Faster Than Sound: Headlines From a Year in Limbo
A flurry of industry activity in an on-again, off-again reopening scene
Austin music spent much of the year in limbo, and here we are again – holding our breath as a handful of sets and events cancel due to Omicron. Rather than being defined by an album or show, local music headlines of 2021 crawl in close pace with national events.
When COVID raged, concerts canceled, a tedious on-again, off-again continuum. When an unprecedented freeze hit Texas in February, musicians and production workers handed out essential supplies. In April, with vaccines having become available, advocacy group Austin Texas Musicians dosed musicians at the Pershing while Health Alliance for Austin Musicians vaccinated members inside Emo's.
Just in time for the fall return of a largely maskless live touring economy, many major clubs reached a cease-fire with the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission under slippery protocol: Concerts require recent negative COVID-19 tests across the board and accept vaccination proof as an alternative, always mentioning the cards second in the infographic.
The limbo year abided by a quote provided by ACL Live at the Moody Theater General Manager Colleen Fischer in March, speaking of rescheduled tours: "It's a moving target, unfortunately. We're doing our best to navigate it. We continue to move shows. We continue to book shows."
Lost Music Spaces
Lost music venues of the year include the BARn on Brodie Lane, the Parish, Dry Creek Cafe & Boat Dock, and Nutty Brown Amphitheatre (whose owners plan to open a new Round Rock concept). Otherwise, 2021 also shuttered Groover's Paradise Record Shop, hi-fi heaven Sound Gallery, and Music Lab's final location on St. Elmo. An indicator of Elon Musk's increasing presence in Austin, the latter beloved music incubator became a Tesla showroom and service center.
When asked about the viability of running a rehearsal space, Music Lab secretary Joe Cabela told the Chronicle: "I think it would be difficult within the city limits. Cost of construction and market rents make this difficult."
The Parish abruptly closed in October after property owner Matt Reppert changed the locks and boarded up windows without warning, according to a lawsuit filed by venue owners. Seeking more than $1 million in damages, the suit alleged the landlord "hatched a plot to commandeer the business." Lakeside, Dry Creek Cafe hosted a last shindig on Halloween after longtime owner Jay "Buddy" Reynolds sold the 68-year-old dive bar, despite rallying by fans.
An Influx of Openings
With the reemergence of live music, an influx of new venues made pandemic-delayed debuts. The cavernous Concourse Project began booking major names in dance and electronic near the airport in June. Public green space by day and 5,000-person-capacity venue by night, Waterloo Park's Moody Amphitheater began hosting major touring acts in August, in collaboration with promoters C3 Presents.
In other opening updates, Long Play Lounge established a second location at 1910 E. Cesar Chavez, formerly Stay Gold. Captain Quackenbush's Coffeehouse opened a 100-cap room in the former home of South Austin venue Strange Brew. Mural-filled dance club Outer Heaven Disco Club occupies 1808 E. 12th, which once housed Dozen Street and Club 1808.
Just off Burnet, North Austin stop Love Wheel Records opened in April under ownership of Mike Nicolai, known as the longtime house sound engineer at Hole in the Wall. Breweries also provided prime outdoor stages, including expanded bookings at Central Machine Works and Meanwhile Brewing.
ScoreMore, an Austin-based production and promotion company owned by Live Nation, fell under scrutiny following the November Astroworld Festival tragedy in Houston. Considered one of the deadliest concerts in U.S. history, the event left 10 people dead and dozens injured. A state task force headed by Texas Music Office Director Brendon Anthony – including safety experts, police and fire representatives, state agencies like TABC, and unspecified music industry leaders – has begun meeting to produce a report on concert safety.
Who Owns Austin Industry?
Following a virtual edition of the flagship March festival, South by Southwest announced a major new investor in April. Owners of Rolling Stone, Billboard, Variety, and more, media umbrella P-MRC assumed a 50% stake in the Austin company. The partnership shored up finances during what SXSW Managing Director Roland Swenson called "an incredibly tough period for small businesses, SXSW included."
Austin's Keeled Scales partnered with prominent Illinois imprint Polyvinyl in May, opening a joint local office. Purchasing a 25% stake in the local label, Polyvinyl handles direct-to-consumer fulfillment, while Keeled Scales maintains creative control. And in June, members of the concert promotions team behind Margin Walker and Transmission Events debuted new events company Resound Presents under Graham Williams' ownership.
Venues also changed hands: Ryman Hospitality Properties, owners of Nashville's Ryman Auditorium and the Grand Ole Opry, renewed plans to acquire flagship Austin venue ACL Live at the Moody Theater. Spider House Ballroom rebranded as just "The Ballroom" under new ownership by Chris Baker, proprietor of Arlo's plant-based eateries.
The end of a 10-year management agreement between KUT/KUTX and UT-Austin led to the layoffs of Cactus Cafe manager Matt Muñoz and assistant manager Amy Chambless. The venue scaled back to trivia, open mics, and fewer than a dozen booked performers this fall semester, mostly organized by student group Events + Entertainment Headliners.
Local & Federal Venue Funding
After lobbying throughout 2020, local and federal relief for venues rolled out this year. The city of Austin-created Live Music Venue Preservation Fund allocated $5 million for local music venues as part of COVID-19 relief efforts. Under the emergency phase 1 funding, 74 local venues received initial payments of $20,000, speedily distributed through city partner the Long Center. In phase 2 of the program, 28 clubs received larger ongoing grants.
Many Austin venue owners hoped for the local fund to supplement larger support from the national Shuttered Venue Operators Grant – also known as Save Our Stages. After many delays, the Small Business Administration awarded over $11.3 billion over the summer, granting over $130 million to 108 Austin-based live music and performing arts entities. According to data published in October, the top five amounts went to UT-Austin's Texas Performing Arts, Messina Touring Group, South by Southwest, Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar, and Alamo Drafthouse Lakeline.
Twelve months claimed numerous essential figures of Austin music. Alphabetically:
Austin Music Network programmer Kent Benjamin, local conjunto elder Chencho Flores, masterful blues guitarist Denny Freeman, esteemed folk and country song-crafter Nanci Griffith, poignant punk musician Brandon Hamilton, generous ABGB co-founder Mark Jensen, former Little Longhorn Saloon owner Ginny Kalmbach, esteemed jazz drummer Scott Laningham, influential bass player Yoggie Musgrove, industry-shaping audio engineer Rupert Neve, powerhouse concert promoter/Backyard and Austin Music Hall owner Tim O'Connor, harmonica great Paul Oscher, psychedelic visionary/Janis Joplin bandmate Powell St. John, boogie-woogie pianist Gene Taylor, pioneering music journalist Ed Ward, and last but not least Broken Spoke patriarch James White.
The last time I spoke with White, in July 2020, he reflected on the pandemic: "I don't want this damn virus to kill live music, whether it's country or rock or blues or whatever. It's just a damn shame ... You can listen on TV or radio, but nothing beats being there with live music, and letting the music take you where it takes you. You can't be the live music capital if you ain't got music. Makes sense to me!"