Local and federal efforts look to keep Austin’s music scene afloat during the pandemic

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — As Texas continues the process of reopening more businesses, the music scene that has earned Austin the title of “Live Music Capital of the World” still faces major hurdles.

With restaurants and bars closed until recently, and with continued concerns about the safety of gathering in person to listen to music, advocates say that Austin’s musicians and music venues have been particularly hard-hit.

Both federal and local leaders have taken recent actions in an effort to get more emergency dollars into the hands of Austin’s music community.

Austin relief efforts

Austin City Council passed three items last week which target different areas of the music industry.

The first of these items gets the ball rolling on an Austin Music Disaster Relief Fund, a $1.5 million fund that will provide $1,000 grants to “Austin’s most vulnerable musicians for their immediate emergency needs.” The program will contract through the MusiCares Foundation, Inc, to disburse emergency dollars to musicians in Austin who have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic or the cancellation of SXSW.

The city told KXAN Wednesday that the Austin Music Disaster Relief Fund application will be live and accepting eligible submissions through the MusiCares Foundation on a first-come first-served basis starting on Monday, June 8th, 10am CST.

The second item directs Austin’s city manager to start looking into how to sustain Austin’s creative culture and to create an economic development corporation, which would grow Austin’s commercial music sector.

The third item directs Austin’s city manager to start directing federal relief dollars toward music venues, and to take action so that the Red River Cultural District can receive a state historical designation.

Nakia Reynoso, musician and president of local musician advocacy nonprofit Austin Texas Musicians, said that his organization, “commends our city leaders on these historic decisions, as this massive effort to bring aid and growth to the music industry is unprecedented throughout the U.S.”

Rick Carney, the chair of Austin’s Music Commision, explained that the disaster relief fund through MusiCares will only be available to musicians because limited resources forced the city to narrow its scope of funding.

“One of the big pieces of the puzzle is getting venues help, we have the live music fund as well that was established that’s to build a future, but in order to have a future we have to make sure we can sustain as many venues as possible now,” Carney said.

That Live Music Fund is generated through Austin’s hotel occupancy tax, and Carney said for the time being, that fund is more suited for long term needs rather than immediate financial relief.

“Once we can sustain the venues, get the local musicians a little bit of help, we can look long term at how we can use that live music fund in order to rebuild our music ecosystem,” Carney added.

Federal Relief

On May 14, U.S. Congressman Roger Williams (R-Texas) wrote a letter to Congressional leaders, calling for financial assistance during the pandemic to live music venues in Austin and around the country. The bipartisan letter was co-written by U.S. Congressman Emanuel Cleaver, II (D-Mo.) and 91 other members of Congress signed on in support.

Among other things, the letter says, “we support providing government funding, tax relief measures, and assistance to mitigate the continued financial impacts on mom and pop venues across the country.”

In an interview with KXAN, Rep. Williams explained, “I think we all know Austin is the music capital of the world, and this industry is one of the first to be devastated with crowd control and separation and all of the things that we had to do.”

He also noted that the music industry brings “a ton” of dollars and tourism into Texas each year. Beyond the financial benefits of the music industry, Williams believes there are other reasons this additional funding for venues is important right now.

“The thing about the music industry is it’s more than a job for a lot of people, its relaxation, it’s quality of life, it’s a part of our lifestyle here and we’ve got to bring it back and we’ve got to protect it,” he said.

Williams said he plans on talking with congressional leaders about how current federal loans and relief programs could be tweaked to be more suited to those working into the music industry who may not be able to get back to work quickly.

“I don’t see a lot of push-back, frankly we just need to be able to explain the needs and talk about the needs,” Williams said.

A release about this congressional effort included quotes of support from several Austin-area music venues.

Austin venue Barracuda was quoted as saying, “we provide stages for personal expression, employ folks from all economic backgrounds and create an atmosphere in absolute congruence with tourism and building a home for locals that’s rich with creativity. Our independent venues must be protected or else we botch the whole recipe of our economy.”

Weathering the pandemic

Those who work in Austin’s music industry already faced significant personal and financial stressors prior to the pandemic. Each venue and musician has to make the calculation: is it worth it for their physical and financial health to begin performances again now that venues are reopening?

In Austin, Donn’s Depot, for example, hasn’t opened yet and still plans to “watch the trends and see how things roll” according to a Facebook message from the venue. But honky-tonk Broken Spoke opted to open at 25% capacity on May 22 when the state allowed bars to reopen.

Austin musicians Guy Forsyth and Jeska Bailey (who are married and have been quarantining together) typically play in crowded live venues, but during the pandemic they’ve turned their efforts into learning how to broadcast live concerts from their home via Facebook.

“We’ve asked for donations through Venmo and PayPal and that certainly helps,” Forsyth said of these live stream concerts. “It doesn’t replace the income that we were making beforehand.”

To be clear, Forsyth notes, he and his wife are grateful to have a roof over their heads. But the financial strain is still impacting them and causing them to lean on support from community members until they feel it is safe to perform live in front of a crowd again.

After a “World Tour” of concerts on Facebook Live from every room of their house, the couple has now taken to broadcasting from the stages of empty venues that have been closed due to COVID-19, like Donn’s Depot. For venues that have already re-opened, the two opt to play from their home in a temporary “takeover” of the venue’s Facebook page for a few hours.

Bailey said they are starting to consider the possibility of playing at live, outdoor venues again. But there are lots of questions are associated with that: do venues have enough money to pay musicians? If multiple artists perform in one night, can you ensure the venue is sanitized properly between acts?

“We want to help the venues that are reaching out to us to play but financially we don’t think it makes sense, ethically we don’t think it makes sense and we want to be a good example,” Bailey said.

So far, the two said that the amount of money venues have been offering them to play as businesses re-open has been around 80% lower than what they would typically ask for.

The two said they welcome the prospect of federal or city financial aid in the months to come.

“I am scared if all the musicians don’t stand together, this could be such a  failure,” Bailey said. “Now we have an opportunity to stop, pay attention to whats going on, regroup, and maybe move forward with something stronger and better.”

Joe Ables, the owner of Austin venue Saxon Pub, told KXAN that he his venue is still “firmly closed with no intentions of opening soon.”

“With all the noise about everything else going on this weekend, if we don’t have a spike in cases, we are going to be lucky,” Ables said referencing crowds at several Austin bars over the weekend.

Instead, Ables has also been live-streaming shows from his venue’s stage, proudly noting that these two concerts so far have raised $43,000 which has been given directly back to musicians.

Ables secured a Paycheck Protection Program loan from the federal government and he is hoping to get additional grant money through the City of Austin’s programs.

“I am solid, we are not going anywhere and we will opening when it’s ready,” he said.

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