Roughly a week after the South by Southwest Music Festival and Conference was canceled and the day after the NBA suspended its 2020 season, Reenie Collins, director of the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians, made the difficult decision to cancel Ray Benson’s Birthday Bash. The annual event first was planned as its usual lawn party fundraiser at advertising agency GSD&M’s downtown office and had been resurrected as a ticketed event at the Paramount after the fest was called off.
Carefully monitoring the latest information provided by health experts, she had come to a chilling conclusion: it was no longer a question of if COVID-19 would arrive in Austin, but when.
Music venues, artists and promoters were still grappling with whether additional health safety measures could salvage club shows. The Paramount bash would bring roughly $250,000 to the nonprofit that provides low-cost health insurance to Austin’s music community, but amid growing concerns about the biggest health crisis of our generation, Collins felt the event was distracting her organization from its core mission.
"What we need to really be concentrating on is our people, our musicians. They need access to care. They need help. They need communication," she said on March 11.
"Our musician community is going to be hit really hard and they've just been hit hard financially, so HAAM needs to be ready to help them."
She knew her organization, positioned in between the health care industry and the arts world, would be "at the epicenter of this for the music community."
"We are the ones that are trusted, that musicians turn to," she said.
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The following day, HAAM sent an emergency survey to the organization’s 2,600 members. As of Tuesday, they had received over 700 responses, and the results paint a bleak picture of a music community in crisis. Among respondents, 99% said they had been affected by COVID-19 and the SXSW cancellation, with 70% saying they had lost between $1,000 and $5,000 in expected income. For 17% of respondents, the financial loss was greater than $5,000.
Some of the musicians expressed concerns about being able to afford prescription medicines. Facing prolonged club closures that drain their primary revenue streams, they were worried about how they could buy food and pay their rent, the survey showed.
"I realize this is affecting the entire world. But Austin is gonna be particularly hit harder by this economically because it happened to us during SXSW," Nakia Reynoso, founder and president of the musicians advocacy group Austin Texas Musicians, said on Tuesday. Many musicians, venues and industry professionals bank enough money during Austin’s March celebration to carry them through several months or longer.
Within his group, the reality of an extended break from live performance is beginning to set in, and anxiety is running high. Artists who believed they would be able to go back to performing in April are now seeing gigs canceled through the end of June. Many are facing months of lost income.
"And these aren't just, you know, people that play on Sixth Street, these are people that tour the world," Reynoso said.
Even though HAAM has also taken a financial hit, Collins on Tuesday said her organization had decided to redeploy some money they had on hand to provide immediate relief to their clients. Health navigators and social workers from HAAM are following up with survey respondents, mailing out H-E-B gift cards and arranging assistance for prescription drug expenses.
"My biggest fear is that people, because they need food, are not going to pay for their portion of their insurance premiums," Collins said. HAAM is looking for donors and exploring ways to divert money so they can help musicians who are struggling to afford their premiums.
As the health crisis deepens, "we know that it's going to be critical that we keep musicians with access to health care services," Collins said.
Federal health privacy guidelines prevent Collins from disclosing whether any HAAM clients have been diagnosed with COVID-19, but she said people have been reaching out for information on how to get tested.
"We have not had an emergency case where someone has called us and said, ‘Oh, my gosh, so and so is on a ventilator,’" she said, but she suspects in time we will all know people in that situation.
"I don't want to be alarmist," she said. But when she "looks at the science," that's what she’s seeing.
To expand the safety net for Austin’s music community, HAAM is enrolling new members. Former HAAM members who chose not to renew their coverage at some point have been back in touch, "and then there's a whole community of musicians, especially younger musicians, (who) just never got around to it because they're the young invincibles, and so we know they're gonna be reaching out to us," Collins said.
She said HAAM will continue to accept new members "until we can’t."
Reynoso said his group has been advocating for artists at the city and the state level. On Thursday, Reynoso and Collins, along with the directors of a dozen other Austin music nonprofits, sent a letter to City Council expressing strong support for the COVID-19 Economic Resilience Resolution that could provide relief to small business owners.
In San Francisco, Reynoso said, the mayor has announced a relief package for artists, and he’d like to see Austin’s city leadership do the same.
"Everybody's going to need relief for this in a variety of ways," he said, but he thinks Austin musicians and music venues are going to need "extra care if the city wants them to come back from this."
Collins shares his concerns.
At a recent conference, she talked to a friend who runs a health clinic for musicians in New Orleans about the devastating effect Hurricane Katrina had on the city’s music scene.
"It just decimated their music community," she said. "And people didn't come back."
With the entire world facing this pandemic, the current situation is very different, but Collins still sees the Crescent City’s struggle to rebuild as a cautionary tale.
"People say, ’Well, where are they gonna go? Every place is going to be devastated.’ Correct. But they're going to go to places with cheaper cost of living. They're going to go to places where their parents live, where their friends live. They're going to stop playing music altogether and do a full-time job," she said.
Music is the heart and soul of our city, as evidenced by everything from the cultural tourism slogan that brands us the Live Music Capital of the World to the clusters of venues in Austin’s entertainment districts which, in normal times, bustle with activity every night of the week.
"If we don't create an infrastructure here that allows our musicians to stay, and keeps them here and helps them, (if) we get decimated, what is Austin going to be?" Collins said.