Where Live Music is Dead

Welcome to Sixth Street

There's a party onstage at Hang 'Em High. Jerry Jeff Walker? Willie Nelson? Newcomer Jack Ingram? No, it's 15 guys in business suits celebrating a leveraged buyout. "If it's a large enough party we'll set up the stage for 'em," says the club's General Manager Bill Beisel. Don't the bands mind? Usually there aren't bands to mind. While the club's original plans called for live country music four nights a week, after just over one year of business the 1,200 capacity nightclub has scaled back to live showcases on Thursdays only. Welcome to the reality of Sixth Street -- where live music is dead.

Two years ago, the Chronicle predicted that the opening of bigger venues such as The Backyard, Austin Music Hall, and Southpark Meadows would undercut the local music scene by bringing in bigger roadshows whose high ticket price would siphon music-goers' pocket books to the point where a $5 cover at the Hole in the Wall is too much ("The Dog Days of Club Doldrums," Vol. 14, No. 37). A year later, this was already coming to pass as clubowners reported their revenues down and that they were having a hard time paying local acts reasonable fees ("Where's All the Live Music Capital," Vol. 15, No. 14). Today, the situation still holds true, although to the surprise of many, it's Sixth Street that appears to be taking the brunt of the pressure.

Sure, nearly 20 clubs on Sixth Street still offer some live music, but clubowners say it's tougher than ever to charge more than a $2 cover for even the street's most popular acts. They also contend that Sixth has been overrun by college students that the more affluent older patrons like to avoid. This, in and of itself, wouldn't be that alarming if it wasn't for the fact that Sixth Street doormen claim that it's the students that don't like paying covers. Instead, students are heading to any of the street's influx of brew pubs, dance clubs, and theme restaurants, which typically use outrageous drink specials to get people through the door. So while Sixth Street may seem as busy as ever, it's only because people are coming down to drink, not to hear live, original music.

Of the nearly 40 nighttime businesses that line Sixth Street between Brazos and Red River, there are 14 bars, another half dozen that feature some live music (i.e. Maggie Mae's, Fat Tuesdays), and six dance clubs (not including Fifth Street's Paradox and Seventh's Buffalo Club.) And although there's a handful of venues like Joe's Generic Bar and Bates Motel that regularly feature original live music, perhaps only Steamboat, Flamingo Cantina, the Black Cat, Headliners East, Babes, and the White Rabbit are regarded as regular hosts to both developing local acts and big name hometown talent -- as well as the occasional roadshow. Factoring in mixed-use clubs like The Ritz, Hondos, and Catfish Station may appear to split the street at a 20-20 live music venue/bar ratio, but clubowners are quick to point out that bars such as The Iron Cactus or Copper Tank are capable of holding nearly twice as many patrons as the street's largest music venue, Steamboat.

Harder proof that folks are patronizing and drinking somewhere other than live music venues lies in the alcohol sales themselves. According to the state's monthly Mixed Beverage Tax totals, a live music venue like Steamboat did $40,992 in beverage sales for the month of July, while the Copper Tank, a favorite brew pub of college students, made $129,321 in that same period. And while the Copper Tank's sales are down nearly 20% from last year, Cedar Street's sales were up nearly 10% in July to $191,628, proving perhaps that in this sluggish live music year, a segment of the students and a bulk of the coveted adult crowd have moved off of Sixth and into Fourth Street's West End area.

It's an unanswerable chicken and egg question as to which came first, slow bar sales or low music demand, but it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that high covers often mean low attendance -- especially when music clubs are competing with no-cover bars. On the other hand, no cover/cheap drink nights are financial suicide for clubs that still want to pay their band a reasonable wage. Either way, the majority of live music venue owners on Sixth Street say it's local music that gets caught in the middle, because clubs are having to cut back on their live music offerings. And considering that Austin's "Live Music Capitol of the World" billing comes in part from Sixth Street's reputation as the center of live, original music, this downward trend is alarming.

Covering the Spread

Sixth Street live music venue owners say the most frequent one-two phone question combo they get is also the most troubling: "How much is cover?" and "Do you have any drink specials?" For a viable nightclub business, covers should be enough to pay the bands and the bar receipts should be enough to pay for the fixed alcohol costs, taxes, staffing, and production costs. But off the record, most of these clubowners complain that in the last two years they've been lucky to take home 20 cents on the dollar.

"People seem less willing to pay cover because they're spoiled by the number of bands and venues in this town," says Headliners East manager Steve Hurt, whose club is one of only five venues on the block that offers live music seven nights a week. "And if you give up any of the bar receipts to make up the difference, you've given up the small profit margin left on each drink. Soon enough, you're trapped in a hamster cage running in circles to make sure vendors, purveyors, bands, and bartenders get paid. Then you find yourself doing it month in and month out just hoping there will one day be something left."

Meanwhile, the so-called "West End Arts District" continues to flourish -- so much so that some have begun calling it the "Sixth Street for Adults." While steep covers and higher drink prices seem to be the norm for venues such as Cedar Street, better parking and not as many drunk coeds make the area an attractive alternative to Sixth Street. Even more traditional music venues, like the Continental Club, Hole in the Wall, and Antone's are reporting steady growth. And what links both groups is that clubs in the West End Arts District and Antone's are considered "Destination" clubs, where people stay once they're there -- stay and drink. They stay and drink on Sixth Street alright, but they're staying at the bars, not the live music venues.

"The problem of getting people out to see the music seems to just be down here," says Steamboat owner Danny Crooks. "If I had a venue with a drive-up location, I know I'd be doing much better."

As recently as five years ago, it wasn't unlikely that patrons would go to Joe's Generic for blues, Mercado Caribe for reggae, and the Black Cat for its mixed musical bag, buying drinks and paying cover at each stop -- all in the same night. As long as the destination was the music venues, everyone on Sixth Street did well, especially the bands who stood to widen their fanbases through the exposure. "Now, the student crowd we've got seems to say, `Let's go to the Iron Cactus, Copper Tank, or Maggie Mae's' and stops in one or the other club on the way out," says Headliners' Hurt. "They're just not standing in the middle of Sixth and Trinity and club-hopping randomly."

Babes and Jazz on Sixth, both clubs that are further down the block and thereby more accessible, say their food sales have not only helped stave off the music recession, but also nurtured loyal audiences that closely resemble destination draws. And clearly, when Steamboat has a big weekend name like Ian Moore, or Hang 'Em High books Merle Haggard for a Thursday, Sixth Street does indeed become a destination venue for atypical patrons. Unfortunately, say the clubowners, those shows don't encourage much bleed-over into neighboring clubs on those nights, and that the live music inactivity the rest of the week only further encourages patrons to frequent non-Sixth Street destinations. Worst of all, they ask, what does it say about the "Live Music Capitol of the World" if a tourist in town on business has only a handful of options on a Monday or Tuesday night downtown?

Although clubs are finding that staying closed on early weekday nights is often their only financially feasible response to the current recession, Crooks says it's imperative that clubs find a middle ground. At Steamboat, Crooks' answer is "ticket nights," which encourage young bands to promote themselves through discount performance tickets that are presented at the door by patrons of the band -- thereby proving that the band has done its share to promote its own gig. At Babes, which already sports Monday's best crowds with Don Walser on the restaurant side, manager Jim Hawke says barely squeaking by early week on the Stageside room pays off on the weekends.

"Weekdays, you just want to show people there's something going on, so when they come on the weekends they remember to stop by," says Hawke, who also maintains that a small cover allows the doorman the opportunity to distinguish who is already too drunk to enter. "The Stageside is typically closed on Sunday and Monday, but I've begun opening it up for Christian rock roadshows occasionally. They've got loyal followings that don't drink, but can fill a room. And if you're walking by, it gives the appearance of a filled room you'll want to visit later in the week."

Live and Die by the Band

But are the musicians themselves blame free? Although nobody's saying there has been a dip in the local talent pool, nearly every clubowner interviewed is contending that even the street's most popular acts don't draw like they did two or three years ago. "Nobody's really caught fire," says Hawk. "Even the bands you think have, like Podunk or Sunflower, still take a lot of extra work before they're anything near a guaranteed draw." And because radio and print advertising customarily comes out of the bar share, fewer clubs say they can afford the advertising it might take to bolster the crowds.

"Bands aren't promoting themselves like they did, with mailing lists, playing in the daytime on the campus, or postering the clubs," says Crooks. "Promotion is everything, and a lot of bands have seen how tough it's getting, accepted it, and gotten lazy."

In fact, earlier this summer, Crooks says he learned the hard way that booking only what he considers quality bands can actually hurt business if the bands you've chosen won't promote themselves. By discontinuing the club's ticket nights, Crooks was able to fill the early evening slots with bands he genuinely liked rather than upstart ticket acts. "Financially, it was the worst two months ever," says Crooks, who has had to go back to ticket nights to sustain slow-draw, high-talent acts like the Billy White Trio. But what if, as the clubowners suggest, the slow crowds have more to do with the clientele than the bands themselves?

"The college kids don't drink as much, don't tip as much, and are generally less interested in a concert than a party," says Hondo's manager Kevin Meadows, who installed a new P.A. in May and began booking original acts. "Still, there'd be no clubs without them. But you also live and die by the band. If you book a shit band, you're gonna have a shitty night. If the kids don't like it, they'll just leave. It kills the whole mood, and they know there's other bars they can go to without cover to buy cheap drinks."

The successful Sixth Street artists, who admit that they may not be as artistically viable as a Billy White or Don Walser, agree that catering to the kids is what counts. "They want a party atmosphere," says Lee Person, who has become one of the street's big draws by playing nearly 20 dates a month on Sixth Street alone. "I offer blues with a beat, because the college kids don't want traditional blues. They want the up-tempo music with rhythm, not guitar solos. I'll play 15-20 originals over the course of a night, and nobody knows it because it's got the beat they want."

But E.R. Shorts -- a fixture on Sixth Street since the early Eighties -- says starting a party has become tougher because the street itself has become less of a party. "It was just a lot livelier when I started," says Shorts, claiming he made considerably more money five years ago for the same string of gigs. "First they did away with the open containers, then they fucked with the sound ordinance. And there was a better mixed crowd, so that you could go in a place like the Black Cat and actually find a scene that had bikers, yuppies, and college students all getting along. Now, it's mostly a younger crowd that's looking for the radio hook. So Maggie Mae's is packed for a cover band, and the Black Cat's empty for a cool band that's talented and taking chances."

Perhaps the most unique perspective on the street comes from Mark Schaberg of Popular Talent, who neither runs nor plays the venues, but instead books the Iron Cactus, Copper Tank, Fat Tuesdays, and Bob Popular. According to Schaberg, the bands he books into these venues are determined by the market research he gathers in providing on-campus entertainment for fraternity, sorority, and campus organization parties.

"The college kids are never gonna stop going, so they've got to be your short-term goal," he says. In the past year, Schaberg says he's seen on-campus entertainment demand shift away from Top 40 country and towards more traditional fare like Willie, Waylon and Jerry Jeff -- all of whom he's booked for Hang 'Em High's Outlaw Thursdays. Tellingly, "Cedar Street-style" jazz is the next most requested genre, with a lot of recent calls coming for Joe Valentine-style soul.

The latter genre refers to the owner/house band leader of the 311 club, which the Austin Police department says may have a lax door policy and therefore be responsible for serving an intoxicated 19-year-old who later fell off the Iron Cactus' second-story outdoor deck, sustaining serious injuries. Schaberg says Valentine is popular on the party circuit simply because the kids go to see him at his club, and that perhaps a key to attracting new clientele could lay in cross-promotion.

"Playing parties can mean bringing different people into different venues later. The problem is that so many of the talented bands immediately begin running the Texas circuit, spending more time out of town than on the street," says Schaberg of the differences between now and when big draws like Joe Rockhead, Soulhat, and Storyville worked the private party circuit. "The lack of original bands playing the private Christmas parties and campus mixers has hurt Sixth, because now they walk by Maggie Mae's and know the name of the cover band that played their party. And when they walk by the more music-oriented clubs, they just don't know."

Malling It Over

So what's there to do with a mall that has lots of window shoppers and few buyers? And is the Sixth Street mall more like a strip center around a Wal-Mart than a Galleria anchored by a Dillard's? "There's a great amount of specialty shops," says Schaberg to extend the analogy. "But it takes a Neiman Marcus to come in, spend the money on the street, and send the message that it's a viable place to do business."

Perhaps because he books it, or perhaps because it truly has the nicest aesthetics of any club on the strip, Schaberg says the recently opened Iron Cactus is indeed Sixth Street's Neiman Marcus. "They can go there for margaritas, and perhaps drop by Steamboat afterwards," says Schaberg. But while clubowners would have scoffed at the notion of a Hard Rock Cafe or Billy Blues on Sixth Street as recently as two years ago, now, these same clubowners say they're willing to welcome any competitor that would bring back an older clientele.

"It's too bad that some people and some clubs at the end of the strip have ruined it for the older folks," says Headliner's Hurt about the brew pubs and dance clubs. "It would be really nice to see somebody take one of them over and turn it into a solid anchor like a House of Blues."

For months now, talk on the street has been that the Fox Theatre in Boulder could be Sixth Street's next big hope. Rumor has it that the owners of the large Colorado showcase room are interested in purchasing the long-vacated property between Jazz on Sixth and BW3, and could open a club there as early as New Year's Eve with a Blues Traveler/Dave Matthews bill. The club's talent booker, Don Strasburg, says he can't confirm or deny the property dealings, but calls an opening before mid-1997 "absolutely impossible." And while Strasburg won't necessarily commit to a Sixth Street location, he calls the street "a very good location."

While skeptical, Sixth Street live music venue owners admit they'd welcome a new club on the strip that might bring another 1,000 or so people down to the area on weeknights. It's the weekends, however -- when that many more people will be fighting for parking -- that local club owners say would ultimately test a new venue as a viable destination club. In theory, says Strasburg, an Austin version of the Fox, would be "smaller than the Music Hall and bigger than Steamboat." An upscale Liberty Lunch? "We're clearly interested in a state of the art venue," Strasburg says. "We have very high expectations so right now we're pursuing our options and determining whether it's financially feasible."

But what if the Fox's clientele also overextends their pockets on roadshows? What's left for the rest of Sixth Street? And what if the older crowd simply goes home after the show, or goes to the West End area for drinks? The only answer, say two club owners that admit it's harder than it looks, is to concentrate on keeping the college kids and the older clientele separated. 311's Valentine says he sees the older crowd leave by 11pm anyway, at which point the younger patrons are just starting to hit the street.

"Anyone that says they can't find a mixed crowd or get both at different times is full of garbage," says Valentine. Flamingo Cantina owner Angela Tharp is more sympathetic to the recession, but says she intentionally targets a younger crowd during the week for the punk showcases and a older, more diverse, crowd for the weekend reggae. "The key is to keep changing it up," she says.

But Valentine, who nonetheless claims sales are up, still perhaps inadvertently hits on the real problem. "When the older people come, you've got $150 in the tip jar. Older people spend more money," he says. "If I wasn't there, I can always tell what kind of crowd it was when I come in the next day and look at the daily report." For now, say most live venue clubowners, you can just assume it was a student crowd. And worst of all, that the band played to an empty room. n

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