their families. Adler and Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe recently extended their orders until mid-December.
Meanwhile, the coronavirus is currently related to 338 deaths in Austin-area Travis County, which has a population of 1.2 million.
Statewide, 13,204 deaths have been linked to the coronavirus out of the state’s 29 million citizens. Close to 7,000 Texans died from influenza and pneumonia this flu season.