Anyone who tells you the impact of a smoking ban will be negligible doesn't appreciate that it's the very number of Austin music clubs, including the swarm of the more marginal ones, that enables the scene's vitality
This year there was little time to lean back and just soak it in; instead, I drank deep gulps of it while staying in constant motion.
Whenever I'm asked about why SXSW works (or is what it is), I give the honest and the only answer: Austin, Texas. It's not just the number of clubs and bands, but an expandable audience for whom listening to music is another kind of breathing.
It is thus so disappointing, as things settle back to normal, as the city emits a deep, well-earned breath of satisfaction, to remember the clubs are again under assault. The smoking ban is alive, seemingly unstoppable, and winding its way through the city's political maze.
I don't smoke and never have. I've walked out of clubs in the middle of sets because my eyes were stinging from tobacco smoke. Last summer I was in Ireland, where they had just instituted a countrywide ban on smoking in pubs. It was great to be able to go into so many smoke-free bars.
So why am I so opposed to a smoking ban for Austin clubs?
Although it is sometimes clothed as a health issue, too often the moralistic fervor behind the anti-smoking campaign is impossible to ignore. As legitimate as health issues may be, I think the triumph of a smoking ban will lead to more moralistic judgments in the form of lifestyle-inspired legislation.
I believe in personal choice and personal responsibility. I don't believe in whining or the politics of blame, by which everything wrong in your life is some institution's or someone else's fault.
I'm sick to death of the tobacco industry being used as the current, one-dimensional bad guy of American life. The Nazis are long gone, as are the Soviet communists and South African segregationists, so the current villains of choice are multinational corporations, especially those in the tobacco industry.
The smoking campaign is well-funded by the industry. Ironically, the no-smoking campaign is also well-funded by the industry. Whereas there is a public, popular anti-smoking movement, there are also many paid anti-smoking, special-interest advocates. To a person, when so accused, they raise their moral heads high, and then higher, as they proclaim this is a human health issue.
As far as statistics are concerned, I neither care about nor fully believe reports about the economic impact of smoking bans on small businesses, whether issued from either camp or even from "neutral" agencies.
One of the reasons the Austin music scene is so unique, the reason we can have SXSW here and probably no place else, is that there are so many live music clubs that offer so many different types of music. Some of these clubs are prosperous, but some are barely holding on, driven more by their owners' love of music than any realistic profit expectations. If a smoking ban eliminated just a half-dozen of the smaller, weaker clubs, it would impact the whole music scene, changing it forever.
Now, you could offer a report that showed essentially no impact on overall entertainment-dollar cash flow or on the number of surviving businesses. As old businesses fail, new ones spring up. But in Austin, the magic is in the details: Losing live music clubs to gain discos, chain bars, and fast-food outlets will change the culture and ultimately the city.
The live-music club owners are the arteries through which the energy of the scene flows; they are the ones who really nourish the scene and allow it to continue to flourish. In a town that brags about its support for live music but really does little to support it, how can a legal attack that has club owners so worried be a good thing?
The following is part of a letter from John Wickham, owner of the Red River club Elysium. Wickham is on the front lines of the live-music scene. He doesn't get to bask in it and brag about it, as do our civic leaders. He is too busy working to keep it alive, which involves physical labor, unbelievable commitment, financial risk, and inhumane hours. It's not just what he says in the letter that concerns me; it's that the city is adding to his stress and concern rather than supporting and aiding him:
"I have worked over the last four years to not only build my venue and my own clientele but also to organize my fellow venue owners into forming the Red River District Association (Emo's, Elysium, Beerland, Room 710, Red Eyed Fly, Headhunters and Side Bar); and we have succeeded in carving out a live music niche under the shadow of the homeless shelters in an area once written off by the city.
"Right now though, we are scared. The proposed smoking ban (vote on May 7th) threatens our businesses in a way that the economic downturns and poor city planning never could. ... The last bout of the smoking ban fight ... ended [with the creation of] ... the Air Quality Task Force (of which I was a member) and we crafted a stronger ordinance that protects everyone under 18 from smoke and limited the number of smoking venues to just over 200 (there are over 600 fully stocked bars in Austin), largely live music venues.
"This SXSW, probably owing to the literature we had posted for our locals and T-shirts our staff wore, we had many visitors from NY, California and elsewhere openly talk about how detrimental they thought a smoking ban would be to our live music scene. In particular they spoke of the venues in NY and Cali having to 'swing for the fences' so to speak by only booking more established bands and because of dwindling customers due to smoking ban the smaller locally owned businesses could no longer take chances on developing bands. (If you are interested I do have the NY report detailing job losses, revenue losses, etc. ...)
They all agreed that the bigger venues will soldier on, but all week we heard dire predictions. ..."
The current ordinance protects underage individuals while supporting Austin's live music scene. Don't believe the crap that anti-smoking activists are selling. A ban will hurt some clubs, kill other clubs, and damage the live music scene. Anyone who tells you the impact on the scene will be negligible doesn't appreciate that it's the very number of Austin music clubs, including the swarm of the more marginal ones, that enables the scene's vitality. The marginal clubs are not only homes to the more marginal music styles, but in addition are the incubators of the next generations of Austin musical talents. It's not worth risking what Austin has nurtured over the past four decades for an intrusive moralistic triumph that will damage Austin culture.
Isn't it time that instead of adding to the worries and concerns of club owners like Wickham, we offered them our gratitude and support?
Tomorrow will see a brand new Austin Chronicle publication. I won't lessen its impact by saying too much here, but the energy and enthusiasm of our staff are at an all-time high, so in love are they with this new adventure upon which we will all be embarking.