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How Musicians and Venues are contending with the Pandemic

By: Keller Bradberry

When the pandemic lockdown started in March, hundreds of concerts and live events were cancelled in Austin, and many artists and venue organizers were left wondering if they would be able to support themselves.

Now, many of them have been unable to do so.

Art and Entertainment has shown to be among the hardest hit sectors  from the pandemic, and the establishments where they perform employ 8.8 million workers and generate over $1.7 trillion in sales annually nationwide needs attribution. A survey commissioned by the Austin Chamber of Commerce in coordination with the Central Texas for Business Task Force found that just 19 percent of music venues were able to pay their full rent in June and noted that a majority of the city’s bars and music venues would be closed by Halloween.

In nearby San Marcos, Jason Sherman, an organizer at local venue and art shop, Studio San Martian, said that they had just began seeing increasing turnouts their live events before the lockdown and were forced to close for several months.

“It’s important for people to have that creative outlet, it feels good when you bring something to others,” Sherman said. “It just adds to the character of the town—one of the things I love about San Marcos here.”

After closing its doors for several months, the studio pivoted to retail, selling local arts and goods, when the first phase of reopening at 50 percent went into effect in May. Their music-loving landlord built an outdoor stage about three months ago and they have just recently begun reintroducing events to support the local community including musicians, artists, and local vendors.

”Big productions take a lot of work and money and to have to pull the plug on that, it’s a big risk. I think small shows are more enjoyable anyways, and easier to switch the date in the case of a crisis,” Sherman said. “I think we’re going to see less of those large-scale productions and see more people turn out for the smaller shows, which is awesome.”

Some of Austin’s legendary local venues such as Saxon Pub and the Flamingo Cantina have had to close their doors after decades of housing local artists, both of which did not receive any financial aid from the $377,000  of the Austin Small Business Relief Program allocated to music venues. The city plans to administer these in one-time $40 thousand payments to each business, but executive director of Red River Cultural District, Cody Cowan said that the grants would likely not be enough for most venues to survive until next year when public health conditions would permit them to reopen.

As venues continue to permanently close their doors due to steep overheads and shallow revenues, musicians have a growing concern of how to support themselves without a place to perform. Some have taken to livestreams asking for donations, with varying success—while others have had to look for other work in a scarce job market.

Robb Kidd, full-time Austin musician, is the drummer for Golden Dawn Arkestra, which won best Experimental band in the Austin Music Awards in March. He also works with several local groups such as Kalu, 8 ½ Souvenirs and the Black Angels. He would have played over three hundred shows this year, but has instead spent most of it working on himself and his music.

Kidd said he would not feel safe or responsible playing crowded indoor shows like he used to, and while he has done some small outdoor ones, he has been unable to safely play at the venues he had been for years, several of which have closed, or even rehearse with the full 15-piece Golden Dawn Arkestra  group.

“I think it’s a really important thing for musicians to figure a way to coexist with this and give people safe alternatives to have music, because people need music,” Kidd said. “I feel like it’s my civic duty to play music for people.

Despite the loss of income and the near-economic ruin of Austin’s live music scene which had brought such success to the city, Kidd said that now is the time for its artists to hone their craft, mental health and wellbeing.

“I took all of that and turned it around into a positive and appreciated the time I had home with my son, doing things like self-care and I never thought I’d say this, but yoga. I still work at music everyday morning to night and I’ve been really busy in the studio with some incredible bands, so it’s been really wonderful to keep the creative juices going,”  Kidd said. “But strangely enough, I feel like I’m playing the best drums of my life.”

While the venue operators and musicians that have carried this sector with their hospitality and creativity have seen financial aid from the government either too little or too late, it is the thousands of fans of these people and places that contribute to this ecosystem monetarily. Even without tickets to purchase, this market of music lovers can still try to support through streams, merchandise, and donations.

Lily Sanchez attends Texas A&M University, but also several concerts in her free time. Her tickets for the year were refunded but she has since supported her favorite artists through buying merchandise , sharing their music on social media, and even taking a zoom piano lesson from Mt. Joy pianist Jackie Miclau.

“I feel like music is such a big thing that helps other people.” Sanchez said, “A lot of these times, these musicians are putting out their music for free so it’s the least we can do.”

For those willing to donate or for those who have lost employment in this sector, the nonprofit Red River Cultural District has organized the emergency relief fund Banding Together ATX, which is taking applications until Dec. 18.

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