Smoke Signals

Red River sweats Austin's newly proposed smoking ban. With good reason.

Beerland bartender Jill Kojak
Beerland bartender Jill Kojak (Photo By Aubrey Edwards)

This is a story of fear. And rightfully so. For a municipality so quick to call itself the "Live Music Capital of the World," the city of Austin has caused nothing but hardship for its thriving nightlife: permit and age restrictions, harsh TABC rules, harsher taxes, and last but not least, the barely cold noise ordinance. It's a wonder smaller venues keep their doors open.

After a coalition of club owners and health experts presented the current smoking ordinance to the city council last year – banning smoking in restaurants without separate ventilation systems and forcing bars and live music venues with an 18-and-up age policy to purchase a permit to allow smoking indoors – Austin's live music industry thought the compromise infringing but reasonable. Only five months later, under the auspices of Onward Austin, an anti-smoking lobby group formed and financed by the American Cancer Society and the Lance Armstrong Foundation among others, a much stricter smoking ordinance is being put to the city itself.

This time, there are no exceptions for bars and live music venues, only bingo parlors, hotel and motel rooms, retirement homes, and fraternal organizations. All indoor smoking downtown will be outlawed, and guess what? Club owners, bartenders, musicians, and patrons – smokers and nonsmokers – are scared to death. Keep in mind, this is the constituency Onward Austin claims it wants to protect. If the worst-case scenario proves true and a handful of our smallest live music venues, otherwise known as the breeding ground for local acts, close their doors, how much protection is that for their employees?

Regardless of which box you belong to (this writer smokes), the city of Austin should proceed very cautiously, as Mayor Will Wynn stated. Even if these small, circa 200-capacity bars lose 20% of their revenue for a couple of months, that short-term loss will more than likely cancel out the electricity bill if not the rent. The effects will be almost immediate, whatever they are.

From Hole in the Wall to the Broken Spoke, every music venue in this city will change. And while Onward Austin keeps reiterating that studies show New York City, Boston, San Francisco, and other cities all doing fine with similar smoking bans, some man-on-the-street reports from those same cities are far more jarring. (See News, p.32.) According to such accounts, smaller neighborhood bars and venues are the first to go. Locally, that coincides with the heart of Austin's rock scene, the Red River district, where the Live Music Capital's lifeblood pumps every single night.

The most important thing to remember? If the smoking ban passes on May 7 – early voting begins this Wednesday, April 20 – it can't be amended, repealed, or remedied for two years. That's more than enough time for any affected venue to go out of business. Two years in the turbulent world of the music business is an eternity. If there's any doubt about this smoking ban, maybe the risk is just too high.

The Smoking Section

"We're talking about adults over the age of 18. We're talking about a legal product. And we're talking about less than one half of one percent of businesses that cater to those individuals," warns John Wickham, owner of Red River live music venue Elysium, City Council candidate, and Keep Austin Free spokesperson.

Keep Austin Free is the counterpart to Onward Austin. Although labeled "Murder Incorporated" by Onward Austin political consultant David Butts, Keep Austin Free is a conglomeration of 29 (and growing) business owners, all of whom have huge stakes in the local smoking game and none of whom have anything to do with Big Tobacco ( Wickham and Beerland owners Randall and Donya Stockton are leading the fight in the live music trenches.

"The 1994 ordinance essentially made bars the smoking section of Austin," points out Wickham, recalling the first time the local live music scene was faced with similar threats to its livelihood. He's one of many club owners in the Red River district who see the newly proposed smoking ordinance as an attack on their businesses rather than a progressive attempt to improve the health of Austinites.

According to the Center for Disease Control, 25-30% of all Austinites smoke. Currently, of the 46,000 businesses in Austin, only 211 allow smoking, all of which claim a fully stocked bar.

"The reason that Beerland is currently not smoke-free is the fault of nonsmokers who have failed to prove they could support a smoke-free Beerland," Randall Stockton explains. "They are not dedicated enough. Our smoking clientele is dedicated to us. They really do support us.

"[Donya and I] don't smoke. We're not attached to smoke. We're attached to our customers, to our musicians, and to our friends who really do support Beerland. We're not attached to imaginary people that don't show up. We're attached to real people who come here and support this business."

Last June's revised ordinance – reworked after the City Council reversed former Mayor Gus Garcia's stringent ban – forced live music venues to offer nonsmoking shows on Mondays, 52 weeks a year. So the clubs did ... and according to them, nobody came. Sure, it was Monday, but compared to smoking-permitted Mondays immediately before the rule, there was a huge drop in attendance. No fans mean no bands want to play. No music, no show.

So what of these nonsmokers? What of this huge contingency of people that Onward Austin claims will appear when the bars go smoke-free? There are two types of nonsmokers: those who already go to shows and support the scene, and those who don't go to bars, period. The current nonsmoking clubgoers, for the most part, oppose the ban. While some think it would be nice, most are afraid their favorite bars will close or face economic problems.

Cory Plump, of Austin's Awesome Cool Dudes, is admittedly in the minority. He's a very active musician who's in favor of the smoking ban. After beating the bushes in and around Red River in an attempt to find more of Plump's like-minded peers, this reporter could only scare up Ben of Assacre fame as a local musician who agreed with Plump on record. Not that Plump wasn't duly scared to go on record – scared he'll face repercussions from the local venues that nurture his band.

"As a nonsmoker, it would be nice to go out and not come home smelling of smoke," Plump offers. "I go out damn near every night to watch music or at least go get drunk, and I'm used to [the smoke], but I think it's inevitable. I think owners are going to have to adapt at some point."

Which might very well be the case. At some point in time, it's reasonable to assume indoor smoking will be banned nationwide. But do such policies have to be this restrictive? And without knowing what will happen to the Austin live music scene, is it worth risking the economic and cultural vitality of our culture?

800-Pound Gorilla Protection

"I would like to see it left up to the people who attend the live music shows to decide whether they want to go into a club that's smoke-filled or not," says Emo's owner Frank Hendrix. "I believe the economy should tell you if there's a need for a nonsmoking club. Surely somebody with a strong entrepreneurial spirit would do that.

"But the American Cancer Society and the Lance Armstrong Foundation have much deeper pockets than the few club owners here in Austin that have thrown everything into a pile. I think we're going up against an 800-pound gorilla."

Five months after compromising on Austin's current smoking ordinance (according to Keep Austin Free), Onward Austin began soliciting signatures for a petition to make Austin smoke-free (see sidebar). According to Red River venue owners, nary a one was seen in any of the institutions that would be most seriously impacted by a ban. Overheard at state offices: "If you don't want your office to become smoking, sign this." Another from in front of the Austin Police Department: "Help Lance Armstrong fight cancer."

"The thing that angered me the most is that they passed the [current] ordinance in my name," complains Joshua Jones, "and then I end up the guy required to enforce their law."

Jones is in the unique position of seeing the effects of a smoking ban firsthand. A longtime bartender at the Parish, Jones felt it when the Sixth Street music venue was forced to go smoke-free due to a shared liquor license between the venue and club owners and downstairs Cajun restaurant Jazz.

"To protect me, they put me in the position where if somebody smokes, my boss gets a $1,000 fine, and I get fired for not enforcing this law that I didn't want for my protection in the first place. They say it's for my protection, but I'm not believing that."

Jones left the Parish for the new Side Bar recently, citing a 20% drop in tips after the ban as the most significant reason. While others such as Parish promoter Philip Croley say they haven't noticed much of a difference, the money speaks for itself.

"I appreciate their concern," Jones directs toward Onward Austin, "but I'm a grown man. It's my choice to live the lifestyle that I do. If I wanted to sit at home, eat granola, and have a computer desk job, I would do that."

As it now stands, every venue meeting a certain percentage of alcohol sales (unlike the Parish) and admitting only patrons 18 and older can purchase a smoking permit for $300 a year. That's almost $65,000 in the city coffers that would go away with the implementation of a total ban. In addition, bars like Beerland and Elysium do 6% and 7% respectively of their gross sales in tobacco alone. More money lost, this time in tax dollars, if the ban passes. Clubs aren't alone.

"You can't tell me what the effect is on just bars," says Stockton regarding the combination of restaurant and bar revenues in the studies coming out of New York and California. "And furthermore, you can't tell me what the impact is on all bars. Some places are utterly dependent on a smoking clientele, and I would go so far as to say that Beerland is definitely one of those places."

Austin's country scion, Kevin Fowler, agrees strongly, despite his hatred for smoke. He says his audience triples when he plays smoking venues.

"It's going to hurt live music. Celine Dion fans can go to the Erwin Center and see her in a nonsmoking environment. Don't force that on my redneck, honky-tonk, hell-raisin', beer-drinkin' bubbas that wanna go out, have a good time, dip snuff, smoke cigarettes, and drink beer."

Toy Soldier State

"This is playing with toy soldiers to them, but very real to us. This is our livelihood; this is our lives. It's about the heart and soul of Austin," Wickham declares emphatically.

That's what it comes down to. Regardless of the numbers, regardless of health, Austin has this tattered flag flying in the wind with those words emblazoned across it: "Live Music Capital of the World." Sometimes that flag is raised higher than the Lone Star, but only when no one's looking.

How can Austin remain a cultural hotbed if it doesn't support live music and the local venues that put it on? How can Austin expect tourists to flock in droves to the home of Spoon and Trail of Dead and Kevin Fowler and Pat Green if there's no one to follow in their footsteps? Maybe it all seems like a doomsday scenario, but without hard factual evidence that this straw won't break the camel's back, the spine of Austin, keeping it weird and entertaining at the same time, is in very real danger.

"Once again, we're telling people they can't make up their own minds," shrugs Philip Croley. "And that's what's sad. People can make up their own minds."

Smoking is bad for you. It will most certainly cause cancer. But again, is this the forum for such an issue? Shouldn't it start with public education? Isn't outlawing smoking in venues that are essentially designed for it putting the cart in front of the horse?

"With the Disney-fication of Sixth Street, we've had live [original] music venues get outpriced and move onto Red River," says Wickham. "And the bars that are on Red River right now, we've survived the economic downturns that have happened over the last three or four years. We've survived poor city planning that put a homeless shelter right across the street from my bar. And yet this smoking ordinance threatens me in a way that poor city planning and economic downturns never could. That's the concern.

"This is something real, and quite frankly, all the live music venues and all of the bands I've talked to, we're scared. There are no two ways about it. I'm not going to lie and say we think we can beat this thing. We're scared. We're really scared. This is going to change not only our business but what Austin is to everybody who comes here, and the only thing we can do about it is try to better inform people right now."

It's time to exercise those civil rights. We're not talking about a traffic circle or a church parking garage. This is local livelihoods being messed with. This is Austin.

"If they take this away from me, I have nothing here," says Stockton, shaking his head. "My family is here. I was born here. My soul is here. Every fiber of my being comes from what Austin once was, but if [this ban passes], you take away what Austin was, and you have orphaned me." end story

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