SXSW Cancellation “Devastating” for Austin’s Grassroots Music Businesses

Coronavirus shutdown impacts all levels of Austin music

A Giant Dog at Cheer Up Charlies at SXSW 2019 (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

Even before news of South by Southwest’s cancellation broke, Rock n Roll Rentals owner Jim Norman instituted protocol to protect employees and customers at his music gear rental facility from the coronavirus.

Equipment would be sanitized, microphones cleaned with 70% isopropyl alcohol, and the shop’s door handle disinfected routinely.

“I’m not wanting to be afraid or overdo it, I just want all the protocol worked out so that if COVID-19 shows up in Austin we can be as prepared as possible,” he said.

The concern of the respiratory virus proved enough that, on March 6, city officials canceled SXSW. During the press conference at City Hall, no attention was made as to how the decision would impact Austin’s year-round music businesses that have counted on a mid-March financial bump for decades.

Asked how a SXSW cancellation would affect his business, Norman characterized it as “significant, no question, but we will cope.” Then he added the production businesses “would be hurt – bad.”

Indeed, a person at one prominent the Austin-based business that stages concerts and operates audio estimated to the Chronicle losses of $350,00 to $400,000 from clients scrapping events due to coronavirus concerns. That individual called Friday the darkest day they’d experienced in the local production industry. A source at another major local concert and event production company reported a deficit of the hundreds of thousands due to coronavirus-related client cancellations that began prior the SXSW announcement.

The work of Austin’s venue operators also became chaos. An hour after the city’s pronouncement, the Chronicle reached venue owner Jason McNeely by phone. Counting stakes in Hotel Vegas, Barracuda, and Kinda Tropical, he described the cancellation as “devastating” for Austin’s music clubs. He pointed out that March is the month where venues operating on razor-thin margins bail themselves out with increased income.

Following the 4pm press conference, in which officials offered scant information for what kind of events promoters could put on in place of official SXSW programming, McNeely revealed that club operators are left trying to salvage shows to fill their rooms during what would have been music festival week – a week many sponsors and some bands already exited He also disclosed his own increased deposits for acts he won’t necessarily recoup from.

Cody Cowan, a veteran club runner in Austin’s vaunted Red River district and now the VP of a nonprofit called Austin Music Movement, noted that Downtown venues frequently pay double rent in March because it’s written into their leases due to the month’s lucrative nature in Austin. He pointed out that many put in for large beer orders, which now may go bad before they can sell it all.

Cowan said he hopes Austin venues can rally despite no official festival programming and significantly less sponsorship dollars and throw a week of music that’ll serve the creative community and generate money. Something that feel like a “birthday party” for the music scene instead of a “funeral,” he offered.

Other local industry leaders chimed in via social media. On Facebook, Margin Walker Presents head Graham Williams expressed concern for clubs missing out on profits from the festival.

“The venues literally survive off of SXSW,” he wrote. “Not all, as some have a good year round business, but the amount of venues that use that week of slammed bar sales to get them to the end of the year (especially after the slow winter months) will shock you ... . It's a labor of love for most involved, and I don't know how some of them are going to make it to the end of the year.”

Cheer Up Charlies co-owner Maggie Lea posted: “Ugh. This is our whole economy, down to the Porta Potty guy and the tent people and the ice guy... We were all depending on this, and we have all worked all year for this week.”

Lea’s partner Tamara Hoover confirmed by text that the Red River venue will schedule as many events as possible for what would have been SXSW Music week, March 16-20.

"Gotta find ways to continue on,” she wrote. “We will hold as many events as we can in the upcoming weeks – looking forward to moving forward.”

On Friday evening, Heard Presents, the production team that runs Empire and the Parish, launched a $100,000 GoFundMe campaign titled Band Together ATX. “The cancellation of SXSW due to global health crisis has and will adversely impact thousands of artists, hospitality and production workers, [and] businesses and organizations that rely on that event to survive.”

Stated goals of the fundraiser: “Ensure as many artists and events that want to continue on and perform a showcase in Austin in the following weeks are able to do so.” “Provide financial relief to artists, workers, and partners who have incurred unrecoupable expenses in connection with confirmed events and performances.” “Provide financial relief for artists workers and partners who have lost income that they counted on to pay bills, rent, etc.” “Cover any additional expenses that may be incurred to ensure safety of patrons of these events as required by our local, state, and federal governments.”

The GoFundMe notes organizers are currently evaluating nonprofits to gift the funds it raises.

While dozens of sponsored events announced cancellations today, it appears that Austin’s regular venues, studios, and DIY promoters are still planning to provide a full festival’s worth of programming. A press release from the city doesn’t seem to bar Austins’ creative curators from putting on replacement shows:

“Events with 2,500 or more people are prohibited unless organizers are able to assure Austin Public Health that mitigation plans for infectious diseases are in place. Each event will be evaluated case-by-case.”

Like venue operators, Austin’s musicians appear likely to play shows amidst a canceled SXSW. There’s already a response sheet attempting to link orphaned bands with gigs: SXSW Band Refugees Availability Register.

Meanwhile, even the most senior of conference veterans find themselves in new territory since SXSW has never been called off in its 34-year existence.

Austin’s longstanding vinyl emporium Waterloo Records announced the cancellation of its free indoor shows during SXSW. Owner John Kunz says he felt it “the right thing to do” given the concerns for public health. He plans to reschedule soon with any local artists impacted, including a canceled performance by Terry Allen & the Panhandle Mystery Band.

Alongside next month’s Record Store Day, the annual conference marks a bump in sales for the homegrown vinyl retailer.

“The loss is going to be significant, but we won’t know [how big] until it happens,” said Kunz. “We’ve been having South By events for the past 30-something years. Still, no one knows how many college spring breakers are going to be coming here, or how many people already have a plane ticket.”

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