A few days after the South by Southwest Music Festival was canceled but before Austin shut down completely, a line snaked from the door of Empire Control Room, down half a block to the corner of Seventh and Red River streets. Fans packed into the midsize Austin club for a sold-out Kamasi Washington show on March 8. It was a jubilant evening that reimagined jazz as ecstatic worship.


A week later, when downtown clubs should have been celebrating one of their busiest nights of the year, Austin’s entertainment districts had gone eerily quiet. The coronavirus pandemic closed the clubs. Today, the once-bustling stretches of venues and bars are boarded up, with no shows on their calendars for months.


Several states around the country, including Texas, are now taking steps to restart their economies. Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday declared the state’s restaurants, movie theaters, museums, libraries, malls and retail stores could reopen Friday at 25% capacity. Further loosening of restrictions will depend partly on the absence of a secondary "flare-up" of COVID-19 cases, Abbott said.


Music venues, meanwhile, are bracing for a long haul of capacity restrictions, continued closures and empty tour schedules. On April 22, a coalition of 800 independent music business owners, including more than 25 venues and promoters from Austin, came together under the banner of the National Independent Venue Alliance (NIVA) to send a letter appealing for aid to leaders of both houses of Congress. Staffers from Empire, the Mohawk and promoter Margin Walker Presents are helping to coordinate the alliance’s efforts in Austin.


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The letter noted that music venues were among the first businesses to close in response to the pandemic. In Austin, where venues rely on an influx of cash from SXSW to carry them through the year, the timing was particularly devastating. With a business model built around sizable public gatherings, where fans crowd together, jockeying for a good view of their favorite artists, many expect to be among the last to reopen.


"Recently, leaders in both California and New York expressed skepticism about the return of concerts and live events until at least 2021, which means that in order to protect lives, our employees and artists may remain without jobs and we may be without revenue for an entire year or more," the letter reads.


The national alliance is asking Congress for modifications to the Small Business Administration’s emergency loan programs that would address the needs of businesses like theirs, which will be unable to resume full operations for an extended period of time. They also are proposing tax relief efforts, continued federal support for unemployment insurance and a grant-based business recovery fund.


Music venues are central to Austin’s brand as the Live Music Capital of the World. Events like SXSW and Austin City Limits Music Festival drive tourism. Venues also are "job machines" for many, "from the lighting people to the artists that perform on the stages," said Steve Sternschein, founder of Heard Presents, the local company that runs downtown music venues Empire and the Parish.


In February, before the coronavirus pandemic took its toll on the local economy, the Texas Music Office’s industry directory listed 30,364 people as working in the Austin metro area music industry, excluding radio station employees.


"Independent music venues have an incredibly large network of folks who care. But it's never been really activated," said Sternschein, also a member of national alliance’s board. "We think there's probably a third of the country that's been to a show in a small venue."


Sternschein said the group has raised more than $250,000 to support their cause. "We have people in every congressional district, which is really unusual for a lobbying effort," he said.


He said the national group grew from a series of panicked Zoom meetings held as the gravity of the pandemic began to set in. Independent venue owners around the country realized that — unlike the deep-pocketed conglomerates that control much of America’s live music industry — their path to survival was unclear.


"We need to organize ourselves so we can have a loud enough place that we can actually, you know, get some relief. Because if not, this whole thing is over. We're all out of business. We're all done, and it's gonna be a Live Nation world," he said.


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On Tuesday, Rebecca Reynolds, director of the Music Venue Alliance of Austin, said it’s still not clear whether venues are going to be treated like bars — not among the businesses allowed to reopen yet, as far as Abbott’s protocols are concerned. The Austin group is focused on lobbying at the state and local level and is not affiliated with the national alliance.


Even if venues are able to reopen at 25% capacity, she said, "there are serious questions about the economics of whether it's worth it." In addition to revenue loss from capacity restrictions, music venues face additional costs associated with heightened safety measures required for bars.


Reynolds’ group represents a broad array of clubs, from small venues like East Austin’s Sahara Lounge and Rainey Street club Half Step to larger touring destinations like Stubb's Waller Creek Amphitheater. Some of the smaller venues the alliance represents are "chomping at the bit to reopen, even if it's at a limited capacity," she said.


"It's important to be bold and to think big in terms of entrepreneurship and how business can adapt inside of this, but ultimately, math is the crucible outside of the public health concerns," Cody Cowan, director of the Red River Cultural District, said on Monday.


Cowan spent 10 years as the general manager the Mohawk, a popular midsize venue. If it operated at 25% capacity, he said that, that club would not even be able to cover rent. He’s also concerned about what reopening might mean for loans, grants and other existing relief businesses are receiving in the wake of pandemic shutdowns: "What does it mean for ongoing conversations with landlords who might just be now coming to the table to talk about rent abatements or long-term assistance?"


The vast majority of venues in the Red River district, including Empire and Mohawk, laid off most of their employees immediately after closing. Many workers struggled to sign up for unemployment benefits with an overwhelmed Texas Workforce Commission. Cowan worries reopening too soon could put venue workers in a potentially unstable environment when they’ve just activated unemployment benefits, access to Medicare and access to food stamps.


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Food insecurity has caused concern for members of the music community in the months since the city shut down. Cowan on Tuesday announced that the Banding Together effort, launched by the Red River Cultural District after SXSW was canceled, has distributed $40,000 in H-E-B gift cards to more than 500 Austin-area bartenders, door people, production staff, servers and other event and venue workers.


Regarding reopening, "there's a lot of unknowns that have to be weighed," he said, noting that it might be some time before music fans feel ready to return to the clubs.


"I haven't seen any balance so far on the sheet that shows reopening is feasible now, even if it was even 50% (capacity)," Cowan said.


Reynolds said she is focused on working with the city to set up disaster relief funding to help venues keep up with rent, utilities and payroll "in order to keep them afloat until we can safely reopen."


"It’s really not complicated," she said. "I keep beating a dead horse. We need money. We need disaster relief funding. We don't need a program to apply for. We don't need to talk about return on investment. That's not what disaster relief is supposed to be predicated on.


"What we know for sure is that if we don't get enough disaster relief funding, there will be no music economy in Austin."