As bars begin to reopen, what will Austin’s summer music scene look like?
Austin is the Live Music Capital of the World, and summer in the city is normally stacked with shows from local artists and touring acts in the city’s bustling entertainment districts, with plenty of opportunities to catch some tunes and sip some brews under the evening sky.
But this summer’s music calendar is shaping up to be the quietest one we’ve ever seen.
“No decisions have been announced or made” about favorite summer music events like the Austin Symphony Orchestra’s Fourth of July celebration at Vic Mathias Shores, Austin City Limits Radio’s Blues on the Green concert series at Zilker Park or the Austin City Limits Music Festival in the fall, John Nixon from Austin’s Parks and Recreation department said on May 19. The following day, Austin health authority Dr. Mark Escott said he can’t envision large-scale events like the ACL Fest happening through the end of year.
As far as a summer concert season with touring acts from across the country, there’s “not much of one,” said Graham Williams, owner of Margin Walker Presents, the city’s premiere independent music promotion house.
“You don't just decide you want to be on tour. It takes months to plan it out and you announce three or four months out sometimes and so if you can't really guess what's going to be happening a few months from now, it's pretty tough.”
In addition, different policies regarding public gatherings from state to state, county to county and city to city make plotting a tour during the pandemic a logistical nightmare.
Williams said we might see some smaller artists touring in the fall, but most larger acts are pushing their tours to 2021.
On May 22, Texas bars were allowed to open at 25% capacity and storied honky tonk the Broken Spoke was one of the first music venues to reopen its doors. Owner James M. White said he was “tickled to death to open up the bar.” As of press time, the governor’s guidelines require bar patrons to order from tables, not at the bar, and no dancing is allowed, so White said he would prioritize food, drink and music over boot-scootin’ for the time being.
Most other popular music venues are taking a slower approach, citing the difficulty of covering overhead with the limited capacity and concerns about health and safety.
“Things like nail salons and sit-down dining don’t have the same issues as a crowded bar. If it’s not crowded, we don’t make enough money to cover rent,” said Steve Sternschein owner of the downtown clubs Empire Control Room and Garage and the Parish.
Owners of the Continental Club and the Saxon Pub expressed similar sentiments.
James Moody, owner of popular Red River touring destination the Mohawk, said his club will probably reopen at some point this summer, but there are no firm plans yet.
“(We) need to prepare a bit more and learn a bit more before we proceed,” he said.
With the clubs quiet, some artists are exploring alternative venues for their music. A drive-in concert in early May packed a field in South Austin for a show by Ben Ballinger and friends. Other artists are exploring backyard concerts as a socially responsible concert experience.
Williams said larger scale drive-in shows would be “expensive and complicated” to produce, but we might see other artists hosting similar small events this summer.
The best way to keep up with what your favorite artist has in the works is to follow them on social media and tune into their live streams, which have become one of the main ways artists are connecting with fans during the pandemic. While you’re there, drop a couple dollars in the virtual tip jar. Musicians are struggling right now and every little bit helps.
Want to hear some live music this summer? Here’s what to expect
As of press time, large outdoor music events like Blues on the Green, the ASO’s Fourth of July celebrationg and ACL Fest have not been canceled, but one of Austin’s top health authorities said he can’t see them happening.
Some music venues, like the Broken Spoke, have reopened, but in accordance with the governor’s guidelines the club experience is very different. Capacity is reduced, bar patrons must order drinks from tables instead of the bar and dancing is not allowed.
Most touring shows for the summer have been postponed, but some popular venues, including Red River clubs Empire and Barracuda, are selling membership packages and subscription services that will get you into gigs when the clubs reopen.