by Nick Hanover
At the January meeting of the Austin Music Commission, the Commission was asked if they had any proposals for the Downtown Commission about revitalizing downtown when things stabilize. Composer Graham Reynolds piped up to ask whether a conversation could be started with some of the bigger corporations who have office space downtown and are realizing, amidst the new Work From Home status quo, that they do not need all that costly space. Reynolds elaborated, arguing that the aid businesses are asking for and receiving from local and federal government entities suggests the city has more leverage than ever before to get these corporations to take on some of the responsibility of saving live music in the Live Music Capital of the World. “We’re helping them so why can’t they help us?” Reynolds asked.
Though Reynolds’ inquiry was focused on the intersection of music and Austin’s rapidly expanding commercial sector, it connects to a larger question that has been on the mind of the entire music industry since March: where will music even be happening in a post-pandemic world?
One thing is becoming increasingly clear: commercial music venues are closing at a rapid rate and it will take years for that sector to return to anything resembling its pre-pandemic state, if it returns at all.
According to an ongoing tally by Billboard of music venue closures in the US, Texas has seen the highest number of closures and Austin specifically has seen four times as many closures as Dallas, the next highest city on the list. Those closures have had a catastrophic impact on the promoters who booked them as well, from national behemoth Live Nation— which implemented an undisclosed number of layoffs in September (including a “good majority” of the staff of its Austin based subsidiary C3) after furloughing 25% of its staff in April and 20% more the following month– to local favorite Margin Walker, who shut down altogether last month. And of course SXSW was hit hard and quickly, laying off 50 employees (apparently one third of its staff) in the wake of the shutdown that heralded the true beginning of the pandemic in the US. If things continue at this rate, experts suggest that we may eventually see the loss of 90% of independent venues and festivals. And so far, local governments have done little, if anything, to provide aid.
Prior to the finalization of the Live Music Preservation Fund on December 3rd, the City of Austin doled out a little under $800,000 to venues between the creative spaces and small business grant programs, split amongst 29 venues, several of which, like North Door, have since gone out of business. Likewise, about $1.4 million in aid from the Creative Worker Relief Grant went to music industry personnel, spread between fewer than 800 qualifying music creatives from more than 5,500 applicants. Two rounds of $1.5 million in CARES funding– one in April, the other in August— paid musicians grants of $1,000. This would mean the total sum of relief money the Austin music industry received in 2020, prior to the as-yet unallocated funds from the SAVES resolution, is a little over $5 million.
To put that number into proper context, the most recent economic impact study of Austin music, from 2015, showed that music had a $1.8 billion impact on the local economy and provided tax revenue of almost $50 million for the city. Even if the music economy saw no increase whatsoever from the 2014 tax season (which seems incredibly unlikely), the total relief funding equals .28% of music’s impact and 10% of its tax revenue, all while studies are showing music has been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, with some suggesting job loss in the performing arts sector was as high as 50% by August.
Some community activists, like Bill Bunch, have criticized the city for spending so little on relief for the music industry here while moving ahead with projects like the Austin Convention Center expansion, despite the fact that convention center business was projected to plunge even before the pandemic began. That expansion effort has a $1.2 billion budget and Bunch has urged the city to at least open up for relief the expansion’s reserve fund, which he estimates to be $230 million– or nearly 50 times the total amount of relief Austin’s music industry has received since March.
As we head towards the year marker of the pandemic, it is clear that without significant financial help and innovative solutions, Austin’s status as a live music hub will be jeopardized. That makes questions like Graham Reynolds’ all the more important– if there are few if any venues left at the end of this, where can we look towards for answers about where to home music?
While Reynolds focused on the unused office space existing corporations are struggling to justify spending money on anymore, there is another possible solution that does not require corporate sympathy and would allow for better community control as well as the possible beautification of areas that have been ravaged by time and neglect: receivership.
Receivership is essentially a process that allows the city, a non-profit organization or other entity to take over a property that the owner has dangerously neglected. In the “Texas Problem Properties Toolkit,” a document they prepared as “a resource to help Texas communities address problems created by abandoned and vacant properties,” the Community Development Clinic at the UT School of Law stated
“when a property creates an imminent risk of harm to tenants and the surrounding community, a city or nonprofit housing organization can file a lawsuit and ask a judge to appoint a receiver to take over the property. The receiver then steps into the shoes of the owner. A receiver may collect rents, make repairs to the property, and rebuild the property with court approval. Depending on which receivership statute is utilized in Texas, the receiver can be an individual, a nonprofit organization, or other entity. The receiver has a lien on the property for the receiver’s expenses, but the receiver is responsible for fronting the costs of rehabilitating the property. If the owner does not reimburse the receiver, the receiver can ask the court for permission to sell the property and is reimbursed out of the sales proceeds. Receivership is available for multifamily, single-family, commercial, and vacant properties.”
The Community Development Clinic pointed towards Dallas and Baltimore as cities where receivership has resulted in improved conditions for the community, with Baltimore standing out as an example where “in about 85 percent of the cases, the mere threat of receivership has resulted in the owner either making the repairs or voluntarily selling the property.”
Even before the pandemic, regular visitors to downtown Austin could quickly point towards multiple properties that would seem ripe for receivership, like the Uptown Sports Club, which was a running joke for years before it caught the eye of the Historic Landmark Commission and Aaron Franklin in 2020 and now may finally be on the road to rehabilitation. As more venues fall to the pandemic, receivership also offers a method for the city and/or non-profit partners to take over former venue spaces that have been allowed to decay and be neglected before that process is irreversible.
Developing non-profit spaces from scratch is another possible solution. Though Austin has a number of large scale non-profit venues that help sustain the arts– ranging from the Topfer, home to the ZACH, the longest running active theatre company in Texas, to the Long Center, which came into being via a city referendum in 1998 and since the completion of its construction in 2008 has been the primary home for the city’s ballet, opera and symphony performances as well as select touring events– venues like Seattle’s Vera Project might provide a template for smaller scale, non-profit managed live music in Austin.
The Vera Project was created from a city funded pilot program of $25,000 in 2001 and will be celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, and has long stood out as a sterling example of a non-profit, city funded venue that serves and empowers its community, particularly youth. Its core mission– to provide a safe, all-ages space that does not rely on alcohol sales for survival and offers community programs alongside performances– aligns with Austin’s need for more venues that can nurture and develop young audiences and musical communities, particularly with the disappearance of “incubator” venues like Beerland and Scratchouse, both of which stood out on Red River as some of the only options for fans and bands in underserved genres and demographics.
On the note of incubators, Macon, Georgia recently launched the Mercer Music at Capricorn project, which serves as not only a museum devoted to Macon’s musical history, specifically as it relates to the legendary Capricorn Records, but also as an incubator for musicians as well as innovators with music industry and tech ideas. Combining rehearsal spaces with offices and community hubs, Mercer Music at Capricorn seeks to provide low cost support and space to its music industry in the hopes of returning the city to the musical heights it reached in the ‘70s with the Southern Rock boom.
Mercer Music at Capricorn is an extension of Mercer University, which also bodes well for its long term viability, and suggests that it is a template that could be utilized by our own UT, particularly since UT’s new arena and stadium are both far too big for even the most successful Austin artists and its most historic small scale venue, Hole in the Wall, was on the brink of closing multiple times even before the pandemic.
Pivoting towards a non-profit model of some sort obviously brings its own unique challenges but for live music in particular, that model could allow the sector to finally escape its reliance on the alcohol business for its viability. In 2019, Music Venue Alliance Austin attempted to get relief from alcohol taxes for venues in Texas via House Bill 2806, which would have provided rebates on taxes industry advocates have long claimed were a major burden for the industry. MVAA’s Executive Director Rebecca Reynolds even prophetically stated
“When operating costs rise as quickly as they have due to increased rent and taxes, and audiences suddenly disappear, these businesses have to make the difficult decision to stop offering music or to close their doors altogether.”
It’s no secret that alcohol sales are the lifeblood of commercial music venues, not ticket sales, and that many of the decisions venues make to bring in crowds in competitive areas, like the Red River Cultural District, prioritize increasing the number of alcohol consumers often at the cost of music revenue. Visitors to downtown benefit from low, if not outright nonexistent, door fees just to get them inside venues where owners hope they will spend their money on pricey beverages rather than on, say, band merchandise.
Although the DIY circuit that rose up in tandem with the punk movement of the ‘70s and ‘80s is by no means a perfect system, it is another possible model for post-pandemic touring, with its focus on non-traditional music venue spaces, like YMCAs and community halls and house parties, that don’t have liquor licenses and bar inventories to stand in the way of adventurous booking. And while DIY circuits do not have the safety net of guarantees (or even stages and sound systems most of the time), when communities are passionate and driven, they can offer independent touring artists not just strong crowds of eager music fans but also places to sleep and eat.
There is also no denying that prior to the pandemic, the situation for the Austin music scene in particular felt untenable, as the oversaturation of venues and artists led to dwindling payouts and the skyrocketing rents led to a constantly revolving door of music venue entrances and departures. The covid crisis would have been devastating even if the musical ecosystem was in better shape but for Austin’s cutthroat industry, it has been an extinction event. But now the question is whether we want to rebuild the same broken system or attempt to construct something more sustainable and equitable. Perhaps by examining these options, and putting more of an emphasis on building up and nurturing community driven venue models, we can not only come back but end up stronger.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Ovrld as well as Loser City, where he mostly writes about comics. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with his friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover