Faster Than Sound: Austin Musicians Brace for Public Shutdown
Dispatches from the week the music died
Even before the unprecedented cancellation of South by Southwest, bands found themselves in a hole. Pullout from corporate sponsors and private parties cost local musicians thousands of dollars before the official activities ever ceased. ATX musician and now comedian Jackie Venson mourns that and more amid COVID-19 containment efforts.
"At first, I was grieving the thousands of SXSW dollars that were going to fund my tour, but then, the tour went away, too," laments the singer-guitarist, calling en route to collect her last checks from local venues and record stores. "We're all just suspended in midair right now. Everything is stopped."
Molly Burch postponed support dates for Tennis, Carson McHone flew home midway through a run in Spain, Magna Carda won't be touring to Treefort Festival, and Golden Dawn Arkestra tables Lollapalooza Chile. By the time the city of Austin shut down bars and restaurants Tuesday afternoon – ultimately prohibiting gatherings of more than 10 people – most major live music venues had already shuttered.
By that juncture, in the uncharted days ahead of the city-enforced shutdown, musicians faced difficult decisions. Local electro-fusion trio Trouble in the Streets was scheduled to share a bill with Questlove at Empire Control Room's annual Music Tech Mash-Up, which the venue ultimately pulled the plug on. In the stressful intermittent hours, the band weighed public health concerns with supporting the scene.
"We were talking about it nonstop," reveals singer Nnedi Agbaroji. "[Drummer Robert Slangen] is a music educator, so he works with some immunocompromised people. It really came down to our other lives outside of music."
"I saw some musicians comparing it to a game of chicken," explains bassist Andy Leonard. "Nobody wanted to be the first to pull out and say, 'This is actually freaking me out, and I don't feel safe.' Everyone wanted to be tough about it."
In the last week's collapse of public life, musicians proved ahead of the curve in community health concern. Scene leaders including Go Fever, Why Bonnie, Mamalarky, Big Bill, and Mobley all called off makeup sets at local hubs. The latter, Anthony Watkins II, made the announcement Friday.
"Once we had time to shake off the shock and grief at the ways SXSW was impacting us professionally, then it's like, 'What kind of danger is this posing? And what's my responsibility?'" He adds, "It's unfortunate that it was left up to individuals to decide, when ostensibly that's what we have a government for."
Watkins calls March miss outs, including a canceled performance in Los Angeles before SXSW, a "sizable portion" of his year's income. Although not an Austinite, Riley Gale of Dallas metal group Power Trip held on as a headliner for rescheduled local shows until Barracuda called them off. The group's gigs were meant to kick off a European arena tour with Kreator and Lamb of God.
"It's pretty scary for me," says Gale. "The band was full-time, and those shows were intended to cover pretty much all my income for the rest of the year. Now I'm looking at, 'How am I going to get rent through June?'"
Alongside months assembling a showcase at Stay Gold, group leader Acey Monaro lost corporate gigs with her pop-rock troupe Go Fever. In an industrywide scramble to briefly reassemble shows, she tweeted an email exchange with a resort outside Austin. When asked about payment, the inviting booker replied: "There is the intrinsic value in promotion/exposure and we would be marketing to the industry leaders for market awareness."
"I was just so disgusted that the resort would use the guise of helping artists in the wake of the SX cancellation to ask us to work for free," emails Monaro. "I have an ongoing issue with payment for bands around SXSW unofficial parties. A lot of musicians in Austin work in the service industry, and have to take the majority of the most lucrative week of the year off to play these free shows. There's got to be a way we can all benefit from the event – if it ever happens again."
Monaro serves on the advisory panel of the nonprofit Austin Texas Musicians, which takes on issues such as musician pay and fair venue practices. To assess the economic impact of SXSW's cancellation, the group created an online survey of artists' estimated losses. President and local songwriter Nakia Reynoso hopes for this data to support city and federal relief efforts.
"We're all wondering out loud, 'How can we make this better?'" the singer told the Chronicle last week. "We look at this as a real dire warning."
Moving forward, bands brace for possible months without live performance. Watkins – who performs as Mobley – recently released slinky single "Nobody's Favourite," gearing up for an album with Canada's Last Gang Records. He's now uncertain about the release, planned for spring.
"It's uncomfortable to self-promote right now," he muses. "It doesn't feel right to be like, 'Buy my stuff. Come watch this.' Nobody should be ashamed of doing their job, but it's complicated."
Dreamy Austin rock troupe Why Bonnie announced signing with prominent Mississippi outlet Fat Possum Records last month. They planned to connect in person with their label, PR, and booking teams during SXSW, building up to the April 10 release of new EP Voice Box. Now, with planned national tour dates thrown out, even a local album release show is up in the air.
"It's absolutely, truly heartbreaking, because it's something we've all worked years toward," says Why Bonnie guitarist Sam Houdek. "But every single band and label and manager and booking agent and venue is dealing with this shit right now. The only bright side is that literally everybody is feeling the same way."
Eyes on Austin: After the city adjourned SXSW, national media zoomed in on the local music industry. The Washington Post and The New York Times covered obstinate gatherers at the Austin Music Awards, held at ACL Live at the Moody Theater Wednesday, March 11. Addressing the Festival cancellation, the latter wrote: "When Mayor Steve Adler took the stage and tried to explain the decision, a mix of cheers and heckles reverberated across the theater." NPR Music still published their annual "Austin 100" recommendations for the nonexistent music week. Local selects include Christelle Bofale, Fuvk, Sydney Wright, and Why Bonnie.
Festival Postponement Frenzy: Due to coronavirus concern, California giant Coachella rescheduled for Oct. 9-11 and 16-18. The move overlaps with the second weekend of local institution Austin City Limits, planned for Oct. 2-4 and 9-11 in Zilker Park. Amid SXSW fallout, Luck Reunion and the first-year Campfire Gathering both postponed. In the latest swing, beloved April occurrences Old Settler's Music Festival and Eeyore's Birthday Party are both off. The Rolling Stones postponed their spring/summer tour, so COTA's May date is no go as well.