Page Two: A Threat and a Promise

The city takes on live music, again

Page Two
Having to start thinking, once again, about an issue on which city government, despite its enthusiastic talk when it comes to live music, has never walked the walk – and is in fact actively walking backward, though not quite yet lying down – is truly depressing. On this one I dropped the ball, so I'm as guilty as anyone. A club owner wrote me to express some dismay at the Waller Creek/Red River development plan. Usually I'll credit the writer of a letter to the Chronicle that I cite in this column, but this time I'm passing, given that some of the club owners and others involved do not look kindly upon me. Acknowledging the letter-writer might be more of a disservice than a service. Given that I'm so late on this one, at least a little of that attitude is not unjustified.

The letter notes, "As you may be aware, the Waller Creek/Red River plan is in its final stages for Public Comment at [survey since closed].

"The Austin Music Foundation sent out an email recently alerting the live music/bar owners that this was one of their last chances for Public Comment. I realize this is too late for publication sadly, given the May 31st deadline, but I thought you ... [and others could comment].

"None of the plans seem to offer the variety of Live Music that exists on Red River now, which lamentably seems to be the largest congregation of original Live Music venues left in the once-vibrant downtown area."

As mentioned above, I'm not really on top of this situation. How concrete the actual plans are, I'm not sure. I don't think there is a single plan in place but rather that input is being solicited with the goal of coming up with such a plan. Unfortunately, more often than not in the course of city planning, when live music club owners have worried that the situation would not break their way, their original concerns come to seem actually optimistic in the wake of what eventually happened.

Tributes to live music are offered much like the "hallelujah" chorus from the lips of politicians and community leaders. There are few civic events, no matter how distanced they are from music, at which beautiful bouquets of loving phrases and appreciative sighs are not offered. The city even labeled itself "the live music capital of the world."

Rarely, even among politicians, has so much verbiage had so little positive activity associated with it. The Bard as usual nailed it: "That struts and frets his hour upon the stage/And then is heard no more: it is a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/Signifying nothing." I feel as much the idiot as anyone here.

How has the city of Austin shown its love for the live music scene? Actually, when it comes to proactively supporting the club scene, there is little the city can do. Despite that, it sure has struck it rich mining veins to aggravate and hinder the business.

Live music clubs are the structure upon which the whole music scene rests. They are the first, and often most important, line of support. Okay, no Pollyanna pose here; club owners can be pains in the ass. Some stiff bands; others drink too much or have other problematic recreational habits. Over the years, I've had guns pulled on me and been verbally assaulted by owners. Others are near-saints, selflessly slaving away for and because of the music. Again, over the years I have had far more encounters with club management in which the conversation has been friendly, loaded with information, and driven by a shared passion for music.

Almost none of these owners expects to get rich (there are always the delusional); most accept the reality of living way too close to the edge way too much of the time. Regardless of individual club owners or your take on them, theirs are invariably and regularly extremely stressful jobs, highlighted by too many moments of crisis. The highlights are few – a terrific performance, a crowd having a great time – and too often fleeting.

The city has responded with an outpouring of emotion – unfortunately, little of it positive toward club owners. There is the sound ordinance and the various proposals to make it even stricter. There was the initial smoking ban that left approximately 200 or so businesses as exceptions out of thousands if not tens of thousands of establishments. This was followed by that especially loving valentine to the live music scene, the voter-based smoking ban that eliminated those exceptions.

Charitably, many who had never run a club wrote in to volunteer that the ban would have little impact. What's missing here is the ongoing, emotional assault on club owners. Running a business is often traumatic. Even in the best of times, there is no security about the future. When club owners feel threatened, it is far more than counterproductive.

These folks are heroes. The city officially cites them as heroes. Yet sometimes they get treated almost like criminals.

The letter quoted above continues, "I am hoping however, that public comment will recognize what Red Eyed Fly, Beerland, Elysium, Room 710, and Headhunters did (for the last almost 7 years) with a once crime-ridden area that now makes it so attractive for development, as well as newer venues like Sidebar, Creekside Lounge, Beauty Bar, Red 7 and Mohawk; not to mention Stubb's, Emo's and Club de Ville who have been here even longer through good times and bad."

Now, I would have thought that in the earliest stages of any kind of Downtown redevelopment planning, the club owners would be one of the first groups with whom planners would meet. And not just meet, but actually listen and hear. In meetings such as those, I've spent too much time staring at the vacant faces of those running the meeting rather than engaged in useful and productive discussion (although here I do have to acknowledge that in dealing with the city, far more often than not, I've encountered the latter rather than the former).

As I understand it, the planning here is very much in the conceptual and development stage. I'm hoping that I've completely misread the situation and will be forced into another one of my numerous Emily Litella moments, when, red-faced and embarrassed, I issue a "Never mind!" after having gone off half-cocked and overamped. I just get nervous whenever there is planning that involves the city and live music, the overwhelming feeling being that it has too often not gone well in the past.

Anyway, here is a heads-up on this concern.

A different approach might be to point out how much insanely great music is scheduled in the clubs over the next couple of months, acts both local and touring. "Support the clubs by going to hear terrific music" doesn't seem like too onerous a suggestion. Unfortunately, such suggestions are hypocritical on my end. A constant slight tinnitus, which can often be completely annoying, becomes not just louder but a constant (and constantly annoying) interference when exposed to beloved but loud rock & roll (which is probably what triggered it in the first place). This means I just don't go out to hear music that much. Although I keep promising myself that I will.  

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Austin live music, Red River clubs, Live Music Capital of the World, downtown planning, club owners

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