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Austin music's 2021 in review: 'People don't know what tomorrow's going to bring'

COVID-19 has defined everything for venues and artists for two years, and that's not likely to change in 2022

Black Pumas perform on the first night of a run of five sold-out shows at Stubb's on May 26.
Peter Blackstock Deborah Sengupta Stith
Austin American-Statesman
  • A triumphant spring return for shows was dampened as the delta variant led to a spike in cases.
  • Major Austin acts like Black Pumas and Spoon returned to clubs; ACL Fest reigned in Zilker Park.
  • Going into the new year, debate remains heated over the city's Live Music Fund.
  • The aftershocks of the Astroworld tragedy will ripple into the festival world.

Austin music in 2021 picked up right where 2020 left off — the pandemic overshadowed everything.

The good news: Live shows gradually returned to the city, culminating in the October return of a well-attended Austin City Limits Music Festival.

The red flags: We’re still not back to normal, and the pandemic isn’t over yet.

A triumphant spring return for shows, spurred by vaccines, turned sideways as the highly contagious delta variant led to a summer spike in cases. Throughout the year, artists, venue owners, festival promoters and event organizers navigated ever-changing safety guidelines and mixed messages from public health officials and state leaders.

Heading into 2022, what exactly comes next — for venues, for artists, for festivals — is anyone's guess.

Past, present, future

When 2021 began, some Austin venues already had returned to limited-capacity live shows. But other prominent clubs, including Hotel Vegas, the Mohawk, the Saxon Pub and the Continental Club, remained shuttered. With international travel still stymied, the South by Southwest Music Festival hosted an online event in March.

SXSW 2021:We came, we saw, we channel-surfed on our couches

Many artists turned to drive-in concerts and continued doing online livestream shows through the early part of the year. As concerns eased about outdoor transmission of the virus, venues with open-air spaces took the lead in returning live music to the city. Relatively new spots such as the Far Out Lounge, Meanwhile Brewing and Cedar Park’s Haute Spot flourished, while the Long Center made frequent use of its lawn and plaza spaces.

On March 29, Texas officials opened vaccine eligibility to all adults, and as people scrambled to find the shots, optimism grew. The city’s coronavirus risk guidelines had dropped to Stage 3 after hitting Stage 5 (the highest level) in December. In April, the iconic “Austin City Limits” TV show began taping episodes in front of reduced-capacity crowds at ACL Live.

The long-awaited arrival of federal COVID-19 relief funds, with some additional assistance from city relief programs, helped avert the realization of forecasts that  the majority of Austin’s music venues might not survive the pandemic. The Continental, Saxon and Mohawk all reopened in late May, as did Stubb’s, which heralded the return of large concerts with an unprecedented five-night run of sold-out shows from Black Pumas across Memorial Day weekend.

More:With soul power, Black Pumas bring full-capacity live shows back to Austin

The Pumas’ run marked a glorious if somewhat unsettling return. The CDC had relaxed mask guidance for fully vaccinated individuals a month earlier, and fans stood shoulder-to-shoulder to see the electrifying performance from Austin’s rock & soul breakout.

Spoon frontman Britt Daniel and drummer Jim Eno perform at the Mohawk on July 1.

For a brief but beautiful period of almost two months, it felt as if music would roar back, and the appetite for live music experiences was strong. When ACL Fest tickets went on sale May 20, weekend passes sold out within three hours. Rock band Spoon’s surprise show at a packed Mohawk seemed another sign of live music’s full return.

But as summer sweltered on, the story began to change.

Read more:What Austin music venues closed, opened or changed in 2021?

By late June, public health authorities had sounded the alarm about the new delta variant. Most venues remained open, but virus cases popped up among some performers and club employees. Many music fans returned, but others stayed away, resulting in smaller than usual crowds at some venues.

ACL Radio’s annual Blues on the Green concerts in Zilker Park served as a microcosm of the summer shift. Two late July concerts, including a Gary Clark Jr.-curated season opener, went on as planned, but as Austin moved back into Stage 5, two follow-up shows in August were called off.

As businesses around the country and entities such as concert behemoth Live Nation began requiring proof of vaccination at many shows, Texas lawmakers passed a bill in July prohibiting businesses in the state from following suit.

In August, the historic downtown Paramount Theatre offered an option instead: Show either proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID-19 test result for entry. Willie Nelson did the same for his Aug. 22 Outlaw Fest at the Germania Insurance Amphitheater. 

Some touring artists adopted the same policy, and venues such as ACL Live honored those artists’ requests. Others did not. The Erwin Center, a facility operated by the University of Texas, lost two shows in September — traditional-pop singer Michael Bublé, who canceled, and Australian psych-rock band Tame Impala, which moved its show to the Germania Insurance Amphitheater.

Fans film, watch and dance as rapper Tyler, the Creator headlines at the Austin City Limits Music Festival on Oct. 10.

In September, ACL Fest announced it would require festgoers to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours. That added another layer to security checks at the gate, but the process mostly went smoothly during the fest’s two weekends in early October, with the notable exception that mask regulations in designated areas were not enforced.

More:ACL Fest's COVID-19 protocols had mixed results

Will ACL Fest fare as well in 2022? That remains unclear. Early-bird tickets to ACL Fest went on sale Dec. 9; they usually sell out quickly, but tickets were still available in mid-December. 

Local clubs, meanwhile, persevered under not quite normal circumstances. Red River Cultural District hubs such as the Mohawk and Cheer Up Charlies remained open but pivoted to presenting only occasional shows instead of nightly live music.

Longtime Continental Club publicist Dianne Scott summed up the status of many local venues in October by noting that attendance has “been up and down. Advance ticket sales aren't great, and it feels like it's because people are still afraid of committing to something long term.

“They're paying at the door and coming in, but it’s not as much about advance tickets as it used to be. The one thing that's changed is that people don't know what tomorrow's going to bring.”

December brought even further uncertainty, as the omicron variant began to spread widely. The city’s official “Austin’s New Year” celebration at Auditorium Shores has traditionally been a fireworks and live music party, but this year it's scaled back to fireworks only, with officials encouraging residents to enjoy the sparkles “from afar.”

It remains unclear how much omicron will affect the early part of 2022. Noting that "omicron is present in our community,” Cheer Up Charlies opted to close for 10 days starting Dec. 16.

The major event hanging in the balance is SXSW, which shut down its entire 2020 event when the pandemic arrived just before its mid-March run. Organizers are gearing up for a full return in 2022 after this year’s online-only event. But SXSW’s heavy reliance on international participation could spell trouble if omicron’s effects persist through the winter and into early spring.

April heralds the arrival of the Moody Center, UT’s new state-of-the-art concert hall and basketball arena, which will replace the Erwin Center. John Mayer, Justin Bieber, George Strait and Willie Nelson all are booked for the Moody’s first month.

The 15,000-seat Moody Center will open in the spring. It will replace the 44-year-old Erwin Center, which will be torn down.

If COVID-19 concerns persist, it could present challenges for the Moody, which might be bound by the same resistance to safety regulations that affected the Erwin Center this year. A "safety and sanitation" page on the venue's website reads, in part: "Enhanced health and safety policies may be put in place at any time for concerts at the discretion of the artist or tour."

Nevertheless, the Moody Center has big plans. In an April interview with the American-Statesman, operating partners Irving Azoff, Charles Attal and Tim Lieweke indicated they hope to book up to 150 concerts a year, about triple what the Erwin Center typically presented.

More:UT's Moody Center will be 'a world-class venue built for music,' its developers say

Meanwhile, a new outdoor amphitheater at Waterloo Park, which reopened over the summer after a decade of renovation, further expands options for big-name acts coming to Austin. Gary Clark Jr.’s mid-August concerts there kicked off a busy fall run that will pick up in the spring with Bon Iver, Haim, Olivia Rodrigo and others.

And on the southeast edge of town, the recently rebranded Germania Insurance Amphitheater at Circuit of the Americas has announced a handful of 2022 shows, including Alt-J, Styx with REO Speedwagon and Jack Johnson.

Who gets the money?

As musicians and music businesses struggle with revenue loss from the pandemic and an unprecedented affordability crisis, the city still has no plan for how to allocate more than $3 million in the Austin Live Music Fund.

The fund was created in September 2019, when the City Council approved an increase in hotel taxes tied to an expansion of the Austin Convention Center. Before the pandemic cooled Austin’s tourism industry, it was projected to garner $3.7 million annually. In September 2021, the fund had a balance of $3,236,482 from the past two years.

At an emotional meeting of the Austin Music Commission in November, a group of artists and representatives for local music industry nonprofits offered dramatically different opinions on a proposed program that would release $2.2 million from the fund in 2022.

In remembrance:Those we lost in the Austin music world in 2021

The program, put together by the city’s Economic Development Department, would award grants of $5,000 to $10,000 for artists and promoters to create live music events and mini-festivals. Drawn largely from recommendations that came out of a year of meetings with the Music Commission’s working group on systemic racism, proposed guidelines for the program prioritize opportunities for historically underserved groups. That includes racial and ethnic minorities and members of LGBTQIA, female-identifying and disabled communities. 

The proposed program doesn’t allocate money to music venues, although promoters can partner with venues to present their events. The nonprofit advocacy organization Music Moves Austin believes the plan does not do enough to support the city’s industry infrastructure. The group has developed an alternative plan that would allow music venues to apply for monthly reimbursement for payments made to musicians for live performances. 

“A program that intentionally excludes independent venues is unacceptable,” Rebecca Reynolds, director of the Austin Venue Alliance and a member of Music Moves Austin, said at the meeting. Echoing comments made by Mayor Steve Adler at a City Council work session in October, Reynolds said there was no difference between the proposed program and the city’s cultural arts grant program.

(The cultural arts program is open only to nonprofits. For-profit entities, including musicians, studios and promoters, will be eligible to apply for Live Music Fund programs.) 

In an interview with the Austin Monitor, Adler said he did not want to replicate the cultural arts program, which often pays artists to perform at libraries and other community centers as opposed to commercial venues. 

”If you’re playing at the library, a lot of these times you’re playing for five, 10, 15 people,” Adler said. “Wouldn’t it be better to put them in an actual club on Sixth Street on a Friday night and let them hear when people applaud them, or start booing and throwing peanuts? Let them be in that environment, trucking in their equipment and learning the trade and the craft.” 

The plan developed by Music Moves Austin includes a “diversity overlay” called Equity+. 

Reynolds characterized the conflict as “a loyalty test between equity and independent venues. I'm convinced that this is a false choice,” she said.  

But representatives from the Black Austin Musicians Collective and their white allies said they don’t trust Austin’s venue owners to foster equity.  

Tameca Jones appears at the Zach Theatre on April 16.

“There have been many times that I wanted to quit because of Austin's lack of diversity,” said singer Tameca Jones, a musician often lauded as Austin’s "empress of soul." In tearful testimony, Jones said the only way she was able to survive as a working artist and single mother was by living with her own mother. 

“I haven’t thrived here,” she said, explaining that after 20 years working in Austin, she plans to move to Los Angeles.

More:Austin's Black cultural community looks for ‘a city of real opportunity for all'

The commission voted in November to formally recommend that the Live Music Fund be allocated according to the diversity framework in the current guidelines. It created a new working group to try to find common ground with Music Moves Austin and the venue community.

“Musicians need this city to back us up, and we need to be seen as legitimate,” said Megz Tillman from the band Magna Carda. She reminded the commission that musicians are small business owners who have been gravely affected by the pandemic.

She said musicians’ expenses, such as recording costs, equipment upkeep and parking, are rarely acknowledged. Music venues were eligible for several kinds of pandemic relief, including the federal Shuttered Venue Operators Grant.

“Venues got bailouts and still refuse to pay us just wages,” Tillman said.  

Major shows, major tipping points

While Germania Insurance Amphitheater’s concert presentations resumed smoothly in mid-2021, attempts to present stadium-draw performers on the much larger Super Stage at Circuit of the Americas exposed major infrastructure flaws. More than 100,000 patrons attended the Formula One U.S. Grand Prix in October, leading to problematic traffic jams for a weekend concert by Billy Joel.

The situation got worse when the circuit presented the Rolling Stones in November. Accounts of concertgoers abandoning their vehicles in traffic and walking to the venue were widespread, and some general admission ticketholders couldn’t even get to their designated lawn section because of crowd flow problems within the venue. Others endured long delays trying to get home after the show.

The Rolling Stones light up the Super Stage at Circuit of the Americas on Nov. 20.

At least two concertgoers with disabilities recounted major accessibility issues at the venue. Linda Gianotti contacted the Department of Justice and ultimately received a full refund “for the four ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) tickets I purchased for non-existent seats and for the $75 parking pass for the ADA parking lot that was a 20-minute walk from the entrance,” she wrote in an email to the Statesman.

And Bruce Elfant, Travis County’s tax assessor-collector and voter registrar, spoke at a Dec. 6 meeting of the Austin Music Commission about his experience trying to attend the concert on crutches. Promised golf cart transportation wasn’t available, he told the commission, and an ADA information booth was not staffed. Some racetrack workers “were rude to disabled people,” Elfant said. “We watched them drop an elderly woman who was disabled on the ground.”

Elsewhere in Texas, deadly tragedy struck another major concert earlier that month, with aftershocks that are rippling across the live music industry.

At Travis Scott's Astroworld Festival, a dangerous crowd surge during the rapper's performance on the first day led to the deaths of 10 people and injuries to hundreds of others Nov. 5 in Houston.

Medics and security teams were overwhelmed as unconscious concertgoers were carried to the front of the stage. The show continued for 36 minutes after the Houston Fire Department declared a mass casualty event. By the morning of Nov. 6, chilling videos from the event and harrowing eyewitness accounts flooded social media. 

Astroworld deaths:Victims were as young as 14 in 'mass casualty incident' at Travis Scott festival

Astroworld is one of the deadliest concert disasters in U.S. history, and in the days after the festival, Gov. Greg Abbott assembled a task force on concert safety. As of Dec. 10, the group of more than 45 public safety and industry experts had met three times, including one in-person meeting. According to the governor’s office, after a series of roundtable discussions, the group will produce a report detailing “recommendations and strategies to ensure concert safety.”

Astroworld tragedy:How have Austin music festivals handled crowd safety?

Hundreds of civil lawsuits related to the festival, seeking billions of dollars in damages, have been filed in Harris County District Court. Promoters Live Nation and Austin-based Scoremore LLC, a Live Nation subsidiary, were named as defendants more than 350 times. Event venue NRG Park, its contracted security company Contemporary Services Corp. and Travis Scott (real name Jacques Bermon Webster II) also were named in hundreds of suits. Legal experts say the suits will take years to be resolved. 

One suit, filed by the parents of John Hilgert, a 14-year-old who died while attending his first concert, demands structural change in the festival industry. 

“There is no excuse for the poor crowd design, event execution and lack of response that was exercised at this festival that resulted in the tragic death of our son and nine others along with scores of other people that were innocently injured,” Chris Hilgert, the victim’s father, said in a news release provided by his lawyer. 

Scoremore’s logo was on a copy of an event operation plan for Astroworld obtained by CNN. The Statesman has filed a public information request with the city of Houston for a copy of the plan, as well as the contract between Scoremore and the city for the event. 

Scoremore, an upstart company credited with reshaping hip-hop promotion in Texas, worked with Scott to launch the festival in 2018, months after Live Nation took a controlling stake in the company.

Jmblya, Scoremore’s flagship event and a traveling single-day festival that includes stops in Dallas and Austin, has been on hiatus for two years because of the pandemic and was canceled because of inclement weather in 2019, when Scott was booked as the headliner. Representatives from Scoremore did not respond to a request from the Statesman for a comment about the suits and whether Jmblya will return in 2022.

Travis Scott's show goes on during the Astroworld Festival at NRG Park in Houston on Nov. 5.

David Shotts, Dallas-based vice president of Ascend Insurance Brokerage, a company that specializes in entertainment industry contracts, called Astroworld a “shock-loss event,” meaning it’s an uncommon occurrence. Still, he believes the event could lead to stricter underwriting guidelines for music festivals. He wouldn’t be surprised to see an underwriting process that generally takes two or three months to last nine to 12 months as insurance companies scrutinize every aspect of a festival’s safety plan.

As for Live Nation and its subsidiary Scoremore, he believes “the screws are going to be much tighter on them, whenever they go to renew” their insurance policy. They might be asked to hold high self-insured retention, essentially a large deductible, he said. He wouldn’t be surprised to see increased costs passed along to festivalgoers. 

Over the past decade, the independent festival market has been decimated as large entities Live Nation and its competitor AEG have absorbed promotion companies and festivals across the country. ACL Fest producer C3 Presents was acquired by Live Nation in 2014. Shotts thinks the Astroworld tragedy could thin the market even further.

“I would imagine that newer festival organizers, things of that nature, they're probably going to have a really hard time getting insurance, or launching a new festival, because of inexperience or not having that proven track record,” he said.