A group of musicians, venue employees and music industry advocates rallied on Monday at Austin City Hall in support of a dedicated live music venue preservation fund. Roughly 200 people attended, according to organizers.
At their Sept. 17 meeting, City Council approved a resolution directing the city manager to explore available financial assistance for struggling businesses, including music venues, restaurants/bars, child care businesses and arts venues. City staff members on Tuesday said they have identified $15 million to be made available to the entertainment sector through three different pool, one of which would specifically help venues. Music advocates, some of whom feel that city COVID-19 relief programs have not done enough to support Austin’s music scene, hope that the council will approve funding during their Thursday meeting.
Event organizers on Monday led the crowd in chants of "M-V-P" — short for music venue preservation — at multiple times during the rally.
"Over the years, I've watched city officials give lip service to our community and introduce various programs to support our creative culture, only to have them dwindle and evaporate before they gain any traction," musician Lauryn Gould said at the rally.
Shinyribs frontman Kevin Russell, who moved to Austin in 1991 shortly before the city adopted the slogan "Live Music Capital of the World," gave a fiery speech built around the refrain, "It’s time to put up or shut up."
"For too long they have ridden our cultural coattails while taking us to the cleaners," he said of the city. "They have lured venture capital with our velvet-voiced crooners, wooed Silicon Valley’s best and brightest with our beats and bacchanals, charmed the pants off of real estate developers with our down-home blues, sweet harmonies and honky tonks."
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In recent years, he said, "The gay place has become a joyless metropolis. The groover’s paradise, a paradise lost."
"Our work is what defines us individually. But here's the thing, our work defined this town," Jeannette Gregor of the newly formed Amplified Sound Coalition said at the rally. The coalition represents behind-the-scenes event workers.
Gregor said the venue preservation fund is "what we need to keep our industry alive."
"This is what we need to start to put the fire out," she said.
In a conversation on Austin360’s streaming show the Monday Music Mashup after the rally, Gregor described event workers as "this massive creative force" who are desperate to get back to work.
"We want to start figuring out how to have festivals again. We want to start figuring out how to have anything entertaining again, that isn't, you know, your couch and Hulu," she said. "That’s why we came to this city. But it is next to impossible to have those conversations when we don't know if the venues will exist."
In addition to the grant money, Patrick Buchta of advocacy group Austin Texas Musicians called for "a qualified grant administrator who understands our community and understands how to work with our community."
Also on Thursday, City Council is set to consider extending a contract with the Better Business Bureau, which administered the Austin Nonprofit Relief Grant (also known as ANCHOR) and the Austin Small Business Relief Grant (also known as CLEAR). In a letter to the council, representatives from the city’s Economic Development Department said the BBB was selected in part because of their experience in grant administration. At the rally, Buchta said that the "BBB has never given a grant, as far as we can tell, from extensive research on their past financial reports."
The BBB received a 5% administrative fee, $1.14 million in total, for their work on the two grant programs.
When leaders in the music community learned about the decision to award the grant administration contracts to the BBB in June, they sent a letter to City Council expressing concerns about the organization, citing a lack of experience with grant administration and potential conflicts of interest that might arise because the BBB earns revenue from local business and nonprofit membership fees.
At the rally, music advocates said they were prepared for a long struggle on many fronts to secure funding for the music industry.
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Nakia Reynoso of Austin Texas Musicians said that one of his group’s next targets would be $6 billion of federal relief funds that he said the state has received but has not allocated.
"When this fight is over today, we'll turn our attention towards the Capitol," he said.
On the federal level, a proposed bipartisan Save Our Stages act has been folded into a revised version of the HEROES Act, which the House took up on Monday.
"We hope our elected officials come together on COVID-19 assistance in the coming days, not weeks or even months," a representative from the National Independent Venue Association said in a statement. "Our small, independent businesses, which normally contribute billions of dollars to local economies, are on the precipice of mass collapse if this critical funding doesn’t come through."
At the rally, Gregor said she plans to continue advocating for the event industry "even after our stages go live."
"I will fight for this community and this industry, because this is my home," she said.