Playback: Hole Lotta Rent

The historic Hole in the Wall is in danger of closing. So who's to blame?

Hole in the Wall closed previously between July 2002 and May 2003. (Photo by John Anderson)

The Hole in the Wall is dying and nobody wants the blood on their hands.

Last week, HITW owner Will Tanner sounded the alarm: The historic UT campus-area music venue is in danger of closing due to a rent increase. He said his attempts to initiate lease renewal discussions had been cold-shouldered by landlords at Weitzman Group/Cencor Realty for over a year, and when he finally met with them this month, he discovered the price of doing business on the Drag was increasing from $15,000 a month to $20,000 when the lease ends December 30. His suspicion that they want him out was confirmed when he says he discovered the space was being shopped.

"If they want us there, I'm there," Tanner promised on Friday. "But I think they want to maximize the money vis-à-vis Popeyes or Quiznos."

Weitzman Group's Scott Freid countered that same afternoon by refuting Tanner's account in a statement to media:

"We have always told Will that it is a priority for us to have this business stay. We have told him this multiple times over the last year and sat down with him as recently as last week."

The statement portrayed HITW as a financial underachiever and Tanner as doing a poor job of maintaining the property ("this obligation has been a major sticking point of the renewal along with several other violations"), and denied hiring a broker to lease the space or marketing the building to potential renters. In fact:

"We want [Will] to renew and have given him every opportunity to work something out, which included several concessions from the landlord. Instead of telling the public that he is ready to move on, it seems he has chosen to make the landlord responsible for the demise of his business."

On Monday, Tanner reacted to Freid's statement with a declaration.

"It's absolutely my intention to keep the Hole in the Wall open, if I can afford it," he claims. "They're contending that it's up to me. If that's true, then we made it, we got it, and we're going to work it out!"

Meanwhile, Austin's music community cranked its outrage to "11," incensed that the cherished 41-year-old institution could be axed. UT journalism professor Wanda Cash initiated a petition for the city to designate HITW a cultural landmark, but after learning it didn't meet historic qualifications, deferred to advocacy group Austin Music People to intervene. AMP Director Jennifer Houlihan told "Playback" she's working to mediate dialogue between Tanner and his landlord.

If the recent demises of Red 7 and Holy Mountain have reiterated a decades-old lesson in local live music beginning well before they tore down the Armadillo World Headquarters in 1981, it's that no amount of public uproar can save a venue. It's all about the real estate. Red 7, located in an entertainment district and armed with superior bookers Transmission Events, shuttered over a similar $5,000 rent hike, theirs rising from $9,000 to $14,000.

"There's no way the rent [at Hole in the Wall] should be more," insists the venue's former owner J.D. Torian, who sold the business to Tanner in 2008, three years after brokering the deal giving Weitzman Group ownership of the property. "It's hard to do business [on the Drag] right now. Real estate guys in Austin are taking the position that, 'You guys have the best location' and it's just not true."

HITW founder Doug Cugini paid roughly $800 a month in rent on a handshake lease when he opened the bar in 1974.

"Austin has changed so dramatically," he lamented. "It would be a shame if the Hole in the Wall closed. There's never been a place like it in Austin. Other bars are immaculate and pretty, and the Hole has always been like it is now, put together on a shoestring budget and filled with counterculture people who walk to a different drummer."

The Drag venue has long served as Ellis Island for Austin musicians, giving poor, tired, huddled masses of new bands a stage on which to grow. Among HITW regulars who went from seminal-to-national: Spoon, ...Trail of Dead, Fastball, Shakey Graves, Alejandro Escovedo, Nanci Griffith, Timbuk 3, etc., etc., etc. Musicians of all calibers have filled the Hole, including myself, whose Cunto was booked by then-HITW manager Denis O'Donnell for a recurring Wednesday happy hour gig where I regularly hung from the rafters and was once punched in the face mid-set by a drunk who preferred Cyndi Lauper.

"The Hole in the Wall is the most effective incubator in Austin's music scene," touts O'Donnell, now an owner of Eastside honky-tonk White Horse. "It's an accepting, wide-open-arms venue that gives anyone a shot at anything they're trying to do, to give them a leg up to the next level. I don't even know what the secret recipe is, but bands make it out of there. If you're country, maybe that means you get to play the Broken Spoke for people who can afford a $15 cover, or if you're a rock & roll band then you can go to the Continental Club."

If lease negotiations flatline, Tanner says HITW's final months will become a "musical wake." Since there are more bands that deserve one last show there than there are days between now and December 30, I'd hate to be the guy checking their email:

Half Notes

The Lost Well is losing its back patio. The Eastside venue, specializing in Lovejoys-esque metal and punk, is yielding to incoming housing developers next door who've challenged the existing property line. Lost Well honcho Marcello Murphy says he plans to build a covered patio out front to retain full capacity.

American Sharks played a surprise gig at Holy Mountain on Monday night, as part of an ongoing secret show series where popular bands do underplays that are announced day-of-show. This Monday's concert will bring the biggest yet – two artists who could sell out the small club on their own. Hint: One of them always brings a suitcase and the other has two singers who play miniature stringed instruments. Holy Mountain closes Sun., Sept. 27, with a last call featuring Mike & the Moonpies, East Cameron Folkcore, Harvest Thieves, and Ben Ballinger.

Texas Folklife acquired a house in North Austin (1708 Houston St.) that will serve as the venue for a new monthly concert series. The local cultural preservation nonprofit kicks off a show run Sept. 29 with big-voiced folkie Rick Shea, 7pm. $20.

Danny Barnes won the 2015 Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass. The ex-local, who fronted Austin punkgrass pioneers the Bad Livers, has been an iconoclast on the traditional instrument, exploring electronica and utilizing looping techniques. The unexpected award arrived with a statue and a check for $50,000. "I nearly passed out from the shock," admits Barnes.

Austin's Music & Entertainment Division has recently shown initiative in helping local musicians collect performance royalties. They published a list of over 100 local acts that may be owed money. On Wednesday, they continued efforts with a free public workshop teaching artists how to claim money owed from webcasting and satellite radio.

UGK's Pimp C has received a long-form literary tribute from hip-hop journalist/booking agent Julia Beverly called Sweet Jones: Pimp C's Trill Life Story. The 700-page bio compiles voluminous interviews with Southern rap's mad genius (many while he was incarcerated) as well as discussions with UGK partner Bun B and mother/manager Weslyn "Mama Wes" Monroe, and traces the Houston rapper's hustle from childhood till his untimely death in 2007. Beverly will be signing copies at Collective Status (516 E. Sixth), 3-5pm today (Thu., Sept. 17).

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Hole in the Wall, Will Tanner, Weitzman Group/Cencor Realty, Scott Freid

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