AUSTIN (KXAN) — As Austin music venues like Barracuda, Threadgill’s, and Shady Grove closed for good during the pandemic, many community members have been sounding alarm bells that other beloved venues could soon follow in that path.
As Austinites stay home and avoid gathering to curb the ongoing spread of COVID-19, the venues able to reopen face capacity limits, while others feel unsafe or financially unable to operate at all.
Austin City Council approved a resolution on Thursday which directs city staff to look for any additional funding that could be used to provide relief for music venues, arts venues, bars, restaurants and childcare providers. While the music community members who showed up to speak at Thursday’s council meeting said they wanted this resolution passed, they also wanted the council to take a step further and commit $10 million of the dollars the city finds to a dedicated fund for preserving music venues.
Council did not go so far as to outline that specific fund in their resolution or that dollar amount, however, the council aimed to leave the door open for city staff to make that possible if they can find the dollars.
In a statement to KXAN, Austin Mayor Steve Adler explained that this resolution “will have us find and use all monies that can legally be spent on the music and restaurant businesses we’re most in danger of losing, whose loss will most disrupt our recovery and make it harder to preserve what’s special about Austin.”
The council direction will push city staff to look for this funding quickly: the city manager is asked to present the funding options and recommendations to the council no later than Sept. 29 and to set the council up to vote on any necessary ordinances or budget amendments on Oct. 1.
When the city staff comes back with options, Austin musician and Elephant Room music manager Michael Mordecai is hoping they bring forward the creation of a music venue preservation fund. The city has already offered a Musician Disaster Relief Fund as well as grants for small businesses and nonprofits, but what Mordecai and others are asking for is an additional relief fund to be used specifically for struggling venues.
Elephant Room had its last in-person music performance in March, Mordecai said, and recently the venue has been working to create a virtual show to help bring in some revenue. He considers the Elephant Room in a better spot than many venues as they had some reserve funding on hand in the event of a crisis. But even with that reserve funding, the rent bills continue to pile up.
“The arithmetic is very simple,” Mordecai said. “If there’s no money coming in, then you can’t keep paying money out very long.”
“Rent relief is the one thing that the Elephant Room needs and that all the music venues need,” he added.
Mordecai, who has been playing music in Austin for 50 years, was actually a member of Austin’s Music Commission decades ago when the city officially adopted the slogan “the live music capital of the world.”
Mordecai doesn’t think Austin will lose the title during the pandemic, but he does think many music venues are on a “short rope” right now with dwindling financial options to turn to.
The Elephant Room, for example, applied for a pandemic relief grant from the city and was not selected.
“It’s tough and there’s not enough money to go around and we don’t expect everything,” Mordecai said. “But to be ignored and rejected was sort of a slap in the face.”
Other Austin music venues such as the Saxon Pub have told KXAN they were not selected for city relief grants either.
Mordecai proposes that the city should hand out music venue relief dollars with stratified levels. First, he thinks the city should offer relief to the “iconic” music clubs with name recognition and history, then offer relief to newer and smaller clubs next.
“I do think the city would have an interest in saving the obvious iconic clubs in this town,” he said.
In the long run, he thinks music venues may need to team up with corporate sponsors to stay afloat. Mordecai also believes it could help if the city helped music venues with promotion and streaming, maybe even making a “cute little website” to showcase Austin venues.
But in the immediate future, he is hoping the city can prioritize whatever financial relief may be left for venues.
“Now we need action, we need results,” emphasized Pat Buchta, the executive director for advocacy nonprofit Austin Texas Musicians.
Buchta said that his group is agnostic on where the music venue relief funding comes from, but they believe Austin’s music venues need to see a commitment from the city to that funding soon.
“We need to see that specific language that says there will be a dedicated music venue preservation fund,” he said. “Without that explicit language, we are just not faithful that the council is going to follow through and deliver the aid that venues really need right now to survive. “
Buchta has heard from many venue owners who also were not awarded city grants and believe they won’t be able to keep their doors open much longer.
“What we know as the live music capital of the world, we either have to bring some help to it now, or we need to make peace with the fact that we’re saying goodbye,” Buchta added.