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Departure of Emo's from Red River could have deep effects on music scene

Staff Writer
Austin 360

Even with rumors of Emo's closing circulating for a while, it was a surprise when owner Frank Hendrix announced last month that he had sold the place. For nearly 20 years, the club on the corner of Red River and Sixth Streets has acted as an anchor to the string of live music venues on Red River, with a large outside stage that could accommodate popular touring bands and a smaller capacity stage inside.

Without warning (or a proper send-off), the outside stage abruptly closed after an Austin City Limits Music Festival after-show. The inside stage will remain open through the end of the year.

David Morrison, a real estate broker who represented the buyer, Sixth Red River LC, said that his client was considering leasing the space to another music venue. Hendrix also said he plans to open a new Emo's small room "within walking distance" of the old venue, but it's unclear when — if at all — those clubs will materialize.

Although Hendrix wouldn't disclose the exact price he received for the lot on which Emo's stands, he did say it was in the seven-figures range, an indication of how valuable the land on Red River has become.

It also served as a reminder of the uncertainty that surrounds the future of the street, home to 12 live music venues, some with multiple stages.

Stakeholders in the Red River music world, including other venue owners, a music booker and organizations such as South by Southwest, agree that the scene is changing. To what degree isn't clear.

"New construction and development has scared a few people, and some aren't sure what the future might hold on that strip of road," said former Emo's booker Graham Williams, who left the club to start Transmission Entertainment with James Moody more than four years ago. Transmission and Moody's club Mohawk have become the dominant forces in booking touring indie rock acts into Red River.

The Mohawk has grown into the live music bookend on the north end of Red River since it opened near 10th Street in 2006. Though Mohawk now is probably strong enough to exist with or without other rooms on Red River, Williams and Moody both said that a concentration of clubs is more valuable to the city than a series of destination venues such as Hendrix's newly opened Emo's East on Riverside Drive or La Zona Rosa and ACL Live in the warehouse district.

"Being able to park your car and go from venue to venue is part of what makes Austin the self-proclaimed Music Capital of the World," Williams said. "There isn't really anything like it in other cities, at least not to this degree."

On a Friday night, for example, at least 10 multiple-band shows, headlined by touring and local acts, were happening in the two-tenths of a mile between Emo's and Mohawk.

Music corridor emerges

When Emo's opened in 1992, music venues on Sixth Street were being replaced by bars focused more on drinking and cover bands. Emo's, along with clubs including Cave Club and the Cavity, grew popular as destinations for live, original music and drew music fans to Red River Street. Emo's earned a national reputation with touring acts as some clubs closed and others, including Stubb's, Club Deville, Red 7, Beauty Bar, Beerland, Elysium and Mohawk opened.

Williams credits Emo's presence with luring many of the existing clubs to open. "Emo's was a big part of the Red River district, and I do believe that the rooms are more connected than people know," he said. "Most cities have venues that are so spread out that their scenes don't have the ability to grow and the audience and customers have no place to plant their flag."

Moody agrees.

"One of the reasons the Mohawk is here is because Emo's was here," he said. "People park one time to see anywhere between two, four and five shows a night. Losing Emo's at the corner of Sixth and Red River is a huge change."

More clubs means more walk-up traffic than people think, he said, with customers stopping at Mohawk after spending time at another club, or vice versa.

Not that he's planning on going anywhere. The Mohawk is in the process of applying for a permit to expand its capacity as well as investing in more lighting and sound equipment.

Charles Attal, co-owner of Stubb's, Red River's largest venue with a capacity of 2,100 on its outdoor stage, isn't abandoning the area either.

Attal also is a partner in C3 Presents, which produces the Austin City Limits Music Festival and books touring acts in several Austin clubs. He said C3 still plans to renovate Stubb's, including razing the dilapidated buildings attached to the north side of the amphitheater, once the project is approved by the city. The Waller Creek flood plain still extends to buildings housing many of the clubs and bars on the east side of Red River, including Stubb's. The scheduled Waller Creek tunnel project will lift that designation, allowing for more development.

"We're still committed to do a multiuse venue, and we've been working with the city to get it done," Attal said.

As for as the impact of losing Emo's, Attal said that for now, enough smaller stages exist to accommodate the same number of shows in a given week.

"When we opened in '96, there was nothing on that road. I think it's thriving," Attal said. "I don't think (losing Emo's) is going to help the area, but I don't think it hurts it."

Ripple effect

One business directly affected by Emo's closing is South by Southwest, the annual festival and conference that packs Austin with music, technology and films for two weeks each spring. Emo's has been a destination club for the music fest, with big-name acts performing at both day parties and official night showcases. The stool used by Johnny Cash during his 1994 SXSW set still hangs over the bar.

"We're bummed out," SXSW managing director Roland Swenson said about the closing. "Emo's is always one of the most requested venues for acts that are coming here and was one of the easiest to book."

Swenson said the festival probably will hold showcases at Emo's East, as it did at the Back Room in the same location. There still are plenty of places for SXSW events in the Red River area and beyond.

"At this point live original music is such an important part of Austin's culture. I don't think that's going to go away anytime soon," Swenson said. Whether it moves away from Red River remains to be seen, he added.

"I'm not exactly sure where things are shifting," he said. "I've been involved in the live music scene in Austin since the late '70s, and I've seen the end of the scene so many times that I take it all with a grain of salt."

Heading east

One place entertainment is shifting, or at least growing, is east of the highway. A string of popular bars, restaurants and music or mixed-use venues, including the ND, Cheer Up Charlies and the East Side Drive-In, have popped up on East Sixth Street and in the neighborhood in the past few years. Moody sees Red River and the newer businesses across the highway as one large district.

To that end, he and Williams, who also produce Fun Fun Fun Fest, have secured a 20-year lease on the former Tops office supply building on East Fifth Street. He wouldn't say what they have planned for the large warehouse, but it's an easy bet that music will be involved.

Moody said he also supports the idea of the city creating a creative district that covers Red River and the East Sixth Street neighborhood east of Interstate 35. That designation could create a series of incentives that would make it easier for music venues to operate.

Austin now has two designated entertainment districts: the Warehouse District, which spans the area immediately west of Congress Avenue with a concentration on Fourth and Fifth streets between Guadalupe Street and Congress, and the Sixth Street District.

"I don't know what would be offered, but there are many things that can basically provide incentives so that if one venue moves another one comes in, and to make the existing venues feel like they're in the right place, and should stay," Moody said. "As the Live Music Capital of the World, we have an obligation to help as many of those places as possible because that's what the rest of the world flies here to see."

Momo's owner Paul Oveisi, who served as the vice chairman of the Austin Music Commission as well as the first executive director of Austin Music People before announcing his move to New York this month, agrees that the city needs to work with club owners to preserve music downtown. In 2008, Oveisi led the live music task force made up of business owners (including Moody and Attal), musicians and neighborhood representatives. Among that group's recommendations to the city was an entertainment district that included more downtown music venues.

Oveisi said a larger entertainment district might offer some leniency to sound ordinances and curfews.

"If we just become a downtown of bars then we become more like Bourbon Street, and that's not the direction I think anybody wants to go," Oveisi said. "Not to knock the business of bars, but the infrastructure is set up now that that's the business that thrives."

City music manager Don Pitts said it is possible for the city and the community to work together to preserve Red River's music scene. He cited Nashville's preservation of Elliston Place district, home to the famous Exit/In and other music venues, as an example.

"We're going to have to get more people at the table, other downtown stakeholders, and not just have it be knee-jerk reaction and say 'We're going to call it this' and be done with it,' " Pitts said of a potential entertainment or heritage district. "We have the opportunity to come up with a plan to preserve it as much as we can while being mindful that the area is going to change."

pmongillo@statesman.com;

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