Austin Could Lose It’s ‘Live Music Capital’ Title Post COVID-19
“It is absolutely shameful what is happening. I 100% believe the city should remove the ‘Live Music Capital of the World’ moniker from all websites and materials.”
This is the assessment of Patsy Dolan Bouressa, who is the director of the SIMS Foundation in Austin, which is a nonprofit organization that provides low-cost mental health services to Austin musicians.
“New clients are in crisis; our current clients are decompensating,” she continued in a recent feature in Austin 360, which delved deep into how Austin is fumbling support of live music venues amid the COVID-19 pandemic. “We are hearing from clients that they can see now that the city does not care or support the music industry, so they are moving out of town.”
For 30 years Austin has been officially nicknamed the Live Music Capital of the World, and with 1,007 live music venues at last count (2018)—or 46.4 per 100,000 residents—it meant the city boasted the most live music venues per capita of any major American city. However for years the city’s music scene has been experiencing dramatic contraction, in both the amount of venues, the amount of support from the population, as well as the number of musicians calling Austin home.
Austin’s music scene was already in crisis heading into the COVID-19 pandemic. And it’s biggest annual event in SXSW was one of the very first to fall to cancellation in 2020. Now after COVID-19, there’s a good chance the city may have to concede its “Live Music Capital” crown to Nashville, Las Vegas, San Diego, or another city, if it hasn’t already.
When it comes to the music epicenters of Austin and Nashville, it’s a tale of two cities, and two responses to the Coronavirus, exacerbating a K-shaped trend that was already occurring. Where Austin continues to dither when it comes to addressing the migration of music out of the city—kicking issues to committee and commissioning studies that eat up critical time to put a tourniquet on the contraction, Nashville has been incentivizing and supporting new venues and music initiatives. Where many are concluding Austin has botched its COVID-19 response when it comes to music venues, Nashville is ramping up its support.
Previous to 2020, Austin, TX was already dealing with a loss in venue capacity specifically. From legacy venues to beloved neighborhood clubs, names such as Threadgill’s south of downtown, Red 7, La Zona Rosa, The Sidewinder, The Blackheart, The Rattle Inn, The Hard Luck Lounge, Strange Brew, and so many more closed down in the recent months and years before COVID-19 hit. Many other venues such as Beerland in the city’s Red River district were hanging on by a thread, re-opening in January after going under in 2019, and now facing an uncertain future. After COVID-19, even more venues have announced permanent closure, including the original Threadgill’s location in north Austin, the Buzz Mill, Plush, and others. Estimates of how many venues Austin could lose in total range from 70% to 90% when the dust settles.
Meanwhile in Nashville, there is still grave concern in the city over potentially losing venues if stimulus or relief is not forthcoming. But the only major permanent closure in the city has been the legendary Douglas Corner just south of downtown. On August 26th, Tennessee Lookout highlighted how without relief, many of Nashville’s independent music venues would be shuttered as well. The very next day, Nashville’s financial oversight committee that helps administrate the city’s CARES Act funds unanimously voted to allocate $2 million in emergency grants to live music and arts businesses that have been closed due to COVID-19.
In Austin, two separate programs were also available to help struggling music venues, but have provided less than half as much relief to venues as Nashville is planning. The Austin Creative Space Disaster Relief Program has spent $417,000 on 14 separate venues, while the Austin Small Business Relief Grant spent $377,000 on 20 music venues for a total of $794,000, or more than 60% less than what Nashville intends to spend, according to the Austin Economic Development Department.
Furthermore, midsized venues in Austin (designated as having 25 employees or more) were not eligible for local relief at all, meaning some of the biggest employers and venues in Austin’s music scene like Mohawk on Red River received nothing. Many of these midsized venues also the employers of musicians in town. Austin’s relief funds also excluded Austin’s famous Saxon Pub, and one of the few remaining spaces offering live music on the 6th Street Entertainment District, Flamingo Cantina, despite the venues applying for relief.
1991 is officially when “Live Music Capital of the World” was adopted as a slogan by the Austin when it discovered it had more live music venues per capita than any other city. But with the rapid contraction in the amount of venues throughout Austin, this may not be the case once the entertainment industry reopens.
With the way music venues both big and small are currently in flux with COVID-19 restrictions, it’s difficult to impossible to determine which city might have the most venues, or most venue capacity at the moment per capita. But undoubtedly, Austin’s monopoly on claiming to be the Capital of live music is in jeopardy, with many of the town’s current and former musicians and music workers feeling it already has given up on that moniker in spirit, if not statistically.
According to move.org, in 2018, Austin ranked 1st in the U.S. for the amount of venues per 100,000 people at 46.4, but San Diego was right behind Austin with 43.0 venues. San Jose was 3rd with 40.9, New Orleans with 39.1, and Las Vegas was #5 with 38.3 venues per 100,000 residents. Any of these communities could overtake Austin in the coming months and years as the Austin’s contraction outpaces other major metropolitan areas.
However that only tells part of the story. For example, Nashville was ranked at #19 with 443 venues in 2018, or 22.4 per 100,000 residents. But as many Austin venues continue to close permanently and many new ones in Nashville, the Nashville venues tend to be much bigger capacity locations, while some businesses that qualify as music venues in Austin are simply coffee shops and restaurants that offer live music options as well. When it comes to actual venue capacity or head counts to live music events, it’s likely other cities are already on the brink of besting Austin once COVID-19 restrictions lift, if they don’t already.
According to Seat Geek, when it comes to major concerts (meaning top artists via sales volume), Nashville is already consistently beating Austin. Nashville is #2 in the U.S. with an average of 15.4 major concerts per 100,000 residents, while Austin is #6 with 11.1. Las Vegas comes in at #1, and by a wide margin of 59.0 major concerts a year. But the skewed nature of it’s tourism industry and big casino stage shows make Las Vegas an outlier. However, combining that with the amount of total venues per capita Las Vegas boasts (#5 in the U.S.), it could make a good candidate for overtaking Austin as well.
None of this is meant to run down the Austin music scene. It’s to sound a necessary alarm that the city is on the brink of losing its musical identity. You can already see more and more music tourists choosing to go to either Nashville or Las Vegas instead of Austin as the Texas capital continues to emerge more as a tech hub as opposed to a music town. Music appears to be considered the old Austin economy by many city leaders, while major developments like the massive Army Futures Command announced in 2019, and Elon Musk’s new Tesla plant appear to be the city’s new priority.
But there could still be hope for the struggling music venues in Austin, as well as elsewhere. A rising tide would raise all boats if Congress would pass either of the proposed bills to help struggling music venues that were the very first businesses to close due to COVID-19, and will be the last to reopen.
The proposed RESTART Act would use the existing PPP small business program to provide aid to music venues that have been shuttered and have no timeline for reopening. The more standalone Save Our Stages Act would look to do the same. Unfortunately both have stalled out in Congress, despite both bills being co-sponsored on both sides of the aisle, and appear to have bipartisan support.
In early July, the U.K., provided over $1.9 billion of relief to the entertainment industry, including to live music venues. Germany has pledged $169 million in live music aid for the country. And these are in nations whose reopening plans are unfolding faster than in the United States.
Ultimately, it’s not just about the money for many in Austin. It’s about the city once again wanting to use its music culture and community to help market itself as the “Live Music Capital” to entice business, investment, and wealthy residents to the community, while falling short when it comes to supporting the artists and venues when they need it most.
Musicians were already being squeezed out of the Austin ecosystem in alarming numbers. Now with COVID-19, it could be the nail in the coffin for the Live Music Capital.
September 8, 2020 @ 11:46 am
How is ~200,000 people a “mediocre” COVID-19?
September 8, 2020 @ 12:13 pm
Have no idea what you’re attempting to ask or imply here, but this story is specifically about the response of municipalities to the strain being placed on live music venues due to COVID-19, and how Austin is lagging behind, and is likely to lose it’s designation as the “Live Music Capital” because of it. I would ask that yourself and everyone else respect the nature of the story, and not get sidetracked into the messy politics of COVID-19. This is about Austin’s music scene.
September 8, 2020 @ 1:47 pm
I actually think it is a great story, and I appreciate the call-outs to the programs that should be implemented. But when the slug has the term “mediocre COVID-19” in it, it confuses me and makes me think you’re making a political statement. Perhaps I’m not parsing it correctly, but it sounds like you’re down-play the pandemic.
September 8, 2020 @ 6:08 pm
It was a typo. It should have read, “mediocre COVID-19 RESPONSE,” in how Austin has handled the response to venues calling for assistance. Wasn’t trying to take a swipe at a virus that has killed many and crippled the world economy as “mediocre.”
September 9, 2020 @ 7:40 am
Ok, yeah, that makes more sense, especially given the content of the article.
September 9, 2020 @ 4:29 am
September 8, 2020 @ 5:09 pm
It’s in the blurb on the main page, but doesn’t appear anywhere in the actual article.
Or at least on my phone that’s the case. Good article, Trigger.
September 14, 2020 @ 10:24 am
How is Austin going to lose its designation as “Live Music Capital of the World” when Austin is the one that initiated the claim and slogan. Do you really think that Austin will drop it because of what you or anyone else write?
And any mention of “Nashville” is just hilarious to me.
September 14, 2020 @ 11:36 am
Well, they continue to use it after they relinquish any legitimate claim to it, and make even more of a mockery of the situation. Austin is cutting down all the tress, and putting up a tree museum.
September 8, 2020 @ 11:56 am
You know the scene and the story well, as you live there. So correct me if I’m wrong. I have been told by some Texans that the California Tech company migration is bringing an invasion of techie millenial hipsters to Austin and they are taking over. And apparently they have next to no appreciation for the history and music legacy of this once great city. And they are not supporting the majority of the live venues. Thats the rub from folks I spoke to. Of course Co-vid is another major nail in the coffin.
Lets face it though, there is practically no live music going on anywhere. Even Nashville has been shuttered largely for awhile, save some activity at Nashville Palace for a brief month and the recent reopening of Roberts and Laylas, which operate at far under capacity.
Only live music in my town and nearby are some local cover duos who play outdoors at a brewery or two. No touring artists coming through my town either, and none on the horizon as far as I can tell. 2020…The Year The Music Died.
September 8, 2020 @ 12:40 pm
Need to find a new info. source.
Nashville, was thriving pretty well while several of us were there, end of July, 1st weekend of August.
Lots of live music, at different indoor venues.
We enjoyed lunch & drinks, both inside and out, at the rooftop bar of one of the venues.
Broadway was full of people. Had gorgeous weather that weekend! Rare, for Nashville, in August.
Robert’s was still closed. Have already talked about that.
Last time i looked, Nashville, TN. was still in the United States of America.
September 8, 2020 @ 2:10 pm
Thanks Di. I was there 4th of July weekend and things were sparse. Nashville Palace was going and I found music there, but no Roberts or Laylas. Much of Broadway that weekend was shuttered. Thats why I got such a fantastic BnB deal. Glad to hear things have picked back up.
September 8, 2020 @ 2:41 pm
Glad you got to go!
One of our gang was looking into airbnb’s, but we ultimately stayed at the Marriott Residence Inn Downtown Nashville.
Killer pool. Nice poolside bar.
We had a great time lounging in the pool, but i would suggest people inquire as to when the pool will close this season.
September 8, 2020 @ 6:10 pm
Much of lower Broadway in Nashville is open, even at limited capacity, while all the entertainment spots in Austin have remained closed. If nothing else, this is allowing Nashville to outpace Austin at the moment.
September 8, 2020 @ 7:09 pm
This is the point i have been subtly/and not so subtly, trying to get across, without looking like i am jumping in, feet first, politically.
Am very upset about the Austin scene going down the tubes.
So many people in this country. Most of us not financially rich, and able to take off with every whim.
There is plenty of great music to be enjoyed, in different regions of the U.S.
Have been begging people to wake up, since March 11th, on your site.
I know you are sick of this. And, i totally and truly understand. But i also understand we are in a crisis.
Maybe people will soon be ready to see the utter devastation, caused by the few, and get out and start, enjoying live music.
Have been doing this, locally, at Hard Truth Hills, on various weekends this Summer.
September 8, 2020 @ 4:02 pm
It seems appropriate here to recommend Croy and the Boys’ INCREDIBLE 2019 album, “Howdy Hi-Rise,” to anyone who hasn’t heard it. Kevin, the album–probably my favorite of 2019, and an SCM honorable mention for AOTY–is focused on precisely the kind of stuff you’re referring to.
September 8, 2020 @ 4:38 pm
Cool. Im sure that album is all but lost on the folks they are chiding. Don’t mean to sound sanctimonious, but…i believe in supporting your local community and respecting your towns history. I support local businesses over national chains when possible and try to support the little venues when i can. Same for musicians, go see em, tip em, buy merch. And city officials need to understand that as well.
My little town is actually buying vacated commercial properties and redeveloping them as a non profit deal to incentivize little businesses and restaraunts to move in. Since its a non profit deal, they can charge less rent to the tenants and help make the risk of new business more manageable. On paper thats the idea. Let you know how good it works in a year or two.
September 8, 2020 @ 12:19 pm
My suggestion is to give everybody in Austin a government job and let a few global monopolies bankroll the serfs with basic income (with digital currency) and free healthcare. And lots of apps. Lots and lots of traceable social media apps like TikTok. We’ll all be free, I tell you, free as birds!
September 8, 2020 @ 3:40 pm
You know i love this.
September 9, 2020 @ 7:00 am
And a bountiful People’s sorghum harvest must be part of the glorious five-year plan!
September 8, 2020 @ 12:22 pm
Almost sounds like they little deserve the title.
September 8, 2020 @ 12:38 pm
I’d be curious what percentage of city revenue comes from various industries in both Austin and Nashville (pre covid). If you’re going to compare the two cities and ponder the decision making process, that would be helpful to consider.
September 8, 2020 @ 5:25 pm
Ok, I know it’s not apples to oranges, and I know this article is about live music venues. It’s hard to compare them directly in terms of live music importance, and they don’t publish information in the same way. But it’s interesting to try and understand the value of the industries to the politicians and city planners, and perhaps peer into the future. Obviously as music fans, we see things differently, but it’s good to know nonetheless. The “music” industry in Nashville is way bigger than live venues, but it’s easy to imagine politicians still giving them importance by association. Here’s some basic information I was able to find with minimal research:
Numbers of businesses by industry:
Arts / Ent / Recreation 1.9 % (Note that music is only a part of that)
Science and Tech 17.3%
Health Care 10.6%
Venture Capital into Internet, Telecom, and Software absolutely dwarfs everything else and overall investment has more than doubled in 10 years.
-7.8 per 1,000 people are employed by the music industry (Austin 2.6 and Los Angles 2.8)
-Arts and Entertainment is the 2nd HIGHEST source of labor income.
Basically Nashville seems still built on music and even on their chamber page is catering to it. Austin…….…..not so much. it wouldn’t shock me to learn that they quitely hope more venues fail, let alone try to help.
September 8, 2020 @ 6:13 pm
Nashville has always employed more people in the music business, and it’s not even close. But a lot of that is industry. What made Austin unique was the amount of live performances going on every night. Nashville had twice the musicians, and 1/3rd of the nightly performances. Austin still may have more “venues” by count, meaning places where people play music. But I bet Nashville has more people listening to music being played live on a nightly business compared to Austin.
September 8, 2020 @ 6:52 pm
Yeah interesting, I assumed as much. I’m just trying to get in their heads and understand the different responses.
September 8, 2020 @ 1:39 pm
As a current Austin resident and musician, it feels like the dire straits around here. Some venues are able to adapt if they have a kitchen but the vast majority remain boarded up. Some of the venues mentioned and otherwise have been vital to the music community. With property taxes skyrocketing, SXSW cancellations wiping out a huge revenue stream for locations, and COVID precautions restricting gatherings, it’s a deadly combination for the music scene. Austin will always been a town people tour. You’ll always stop there on the way to Dallas or Houston. But the local scene that helps build careers and does the creating is being pushed out with no real regard. Like Trigger mentioned, you could feel the effects of the changing city creeping, COVID has just expedited that process
September 8, 2020 @ 4:24 pm
I know it’s impossible to keep your fingers on the pulse of every cities music scene. But, if Austin loses the title, what city should the title be handed to?
September 8, 2020 @ 6:18 pm
Well, I think if you pour over the statistics that I tried to highlight here, you’d have to say that San Diego, Las Vegas, and Nashville would be the top candidates. It just depends on how you measure. Austin based its claim off the amount of live venues per capita. But I think both Las Vegas and Nashville likely have way more people enjoying music on a nightly basis than Austin, while the venue count continues to diminish, along with the crowds. San Diego is mostly a boutique performance scene, kind of like Austin is becoming. Las Vegas is deceptive in size because so many people travel there for entertainment. With Lower Broadway and more spots opening up on the east side of town, I really feel like Nashville is probably going to outpace everyone when restrictions ease.
September 8, 2020 @ 8:10 pm
“I really feel like Nashville is probably going to outpace everyone when restrictions ease.”
Not if the mayor can help it.
Proposed 34% property tax increase for Davidson County
Mass exodus of left coast liberals bringing their politics with them rather than leaving it behind that will vote for the tax increase
City is 4 billion dollars in the red thanks to public employee post-retirement health benefits.
I actually see Nashville becoming modern-day Austin in 10-12 years and Chicago in 20 when they bankrupt the entire state of Tennessee.
September 9, 2020 @ 6:48 pm
It gets quite annoying to hear conservatives everywhere constantly claiming that liberals are from somewhere else, as if liberals are some alien species.
Here’s some common sense: There is no mass migration from the West Coast to Nashville. As for the few who are migrating, it is a pretty good bet that they lean right overall (in Texas, for example, polls show that transplants are much more conservative than natives).
The real reason that Nashville proper has moved leftward over time is twofold: in-migration of young liberals from the suburbs and from rural Tennessee (or sometimes other parts of the South), and out-migration of conservatives to the suburbs. In fact, the suburban counties were moving steadily rightward until 2016, when the rise of Trump interrupted the trend.
September 9, 2020 @ 7:57 pm
What, no L.A.? Have lived both there and in Vegas and it’s my sense that Vegas is best for seeing established big artists in residencies or arena tours.
But the L.A. music scene is where future big names grow in small clubs. (Pre covid of course, everything is a mess right now and there are pretty much zero live shows in Vegas.)
September 10, 2020 @ 8:33 am
L.A. doesn’t have near enough venue capacity to even be in the conversation. It’s a movie town. Sure, a few neighborhoods like Echo Park might have a decent amount of venues. But statistically, it lags dramatically behind. Not to say L.A. is important. But it’s more an industry town than a live music town.
September 8, 2020 @ 4:52 pm
Increase taxes. That is always the answer.
September 8, 2020 @ 6:29 pm
Techies don’t appreciate history? Huh. Imagine that – they ain’t the only ones though.
September 8, 2020 @ 6:46 pm
Austin has deteriorated so much over the past 20-or-so years that practically no one outside Travis County gives a a rat’s behind about that left-wing hellhole, and, yes, that includes me.
If a huge flood washed Austin downstream and into the Gulf of Mexico, Texas, great as it is, would be even greater.
September 10, 2020 @ 6:38 am
Literally the stupidest comment I’ve ever read.
September 10, 2020 @ 6:37 pm
Sorry for diverting from music but when did the idea that innocent people and fellow countrymen that disagree with me politically deserve to have tragic events in their lives and/or die become a thing? There are people cheering California is burning because the libruls deserve it.
I don’t agree with the politics of the area but I didn’t cheer the hurricane that hit the Florida panhandle last year. I don’t cheer when tornadoes hit Oklahoma either.
September 17, 2020 @ 9:40 am
But how would you be able to educate your kids without Austin’s help?
September 8, 2020 @ 10:38 pm
Austin hasn’t cared about music/musicians since the mid 90’s.
September 11, 2020 @ 5:26 am
Although I hope Austin is washed out into the Gulf, that does not mean that I want to see its residents harmed or killed. As an example of my sincere affection for the denizens of that hellhole I have gotten my state representative to agree to introduce legislation in the next session of the legislature to provide, free of charge, a life preserver for each and every resident of Travis County.
September 9, 2020 @ 2:29 am
Another variable that is off-putting to patrons and business owners is Austin’s homelessness crisis. I visited right before lockdowns last spring and was shocked and saddened by the state of affairs. Garbage and human waste litter beautiful enclaves while tourists are verbally harassed. Certainly made a post-Covid return trip less appealing. It is incumbent upon local officials to address this issue for the welfare of the individuals affected as well as the local economy.
September 9, 2020 @ 5:45 am
Sounds like San Francisco- techies bringing their garbage with them.
September 9, 2020 @ 8:14 am
You are correct. I had to visit Austin last year concerning a governmental matter, and that was my first trip there in several years. They are trying to be San Francisco West, and it’s working. The mayor of Austin is every bit as idiotic and unhinged as the mayor of Frisco.
You are right about the techies. They contaminate everything they touch. If Tesla builds it’s new factory outside of Austin, as is currently planned, that will only lead to another major influx of California undesirables.
September 17, 2020 @ 9:41 am
You really shouldn’t bite the hand that educates your children. Gets in your craw doesn’t it?
September 17, 2020 @ 2:09 pm
When I need someone from a left-wing hellhole to educate my – or anyone else’s children, I’ll let you know.
P. S. No need to wait by the phone for me to call you.
September 17, 2020 @ 4:22 pm
It’s already happening. It’s called recapture/ robinhood. The big cities support the small town schools. Y’all need to start pulling your own weight. Just say thanks and be on your way.
September 18, 2020 @ 8:23 am
No, it’s not happening. Not where I live.
Our natural resource wealth (oil, gas, etc.) causes us to be a victim of Robin Hood. We are forced to send our funds to school districts that, through years of liberal control, have been run into the ground. And, yes, that includes parts of Travis County.
Just say “thanks” for the information I have provided, and then be on your way to some schools in your area that I have funded.
September 18, 2020 @ 11:09 am
Liberal gov yeah right. Perry and Abbott must like it or they’d change it. What hypocrites. Austin is the #1 provider to recapture so you are still getting a handout. I guess your in one of the bigger shitholes Congrats.
September 18, 2020 @ 3:29 pm
Austin is NOT the #1 “provider to recapture.”
You don’t have a clue what you are writing about.
By the way: Have you applied for your free life preserver, yet?
September 9, 2020 @ 10:10 am
“Garbage and human waste litter beautiful enclaves while tourists are verbally harassed.”
Ok, now it’s making more sense.
September 9, 2020 @ 5:48 am
Austin has always been a bit off kilter for the *normal* people crowd.
I think that persona helped make Austin a good place for musicians to congregate, since musicians are not known for “normal”. It didn’t hurt that the Fathers of the Outlaw Movement in Country music found solace there when Nashville catered to the “normal” people crowd.
It’s too hot and humid there to be comfortable anyway.
September 9, 2020 @ 6:37 pm
If any of you are numbers guys (and gals), this fella has the skinny: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FU3OibcindQ&t=411s
Updated figures here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8UvFhIFzaac
If you’re a normal person: after watching these two videos, your blood should boil.
September 9, 2020 @ 7:32 pm
Yep, watched it earlier.
Seems it’s starting to go viral (for a video like this posted just a day ago). Crazy shit. I tried to discredit some of it and I couldn’t. The good news is the 2nd hump in the south and west should be winding down according to the pattern.
September 10, 2020 @ 2:19 pm
Thank you for these links.
September 14, 2020 @ 10:40 am
And no one in Austin gives a flip about “national touring acts.” In Austin, it is all about the local acts in small venues. That is where it is at.
For all those bashing Austin, Charley knows the truth.
When this virus ends, Austin will be just fine. And if you choose to not visit, just more room for us locals.