These Austin Businesses Are Trying To Keep The Music Going After SXSW's Cancellation
There they were, close to 30 of them, gathered around the bar, licking their wounds, talking about spreadsheets and orphans.
Less than 24 hours after the cancellation of South by Southwest over COVID-19 concerns, club owners, restaurateurs, managers, talent buyers and bartenders gathered at the Empire Control Room with a simple goal: to find homes for those hundreds of orphans – the live music showcases, day parties and other events that were without a home after the festival's cancellation.
Spreadsheets would be key.
Friday's decision to cancel the economic juggernaut that's taken over downtown every spring for the last 34 years will send shockwaves through the ecosystem that props up Austin's music scene – from bar backs to servers to bartenders to sound engineers to stage managers to artists to owners.
So, Steve Sternschein decided to find a way to, at the very least, dampen that shockwave and mitigate the effects that could follow. He needed help.
The managing partner of Heard Productions, which runs Empire and the Parish, set up a GoFundMe, wrangling roughly 70 businesses to back it. The collective, dubbed Banding Together, hopes to raise $100,000 to cover expenses and lost wages of artists and contract workers who were banking on the fest, and relocate the showcases and events that are, at least officially, canceled.
It won't be easy.
Sternschein said Saturday the industry needs to get past its natural competitiveness, otherwise things will fall apart.
"We kind of have to put that aside and say, 'OK, what's best overall?' What's best for the artists that are coming down? What's best for the folks who are coming to the events?" he said.
"You're going to see a lot of people who are having a hard time paying rent – both as businesses and as staff."
Sternschein, who also served as president of the Red River Cultural District, folded that nonprofit into the effort and looped in its executive director, Cody Cowan. Cowan helped run Mohawk for 10 years.
Cowan and Sternschein led Saturday's meeting, urging those in the room to think of the cancellation – as gutting and unexpected as it seemed – as a party, not a wake.
The people representing those clubs and restaurants were understandably dour. Last year, the festival brought in an estimated $356 million and drew more than 400,000 attendees from across the globe. That money accounts for a huge chunk of revenue for the places – and the people – hosting attendees.
The festival brings in roughly a fifth of the annual revenue for Sternschein's Heard Presents. For staff and part-time workers, SXSW is a lifeline. Losing that lifeline, Cowan said, could jeopardize their housing security.
"You're going to see a lot of people who are having a hard time paying rent – both as businesses and as staff," he said.
Jason McNeely, co-owner of Barracuda and Hotel Vegas, said he wanted to see more support from the city's Music Office and that he hoped people with more connections at City Hall would act on the group's behalf.
"We need our friends in the Music Office to work with us, and they owe us that – that's what their job is, and we need to hold them to it," he said. "I haven't gotten a single call from anybody downtown, and I'm surprised and I'm a little bit upset about it."
Belying all this is the prospect of holding gatherings amid concerns over COVID-19, which has killed 19 people in the United States and more than 3,500 globally since late January.
Banding Together is working with the city to ensure the safety of attendees, Sternschein said.
Dr. Mark Escott, Austin Public Health's interim medical director, said Friday that the city and county's joint declarations of a state of emergency prohibits gatherings of more than 2,500 people – a headcount that's higher than the capacity of the largest venue in the collective, Stubb's. While there hasn't been a case of COVID-19 in Travis County, officials are testing people suspected of having the virus, and Escott and other officials say it's only a matter of time.
As for the sponsors, who dropped off steadily ahead of the festival's cancellation, Cowan said a handful have suggested backing events remotely and some alcohol companies have reached out to see how they can help keep bars stocked as the shows go on.
Other details, like whether venues will be charging admission to recoup costs, are up in the air. Some floated the idea of a suggested donation, while others wanted a hard-capped dollar amount.
And, of course, there are spreadsheets.
Sternschein says he hopes the picture becomes clearer in the days ahead. He says Banding Together will take cues from the Red River Cultural District, which produces Free Week and Hot Summer Nights, to streamline the communication and booking, as well as the allocation of the money raised.
Overall, he hopes the ad hoc cooperative will go a long way to fill in the gaps – both in programming and in wages for workers of all stripes who have been the bedrock of the festival – while balancing safety.
"We're gonna get through this. It's gonna suck. It's really scary – especially for the groups that are most at-risk. But, I think that the world is a f- - - - - - scary place all the time, and there's so many different ways you can go," he said. "And part of the reason why we throw music events is to give people a break from the harsh reality that we're hurtling through space at millions of miles an hour on this little rock, and we're just specks of dust. So, yeah, coronavirus? Whatever. It's just another thing."
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