“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.