Hotel Vegas's new YouTube channel is VR for the live shows you've been missing
Myf Mars vividly remembers the last night Hotel Vegas was open as a music venue. It was the beloved East Austin dive’s ninth anniversary party, traditionally a kick-off event for the South by Southwest Music Festival. Only the festival was canceled. Local promoters were working to stand up an independent event, but the world was beginning to shut down.
“Everyone was talking about COVID. Everyone was like, ‘Oh, whatever. It doesn't matter. We're fine,’” Mars said. She shared the sentiment. As a bartender, facing the loss of SXSW and its influx of cash felt devastating.
They were all in a collective denial of, “Oh, can we just wait two more weeks before accepting this is a reality?” she said.
Days later, the clubs were closed. Like millions of other Texans, Mars was suddenly unemployed as her home club, Vegas’ sister venue Barracuda, laid off almost all its staff. Barracuda, a Red River Cultural District hotspot that nurtured local talent and presented a broad variety of touring artists, shuttered permanently in June.
Through the pandemic, Hotel Vegas operated a to-go window for food and drink. In the fall, the club reopened as a restaurant but opted not to present live music. This year, the club’s 10th anniversary and SXSW festivities will be virtual, as Hotel Free TV — the streaming series produced by Mars and Jordan Kovach, another former Barracuda employee — presents an official showcase for SXSW Online.
“It's tempting to have live shows again, and everybody wants it,” Kovach said.
But Hotel Vegas “has really been trying to do the responsible thing,” he said. There's a huge outdoors space, Kovach added, which would make shows a possibility, but the pandemic is "just getting worse and worse.”
Kovach and Mars pivoted to making videos when they were unemployed and stuck at home in the months after the shutdown. Mars kicked things off with a video about trying to be a “yard tender.”
“Barracuda was a really great work environment. We were really close with our co-workers and our bosses. And so that was kind of a harebrained scheme for all of us to start being landscapers,” she said. It was spring and they were looking for recession-proof work. They figured the grass was always going to grow.
When the to-go window at Vegas opened, Mars started picking up shifts, but it was “just kind of depressing” to feel like the club was losing its identity, she said.
After losing Barracuda, they were painfully aware of “just how quickly something can just be gone,” Kovach said.
When they approached club owner Jason McNeely about doing a series of video showcases at the club, the timing was fortuitous. Sabrina Ellis, lead singer of Sweet Spirit, A Giant Dog and Heart Bones, had just pitched a similar idea. They agreed to come on as producers for a monthlong Sweet Spirit residency series that kicked off at the beginning of October.
Armed with “a bunch of VHS cameras” and “antiquated technology,” they quickly realized they were in over their heads.
“We were so stressed out,” Kovach said.
“I was like, ‘Yeah, totally. We can do all of that stuff.’ And then we're like, ‘(Expletive, expletive, expletive), how do we do it?’” Mars said.
They were working with a talented sound engineer so the shows sounded good, and they quickly came to terms with the fact that they wouldn’t be able to execute flashy, high-budget production. They had always appreciated the low-budget aesthetic of public access TV, so they decided to lean into that.
“The main thing we were trying to get was a feel of being at a live show, instead of having it look really polished,” Kovach said.
Sweet Spirit was a great first partner, and the band’s consistency and professionalism gave Mars and Kovach space to grow. They were both struck by how excited they were to see live music again.
“It was so refreshing to see it after months of stress and anxiety,” Kovach said.
As Kovach and Mars grow the series, they hope to have a stronger focus on emerging bands.
“We thought it would be cool to have one place that people could go to discover new music, local bands and stuff,” Mars said.
“We've had a lot of intent with trying to build this really inclusive world, that's a little set apart, and a very safe place,” Kovach said.
Hotel Vegas was primarily known as a haven for garage rock and psychedelia. “We're trying to update that roster a little bit,” Mars said.
They are trying to create “a better version of the scene that we have,” Kovach said.
The latest installment in the Hotel Free TV series, “Girls Like Us,” is a glossy showcase of Texas transgender artists starring and produced by local sensation p1nkstar, along with her partner Y2K.
It’s the first time Kovach and Mars have presented an episode they did not produce. P1nkstar "just got the ball and ran with it, like really hard, and shot big. And it's really cool and inspiring for us to see somebody take our platform so seriously,” Kovach said.
P1nkstar’s fundraising abilities pushed Kovach and Mars to figure out a financial plan for themselves. They are saving up to get a video mixer so they can produce live sets.
“We've poured everything we have into this project,” Mars said.
“Breaking even would be an unreal goal,” Kovach said.
In addition to the shows, they’ve been producing a monthly T-shirt to help support the endeavor. They’ve also set up a Patreon account at patreon.com/hotelfreetv. All episodes of the show are free for three months after they premiere on the Hotel Free TV YouTube channel. For $5 a month, fans can access the full archive.
They are still developing the series, but the response so far has been overwhelmingly positive.
“The most accurate metric we have is the musicians that we work with,” Kovach said. Their main goal is to keep the artists happy and make them look good.
“Recently, everybody that we worked with has been stoked, and just excited about doing it,” he said.