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When COVID canceled SXSW and everything: An oral history of the week the music stopped

The cancellation of South by Southwest sent a ripple effect through the Austin music industry, and it still hasn't recovered. Clockwise from left, these insiders told the story in their own words: James Moody, Sabrina Ellis, Amanda Justice, Adrienne Lake, Alex Vallejo, Graham Williams, Boris Wright and Reenie Collins.

Boris Wright knew something was wrong when the Chinese bands dropped out. 

At the beginning of 2020, the event producer, who has worked for South by Southwest for over two decades, was coordinating venues for the festival’s Chinese music showcases. In mid-January, he got an email from the SXSW programmer he worked under. It was a list of bands who were skipping the fest. And the list “was huge.” 

“That was like, ‘What's going on,’” Wright says. “He's kind of casual, like, ‘Apparently there's some kind of a virus going around.’”

No one yet knew what the next weeks, months and year would bring. In February 2020, more bands, sponsors and speakers dropped out of SXSW as the coronavirus pandemic began to spread to the United States, all leading up to a historic day: On March 6, Austin and Travis County officials canceled the South by Southwest Conference and Festivals, a first for the now-34-year-old event that draws tens of thousands of people to Austin and in 2019 reportedly pumped about $356 million into the local economy. 

SXSW Online 2021 music picks::Sample sounds from around the world

Austin’s music industry was shocked and devastated, emotionally and economically. Many music businesses were forced to furlough or lay off all their employees. Tours canceled, draining working musicians of their primary source of revenue. Citing safety concerns, some venues remain closed, and this year, the fest returns as a virtual event, SXSW Online

We spoke to 20 musicians, bar owners and industry insiders to tell the story of what happened in the final days of music as we once knew it in Austin. We also asked what might happen next.

These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

"Once we realized it was about science and math and not about politics is when we shut it down," says Mohawk owner James Moody about the start of the coronavirus pandemic. After South by Southwest 2020 was canceled, venue owners initially tried to keep the music going, but reality soon set in.

BEFORE TIMES: 'CAN YOU IMAGINE? '

For Wright, the month of February unfolded as a strange juggling act as bookings continued to fall through. 

Wright: We finally got a notification from our consulate in Houston that a number of bands that we were having come through weren't coming. The Korean bands were dropping out. The Japanese bands are dropping out.

Adrienne Lake was a programmer for SXSW Music in 2020, and one of the countries she was coordinating was Italy. 

"We've always been kind of a never say die, do everything you gotta do, the show must go on festival," says longtime event producer Boris Wright of SXSW. "It's in our DNA." He's spent his time during the pandemic organizing his vinyl and digital music collection.

Lake: People didn't really have a clear idea of what was actually going on. There was so much confusion. We were all just kind of taking it in day by day. And you know, the news kept getting worse and worse and worse.

SXSW 2020 was always going to be strange for Maggie Lea, co-owner of the popular Red River Cultural District venue Cheer Up Charlies, a perennial festival hotspot. She had just finished chemotherapy and surgery for breast cancer and moved into radiation treatment that January.

Lea: I already felt this fragmenting. The month leading up, I was like, “Things aren't really coming together the same way (they usually do).” There was a little bit of fear in the air and uncertainty. But it was mild. Folks were asking each other, “Should we travel?” 

Lea’s parents are East Asian, and one day in January her mother called in a panic. She had been talking to friends in China and Taiwan. She wanted Lea to wear a mask when she went to the clinic. 

Lea: And I remember telling Tamara — my partner — and my friends, “My mom's crazy. She wants me to wear a mask.” Like, “Can you imagine? She's talking about SARS-style China, like virus stuff. This is just silly.”

As January bled into February, the mood at the radiation clinic changed. By the middle of the month, nurses and technicians were wearing masks. 

Lea: I was seeing these people preparing for the clinic. They saved a whole room on the first floor for COVID patients. And I was like, “Oh, I mean, that's a little drastic, right? Isn't it just some virus (hitting) somebody in another country?”

Brian Tweedy, owner of Hotel Vegas and Barracuda, is married to an ICU nurse, who warned him she thought the festival would cancel. 

Tweedy: She kept telling me that it was gonna happen, I kept being like, “There's no way.” Because the city relies on it so much that I just can't imagine that that's gonna happen.

More:Loss of SXSW a gut punch for some Austin businesses

BLED DRY: 'IT FELL APART REALLY SLOW'

Every downtown bar owner we talked to for this story said SXSW sales account for at least 30% of their venue’s annual revenue. Even as events started canceling, the Austin music industry didn’t expect a total shutdown.

Tweedy: It was going to be our biggest SXSW at both clubs, both Hotel Vegas and Barracuda. And that's saying a lot, because we’d already had gigantic events. 

James Moody, owner of the Mohawk: In the music business in Austin, a lot of people take a lot of risk leading up to March because they're expecting a financial windfall to get them back on their feet. So what will happen is, venues that don't have the money, or people that don't have the money, will invest in things that will get their return in March. And so there was a lot of “holy (expletive),” not only are we gonna lose this opportunity, but there's all this pre-investment at risk. 

Steve Sternschein, owner of Empire Control Room & Garage and the Parish: There was a rumor in late February. … There (were) a group of bigger brands. I think maybe Facebook or Google started it. ... (They) pulled out of whatever they were working on. You know, because usually a lot of stuff is closing around that time. … I think that was the first kind of inkling that there was a major problem.

On March 3, TikTok announced plans to pull out of the festival. On March 4, Apple followed. But that same day, city officials greenlit the festival. “Right now, there is no evidence that closing SXSW or other activities is going to make this community safer. We are constantly monitoring that situation,” Dr. Mark Escott of Austin Public Health said in a news conference. 

Wright: We've always been kind of a never say die, do everything you gotta do, the show must go on festival. It's in our DNA. … We had that last meeting. I think it was on that Tuesday, March 3, and they told us we're still going to be in it. You know, we all knew, everybody in that office knew, that the end was near, but they didn't really come right out and say.  

Tweedy: The reason it was so stressful was we'd spent eight months building into it. And then, as things started falling apart, it fell apart really slow. ... I remember the first thing that happened was a major sponsored event (pulled). We’re like, “OK, that's bad.” And it was like four hours later, another sponsor pulled, and then an event canceled. And then, over the course of five days, that started happening. We were so panicked that we were doing everything in our power to try and keep the ship together, because I don't think at that point we realized that it was gonna all fall apart. 

Cody Cowan, executive director, Red River Cultural District: South by pays the rent for folks who work in the district not just in March, but in September, October, November. Bartending South by is what helped me put myself through college. So it's everything. It's some of the largest income for everyone around in Austin, particularly in the cultural tourism industry. 

Sound engineer Amanda Justice poses with her fishing pole at East Metropolitan Park on March 7 in Manor. As a "trauma response," Justice, who lost gigs when SXSW was canceled, has become a nature survivalist and taken up camping, hiking, fishing and kayaking. "All we had was each other," says Justice of the past year.

At the beginning of 2020, sound engineer Amanda Justice had moved from working at Empire to a full-time position running sound indoors at Stubb’s BBQ. Stubb’s manager Ryan Garrett had taken over the former Beerland space and rebranded it Green Jay.

Justice: I was actually going to be concurrently running the venues. I was going to be doing a Rachael Ray private event at Stubb’s for a couple of days, and then I was going to be running music at Green Jay at night. … For the first time (that) year, I was going to be running maybe half my normal amount of bands, but for about twice the amount of money. I was really stoked because it was like, “Holy crap. I've made it.”

DREAMS DASHED: 'THIS WAS GOING TO BE A REALLY BIG YEAR'

For the past several years, SXSW’s celebrity buzz has been centered on the film and interactive festivals, but the music festival remains an important proving ground for artists on the verge of a breakout. Several Austin acts had been on the verge of breakthroughs that were expected to happen during SXSW 2020.

Sam Houston, rock artist: It was a really pivotal time for (my band) the Blk Odyssy and our production company Earthchild, because it was really our first official coming out. It was the first thing that we were doing where we were actually connecting with the corporation South by Southwest. And I was having tons and tons and tons of business calls leading up to the festival.

After playing unofficial events surrounding the festival for years, 2020 was to be the all-sisters rock band Tiarra Girls’ first year as official SXSW artists

Tiffany Baltierra of Tiarra Girls: This was going to be a very big year for us I feel like, because we were also in the works of signing with a label. We were reaching a new peak.

Daniel Sahad, lead singer of Nané: We were going to be on quite a few, maybe four or five, official showcases that were going to be pretty big, pretty significant for us. … We had meetings set up with some major record labels and booking agents and management. We were supposed to meet a lot of really important people in the music industry that were going to help elevate us into the next level or phase of our journey together.

It’s also an important time for established artists. 

Mobley, pop artist: You build a lot of plans around it, trying to get the private gigs with all the brands that are coming in. And then obviously, the public stuff ... all the industry people are there at once. (You) get an opportunity to get them to see your show, to hear your new music, take meetings, all sorts of stuff.

Jackie Venson, blues-pop artist: Oh my god, I was playing like 15 gigs. It was going to be amazing. … I actually landed some paying gigs, so I didn't have to worry about that, because sometimes that can be hard during South by, but I had that under control this time.

Zeale, rapper and half of the duo Blackillac: Going into South by, we had the most amount of shows that we had (ever) booked for South by that were all paid, and very well paid. So that was one of the things that we were looking forward to, was getting that budget to operate and do some bigger things that we wanted to do for the year.

Musician Alex Vallejo and the band Vallejo were poised for a big album drop before SXSW 2020. He's also director of operations for School of Rock. Vallejo's seen here at the West Austin location on March 6.

Latin rock band Vallejo was building buzz for a duets album, “Amigos, Amigos,” initially scheduled to drop in late March. 

Alex Vallejo of the band Vallejo: I think this record has been in the works for 10 years, just with sessions, and we were ready to pull the trigger and release the record.

Sabrina Ellis, pop-rock artist: I was going to play a smattering of shows, amongst my three bands, Sweet Spirit, Heart Bones and A Giant Dog. ... (It was) a mile marker or something ... the beginning of what was going to be for me, a really busy, productive, exciting year of two album releases, touring all three bands. … My calendar was full, and I knew exactly how my year looked, and it involved rotating tours from February through October of 2020.

THE CANCELLATION: 'STUNNED AND IN MOURNING'

On March 6, the city reversed course. At a press conference, Austin Mayor Steve Adler announced that the city and county had canceled SXSW.

Cowan: I remember that day. I was picking my kid up from his bus stop from school. And I think I was just in complete shock. I mean, I knew it was a possibility. But again, South by is fundamentally at the core of the entire music economy.

Lake: These events that you put together, they become your babies. And so the idea of working so hard with these presenters and bands and labels, etc., that you've come to create these relationships with, the idea that could all just crash and burn tomorrow and never come to fruition was really devastating. When that happened, we were all kind of stunned and in mourning. 

A few days later, on March 9, the festival laid off 30% of its staff, including Lake.

Lake: I wasn't surprised. I mean, it was such a devastating blow. How could that not happen? At first, I was just trying to be there for my co-workers who were even more devastated than I was, because they had been there longer. 

Adrienne Lake walks her dogs, Junior and Radley, at Mueller Lake Park on March 5. She was laid off from SXSW on the Monday after the 2020 fest was canceled. "At first, I was just trying to be there for my co-workers who were even more devastated than I was, because they had been there longer," she says.

Graham Williams, founder of production company Margin Walker Presents: We were all shocked. I think naively everyone was like, “This is crazy. ... What are we going to do? One month of no business is going to destroy the music business entirely.” 

Related:What is Austin without SXSW?

STAND WITH AUSTIN: 'WE WERE OPTIMISTIC'

On March 7, Adler announced a campaign called Stand With Austin. “Without SXSW, some in our community could really feel the pinch. You can help. Go out to eat, drink & listen to live music. Support the artists, businesses, and working people who make Austin special,” he wrote in posts on Facebook and Twitter. In a video, Adler, then-state Sen. Kirk Watson and then-Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt sat together at a restaurant, toasting with shot glasses. 

Wright: (The cancellation) was devastating… Then the craziest thing happened. The following day, that Saturday, everybody and his brother emailed me, called me. 

Wright received a barrage of messages from artists still en route to Austin. In the Red River Cultural District, club owners and event producers sprang into action, trying to create an alternative mini festival for them to play. Because the idea of flash-planning a festival was preposterous, they called the event “We Can Do Magic.”

Cowan: We were optimistic.  Music people are always optimistic. It's such a brutal world of scrappy survival that you just know that you've made it work (in the past). So you'll find some way to make it all work.

Dianne Scott, publicist for the Continental Club and C-Boy’s Heart & Soul: When they canceled (SXSW), we scrambled. We're never at a loss for people to play. At first, almost everybody that had a showcase for South by was still willing to come and do it.

Williams: The city was just saying that they just weren't having South by, but anything 2,500 and below was still fine. Same capacity, no changes. So a lot of mixed messages. No one knew what was going on. But we did know that a lot of artists were still coming to town. 

Moody: We didn't know anything about the virus, right? And we thought that (the SXSW cancellation) was a precautionary measure to keep outsiders out of Austin, like flights and all that stuff. We thought that there was actually something salvageable for locals, because we've had so much success with a Free Week (model, an annual series of no-cost shows) … We could maybe at least have something to pay our bartenders, and at least have a moment. It may not be near as big as the South by moment, but maybe we could have a locals-only jam. We actually developed an entire campaign about magic.

Cowan: (It) is a huge embarrassing egg on our face now. ... God, it's like looking back at yourself in junior high trying to date or something. Like, “What was I thinking? Oh my god, that was me. Why am I wearing a trench coat?” 

Moody: It was really me and (Mohawk talent buyer) Ian Orth, texting back and forth these hilarious images of (flamboyant Canadian magician) Doug Henning.

Lea: Our press releases were the worst, oh my gosh, really tone deaf there, whoa. 

SPEEDING HOME: 'SURREAL AND DYSTOPIC'

When Ellis set out on tour with their band Heart Bones on Feb. 28, they loaded the van with gallons of water, toilet paper and hand sanitizer. (Ellis is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns.)  

Musician Sabrina Ellis was planning to make a big splash with their band Heart Bones at last year's SXSW. When the fest was canceled, Ellis mobilized to book gigs to fill the void: "I was looking at my chessboard like, 'OK, we just got to move the pieces around, but we're still in the game.'"

Ellis: I have OCD. I knew that the encroaching pandemic could be something that would trigger my behaviors and mood. I started doing a lot of emotional and mental preparation to be on the road during a time when I knew our plans could be interrupted.

Ellis’ bandmates humored them. 

Ellis: They're used to me worrying and letting anxiety inflate things. I think to them, being in the van with me, it looked as though this was a classic Sabrina, OCD reaction to some news, that maybe I was getting too emotional.

By the time SXSW was canceled, the Heart Bones tour had taken a strange, dark turn. When Ellis and crew arrived in Boston for a March 8 gig, there were signs all over announcing that the city’s St. Patrick’s Day parade was canceled. 

Ellis: That was very surreal and dystopic and shocking. To be in Boston and to see that they've canceled St. Patrick's Day, that's like the Whos in Whoville canceling Christmas.

As shows began to cancel, Ellis went into “problem-solving and disaster-management mode.” The band’s last gig was in Atlanta on March 12. 

Ellis: I was looking at my chessboard like, “OK, we just got to move the pieces around, but we're still in the game.” I immediately started getting calls from local venue owners whose bills were falling apart because touring bands weren't able to make it to Austin. And I was like, “I'm your guy. I'm in the pocket. I'm right here. You know, I got my three bands. What do you want us to do? Where do you need us to be?” Quickly, our 12 South by shows started to turn into 18,19, 20 appearances. This is all as the van is speeding back from the Deep South to Austin. 

BACK IN AUSTIN: 'OUR WORLD FELL APART'

Reenie Collins, director of the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians, was also trying to move things around. Ray Benson’s birthday bash is an annual SXSW Music kickoff event and a big fundraiser for the nonprofit that provides low-cost healthcare to musicians. It was scheduled to take place on March 17. 

Collins: As it is for everybody in industry, (SXSW is) just such an important time of the year for HAAM and our musicians’ income and us with our brand. We had so many shows planned that  people were benefiting us, things like that. All of that just ground to a halt. It was almost like, literally, someone just turned off all the lights and left us in the dark without a flashlight. I don't think we knew what to expect or what to do. 

Health Alliance for Austin Musicians executive director Reenie Collins had to pull the organization's volunteers out of the Austin Music Awards as the pandemic came into focus last spring: "That was super hard."

Going into a global health crisis, Collins wanted to make sure musicians who were losing income from SXSW didn’t lose their healthcare. 

Collins: We not only decided to cancel Ray’s, we decided regardless of the potential risk in income loss and things like that that we were going to immediately put in place our basic needs program that we refer to as premium assistance.

Benson’s 2020 birthday bash also was part of the 50th anniversary celebration for his band, Asleep at the Wheel. The band’s original players were flying in from around the world to join in the festivities. The festival cancellation was a shock. 

Benson: It was like, OK, the nail is actually in the coffin. … March the 7th is when our world fell apart, because folks we had coming in couldn't fly in. I just was deflated, like all this stuff that I've been working on, all of these big arrangements, they don't mean anything. The big question was like, “Is this real?”... And then 10 days later, I got COVID.

The following week, after hosting a virtual event for Willie Nelson’s Luck Reunion, Benson went to bed and was unable to get up for several days. He eventually tested positive for COVID-19. At 69, he feels lucky that he had a mild case of the virus. John Prine had been scheduled to play the birthday bash and pulled out even before the event was canceled after being hurt in a fall. Prine later died of complications related to COVID-19 on April 7. 

Related:Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson on surviving coronavirus: ‘I’m very fortunate’

REALITY CHECK: ‘WE ARE ALL IN A REALLY TERRIBLE SPOT’

While Collins grappled with pulling the plug on the HAAM benefit, the Red River Cultural District’s magical rally was also going up in smoke. 

Williams: Little by little, artists started canceling from that event, as well. Not so much because they were worried about things. I didn't hear anyone hit us up and say, “Man, we’re uncomfortable.” It was, “We can't get a visa, we're from overseas and they might be shutting things down,” or they don't want to leave the country and not be able to get back in because that country is getting worse.

After SXSW was shut down, the scene on the ground was chaotic, with Austin's music industry unsure if shows could continue. "No one knew what was going on," says concert promoter Graham Williams, who later shuttered his Margin Walker Presents during the pandemic.

Lake: As the days went by, and more and more news came out, it just turned into a broader realization for me, personally, where I realized, oh, we're all screwed. It's not just me — my presenters, the bands, and SXSW in general, you know, we are all in a really terrible spot.

For the most part, the side parties were dead in the water before the weekend that would have kicked off SXSW Interactive. 

Moody: Once we realized it was about science and math and not about politics is when we shut it down. We just felt like there was a wave coming, that there was no way anyone was going to stop it. Because, you know, it's not just about your customers being safe. It's also just about your staff. 

Justice: I was real, real hesitant. … That was before any kind of mask awareness had happened, before we even knew we should be wearing them. But I had bandanas stashed, because I was gonna wear them just for my own protection. We had stocked up on gallons of hand sanitizer and I had some that I had brought to put (in) my sound booth. I mean, I was very nervous about it. 

On March 11, the NBA canceled its season after a player tested positive for the coronavirus. That same night, the Austin Chronicle hosted the Austin Music Awards. It was the Austin music community’s last large gathering before the shutdown. Venson was hosting. As a joke, she wore a hazmat suit. She and co-host Chris Cubas, an Austin comedian, demonstrated alternatives to handshakes. 

Venson: It's like we all saw the storm coming, knew it was coming, but were far enough away to ignore it for now. It was like, 2,000 people all mutually agreeing to just ignore this storm, because you know, it's not gonna get here tonight. It's gonna get here in two or three days. Let's just get trashed.

A sign outside of Little Brother bar on Rainey Street is seen here on March 15, 2020. The bar recently had opened a burrito truck and at the time feared the cancellation of SXSW would affect their business. Within days, the entire city shut down.

Scott: I remember seeing Gary Clark Jr., and he was kind of being set upon by a whole group of people backstage. He saw me coming, and he looked at me and his eyes got really big, kind of like, you know, “Save me.” I went over to him, and he immediately broke away from the crowd to hug me. He had just gotten there from the airport; he had just flown back home. I remember reaching up and touching his face, I stroked his face. Immediately afterwards, I thought, I shouldn't have done that. That was such an odd reaction for me. But it was partly because I was worried about, had he been exposed to something? I was partly worried about what if I were exposed to something and gave it to him. 

Collins: We love the Austin Music Awards. They're very good to HAAM. We have won (best nonprofit) seven years in a row; this was our seventh year. We always provide them with volunteers to help. We had to call them and say, “We can't go, and we can't provide you with volunteers, because we don't want to put our volunteers at risk.” That was super hard.

On March 12, Hotel Vegas hosted Golden Dawn Arkestra for the club's ninth-anniversary celebration. 

Tweedy: Most of the people there were service industry people. I think that everybody had been so stressed out for what had happened for the last month — they had been put through the wringer — that it seemed like it was a little bit of a blowout. Maybe everyone knew that eventually the world was gonna close down.

The following day, Gov. Greg Abbott issued a statewide disaster declaration. The University of Texas and Austin Independent School District canceled classes. Hotel Vegas and Barracuda shut down.   

Tweedy: We went dark at both bars. We realized just shortly after that, that was the right thing to do. We had some really large events that were at (our East Austin bodega) Kinda Tropical that we were going to try to move to Barracuda, just to try to do something. But it was really clear almost immediately that it was a really bad idea. 

His team posted messages to the clubs’ social media accounts canceling all plans for the next two weeks. 

Tweedy: We haven't had live music in either place since then, to this day.

Barracuda would close permanently on June 10. 

On March 13,  Paul Oakenfold performed at Empire. It was supposed to be the first night of the club’s annual Music/Tech mashup, a party Sternschein cites as “the reason I'm here in Texas.” 

Early in the evening, they received a note from the mayor, “asking us to consider restricting capacity. Because it looked like they were gonna have to do that across the board the following day,” Sternschein said. On March 14, Mayor Adler banned events with over 250 people.  

Sternschein: I remember standing outside the club, on the phone with (showcase headliner) Questlove's agent, canceling that show... He even asked the questions like, “Well, you know, man, all of your staff who are supposed to work, they're not going to get the work now.” That's what we were talking about. What are we going to do about all the people who weren't able to work?

Across town at Sternschein’s other venue, the Parish, Blackillac was already set up to play. 

Zeale: We were in the green room and our agent gave us some information. We started reading things and our manager, Kris, gave us some information. Right there in that room, we were like, “Alright, we shouldn't do this show.”

The Parish closed down and has not reopened. Blackillac’s name remained on the marquee for months. 

Cheer Up Charlies was one of the last venues to close. On their final night, they had a dance party. One reveler showed up in a white hazmat suit. 

Lea: It was apocalyptic, but in this really strange way. 

The club’s LED lights reflected off the hazmat suit, sending strange patterns around the club. People were already nervous, and the crowd on the dance floor was sparse. The club had received 50 cases of water from a SXSW sponsor, a heavy metal company called Liquid Death. 

Lea: It's in a can, and there's a skeleton melting away. It's just water, though, but the way they branded this, like, this water will kill you. 

With nowhere to store the water, the club was trying to give it away. 

Lea: So more than there are people in our bar, there were buckets and buckets of Liquid Death, ice melting all over.

Things were falling apart. Most clubs closed their doors after March 15. Just a couple days later, Abbott ordered bars, gyms, dining rooms and schools to close. 

Wright: It all kind of came crashing down. ... There was nothing, and that's when it really hit me that this thing is going to be huge. This is armageddon.  

David Rodriguez of the Austin Transportation Department takes down a SXSW street banner on East Seventh Street outside the music venue Barracuda on March 10, 2020, after SXSW was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

On March 20, Venson's tour canceled. 

Venson: The heartbreaking part was losing all of my income, all in one day. All of my income for an entire year, basically. That was really wild. What am I gonna do? It's like getting your feet cut off. ... How am I gonna stop the bleeding?

Mobley: Things that I had been working toward for years were starting to come together, and it was looking like it was going to be a really, really good year. Best year of my career. That continues to be very heartbreaking. I try not to think about it too much, because I'm healthy, I've got a place to live. ... I feel very fortunate compared to the suffering that a lot of people had to go through. But if I, in a moment of weakness, allow myself to feel sorry for myself, it's definitely very, very heartbreaking. And then, when I think about how needless a lot of this has been, how much of the scope of it is owing to just the selfishness, greed, incompetence of the people who are supposedly in charge of running the government, then I just get really angry.

Ellis never did play any of those replacement shows their bands had on the books. The Heart Bones gig in Atlanta was their final stand in front of a large crowd. 

Ellis: The most honest thing I can say about how it felt to play our last show before an indefinite hiatus of shows was that it felt exactly the (expletive) same as playing any other show I've ever played. I play every (expletive) show like it's my last. So do the people that I play music with. And that's just my honest answer. I don't care how it comes off. We've played every show as though it's gonna last for the last 12 or 13 years. 

And now, I can really say that was the right choice. Sometimes I wondered if I was causing my body too much injury, being too personally and emotionally open and available in performances. Now, I look back at those moments like a beautiful past relationship or the lighter parts of my youth. I mean, I'm grateful for every fracture, every torn tendon, every bloody tooth. I'm grateful for all the unbroken eye contact and the feeling of rubbing up against somebody else's slimy sweaty body, and the show context being the only context in which that would be appropriate and invited. Living those feelings as though it's the last every time. I'm so sorry that our environment, politically, socially and health-wise, has caused those to be the last moments for a long time. I'm sorry that has been proven right and we're living in it. 

WHAT HAPPENED NEXT

With the world shut down indefinitely, musicians and industry workers were forced to pivot.

Venson: I just started livestreaming on March 13. And I just did livestreaming every night because every time I did it, it went well and I had nothing else to do.

For 50 days straight, she logged an online performance. It brought in an income. It broke up the days for Venson and the fans who tuned in. She continued regular livestreams throughout the year. 

Sahad: I knew I had to shift everything we were doing to still provide, like the sentiment people get when they go to shows.

Right after the shutdown, Sahad and the band he performs with as Nané loaded into a laundromat after hours. It was one of the few businesses that was deemed essential and still open. Using a single camera, the band shot the video for “Blue Velvet.” The video would earn the band a finalist shot in NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest and a shoutout from acclaimed musician Brittany Howard.    

In April, Mobley rallied a group of musicians to create the beautiful visual album “A Home Unfamiliar.” Later in the year, he went on a virtual tour. While working to finish school online, the Tiarra Girls signed with Lucky Hound Music. Houston brought on a new management team and shifted the focus of Blk Odyssy, reimagining the project for a global audience. Benson hosted a virtual version of his birthday bash in May, which included an appearance from Willie Nelson. As members of Asleep at the Wheel have been vaccinated, they have resumed playing small combo shows. 

Blackillac was able to supplement lost income with brand partnerships. They spent the year focused on creating new music and reaching out to fans with social media content, “whether that's like us roasting celebrities, or me making (fellow rapper Phranchyze) eat the hottest chicken wings in LA.” 

Lake, the former SXSW programmer, began working with Vallejo at Austin Music Foundation. Their focus became helping artists find new ways to monetize during the pandemic. 

In addition to his event production work, Wright has a full-time career as a civil engineer. When he received his pandemic stimulus check, he spent $500 tipping his favorite bands in livestreams. 

Justice, the sound engineer, has worked fewer than 10 gigs this year. As the pandemic wore on, she started learning survival skills. “I learned how to fish. I learned how to build a fire. I started camping and I'd never been camping before,” she said. She is in training to become a Texas master naturalist. 

Williams permanently shuttered his production company, Margin Walker Presents, in December. 

Sternschein became a lead organizer of the National Independent Venue Association, an advocacy group that successfully lobbied Congress to pass the Save Our Stages relief act. He reopened the outdoor stage at Empire with limited capacity seated shows in the fall. The Parish remains closed. Sternschein believes a full reopening will only be possible after vaccines become available to everyone. “Thirty to 60 days from that point is when we could contemplate fully reopening,” he said. 

Cheer Up Charlies, the Continental Club and the Mohawk remain closed. In a Facebook post, Lea said Cheer Ups is exploring opening the bar in April.  

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Though he says he is “definitely more focused on rebirth than we are the tragedy,” Moody worries that the governor’s decision earlier this month to end safety restrictions was premature and a new surge of cases could slow a full reopening.  

After Barracuda closed, Tweedy was able to move some of his staff over to Hotel Vegas, which reopened as a restaurant this fall. To encourage social distancing, they have not been programming live music. “The situation right now is not amazing,” he said. He looks forward to returning to “the business model that we excel at,” but is also concerned about another pandemic surge.  

In October, Ellis did a monthlong residency for Hotel Vegas’ streaming series, Hotel Free TV. The return to performing felt good, but it was markedly different from their final live show, which was a shared bill with the band Terror Pigeon.  

Ellis: I think the objective of their set is to get people as close together and as intimate as possible.

In “a terrifying and glorious sight to behold,” Terror Pigeon brought out a parachute and a crowd of revelers packed together underneath it. Ellis stood to the side and filmed the spectacle, “all these people under one blanket. Sweating, hugging, kissing, chanting.”

Ellis: I've looked through my iPhone videos of that performance as though it was porn sometimes throughout this pandemic.