Alex Vallejo, the drummer for his Austin-based namesake band Vallejo, moved to Austin in 1995 after the band had come for a show and fell in love with the city. They moved from Birmingham, Ala., where the music venue ecosystem was scarce, and into a house in South Austin.
But the coronavirus pandemic has jeopardized not only lives but the livelihoods in Austin’s renowned music scene.
"We've lost so many venues already," Vallejo said. "But there is still time to save what stages we have left in Austin, and that will eventually become an incubator of opportunities for Austin’s up-and-coming artists once it's safe to get back to work."
Vallejo is one of dozens of musicians who spoke Thursday during a rally outside Austin City Hall calling for the immediate release of city funds to preserve viable, legacy music venues hurt by the coronavirus pandemic.
The event was organized by the nonprofit Austin Texas Musicians and the Amplified Sound Coalition advocacy group.
In the eight months since music venues across Austin were shuttered to help combat the spread of COVID-19, the disease linked to the coronavirus, business owners and live-music performers have grappled with the adjustments to life during a pandemic.
The music venues that make up the Live Music Capital of the World have struggled to survive the cancellation of concerts and other events that had kept the industry alive — a loss that hurt 30,000 people across the industry — music community leaders said.
The City Council approved the SAVES resolution in October to grant $5 million in aid to Austin’s music venues, which was supposed to be available within 45 days of that vote.
SAVES — short for Save Austin’s Vital Economic Sectors — will give a boost to selected businesses that are likely to close without the assistance. But as of Thursday, no money had been issued.
Jeannette Gregor, co-founder of Amplified Sound Coalition who was furloughed from the popular downtown music venue Mohawk, said city officials are still trying to determine the best way to distribute the money, but said that funds could still be available to venues as late as April.
While local nonprofit music organizations agree that careful consideration should be made in the creation of program requirements, they are asking city leaders to make $2 million of the $5 million available for immediate aid. Gregor said if venues wait until April, it will be too late and force many venues to close permanently.
‘Live Music Capital’ no more?
About a half-dozen businesses that were primarily music venues, including Barracuda, One-2-One Bar, Threadgill's North, Shady Grove and Townsend, have already shuttered. Gregor said the music community fears that more might close soon without aid.
"If we end the year with no aid in sight, we can no longer call ourselves the ‘Live Music Capital of the World,’" Pat Buchta, musician and executive director of Austin Texas Musicians, said during Thursday’s rally. "The time to act is now."
After Gov. Greg Abbott eased coronavirus restrictions in late summer, allowing some businesses to reopen, including some music venues, activity at many venues has gradually crept back in the past few months. Places with large outdoor spaces and venues that have embraced the restaurant model with limited-capacity shows have started to recover.
But several still have not reopened, including some of the city’s prime venues — Continental Club & Continental Gallery, C-Boy's, Saxon Pub, Mohawk, Cactus Cafe and Donn's Depot.
Nashville and other cities across the country have been able to help music venues, and Austin’s music community says it is asking for the same.
"We ask for sustainability because this city has for a decade ignored a community of people who live and work here," Gregor said at Thursday’s rally. "We ask for a preservation fund with long-term funding for venues because more focus was given to development, real estate and attracting millionaires to live in the ‘Live Music Capital’ than was given to rent prices for musicians for the places they play and the people who put them on stage."
Money on hold
The advocacy groups at the rally also urged the city’s staff to select a qualified grant administrator who understands the music community and has previous grant administration experience to administer funds with complete transparency.
Austin city officials said funding guidelines for technical assistance will be presented to the City Council on Dec. 3 for review and approval as part of the implementation process. Once the council adopts the enhanced guidelines, the city’s Economic Development Department expects to launch all components of the aid program by February 2021, officials said.
To date, 34 live music venues received COVID-19 grants from previous programs managed by the Economic Development Department, city officials said. This includes 17 awarded grants from the Creative Space Disaster Relief, totaling $417,000; and 17 grants from the Austin Small Business Disaster Relief Grant, totaling $444,000.
But music community members said more money needs to be distributed as soon as possible before it is too late, because for some it already is.
"Don't let our music scene slip away any further than it already has," Vallejo said. "Let’s get the money as soon as possible to our venues and save our stages, or we won't have many more venues left."
Statesman music critic Peter Blackstock contributed to this report.