Live Music Shows Are Coming Back To Austin — But Venues Are Still Waiting For Federal Relief
Jeannette Gregor never thought a Thin Lizzy song would send her into a full-on breakdown, but it’s been that kind of year.
The Mohawk bartender-turned-advocate for Austin’s live music industry has been busy pushing for relief for the city's pandemic-battered venues. But as COVID restrictions loosen and live music steadily roars back, she’s getting back to running the bar.
Ahead of Mohawk’s first in-person show Thursday night, she and the venue's staff set up the P.A. system. They put on “The Boys Are Back in Town” to test it. Sound rattled through the Mohawk for the first time more than a year.
“We’re all exhausted and dirty, because we’d been cleaning bar and floors and all that,” she said. “And I just broke. Just immediately started bawling. Everybody’s cheering and cheers-ing and I’m just crying tears of dust and stale beer.”
Gregor and the Mohawk staff scrambled to get liquor on the shelves and beer in the coolers ahead of welcoming 450 people ready for a show and a drink. The indoor bar chalkboard displayed an emphatic scrawl — “All Are Welcome Back,” a pandemic-themed take on the club’s longtime mantra.
Mohawk’s sold-out show — with The Tender Things opening for the Heartless Bastards — dovetails with the reemergence of in-person events at Austin’s iconic live music venues. Stubb’s kicked off a five-day set of shows that will draw thousands of show-hungry Austinites to see Black Pumas. Continental Club and C-Boy’s are opening up over Memorial Day.
But reopening won't necessarily be a silver bullet for all the problems that snowballed after more than a year of inactivity. Venues will be able to start making back some of their lost revenue, but first they face hiring- and inventory-related expenses just to reboot their operations. Not to mention the back rent that some still owe.
Many venues had hoped federal funding from the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program would help them pay those bills. But it's been months, and they're still waiting.
'Willing To Wait'
Rebecca Reynolds, an attorney who also heads up the Music Venue Alliance of Austin, said her clients have been floating along on that promise of relief.
The Small Business Administration-administered program is part of a larger relief package, the Save Our Stages Act, which was the victim of partisan gridlock for months before finally passing in December.
The bill, which set up a fund specifically reserved for music and arts venues, was signed into law just before the end of the year. Applications didn't open until April 26.
“In effect, there’s still no money,” Reynolds said. “So those relationships are becoming more and more strained. We’re not sure how much longer landlords are going to be willing to wait.”
Absent that relief, the city of Austin offered programs to assist venues, which Reynolds said was a lifeline. But it wasn’t enough to pay down the mountain of debt faced by some venues that have been closed or operating on a limited capacity for 15 months.
Of the 52 venues Reynolds works with, only two of them own the property where they sit. While venues are covered by Austin-Travis County’s eviction moratorium for commercial renters impacted by the pandemic, the measure is set to expire this summer. Renters with five months of back rent could face evictions starting in June.
“Venues are expected to be fully operational, because COVID restrictions are being lifted,” Reynolds said. “And they don’t have the funds to pay their rent and re-hire staff and order inventory. So it’s putting them in an even worse situation.”
U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, said the deafening silence at the city's music venues will end soon. Doggett, who officially opened Mohawk’s doors Thursday night, told KUT he expects venues will start getting news about their grant applications this week.
“The bureaucratic delay has been long,” Doggett said. “So, we keep pressing on [SBA], trying to get the resources — knowing that [venues] have hung on this long but they do need help.”
Ashley Morales, a public information officer with the SBA’s San Antonio office, said that venue operators can expect notices that they’ve received funding within the next week or so.
“I can’t say it’ll be two days after you send it back, three days, you know?” Morales said. “We’re doing our best to make sure they do receive that funding as quick as possible.”
According to the SBA, more than 13,000 venue operators applied for relief, which comprises $14 billion out of the $16 billion authorized in the Save Our Stages Act.
Morales said applicants should sign the notices when they receive them and send them back. After that, they should receive their grants.
'If You See Me Crying'
Gregor said Mohawk received a notification that their application is under review on Thursday. She said she understands the delay processing the grants, but she wonders why it took so long to get to this point.
Since the pandemic, she has vaulted into advocacy, pushing for city, state and federal relief money for venues and workers through the nonprofit Amplified Sound Coalition. But even though more than 40% of the state's population has been vaccinated and a semblance of normalcy has started to return, venues are still waiting for federal aid.
“If the global pandemic had been a tornado or if it had been a hurricane … and you could see with your eyes the utter destruction that it left in its wake, people would be so angry that no one was stepping into help,” she said, “and that was us for the last year.”
Thursday night, ahead of the opening set from Tender Things and the ceremonial reopening with Doggett, things felt like they were back normal for Gregor — kind of. She was promoted to manager after coming back to work, so she wasn’t behind a bar. That has been an adjustment.
An update on Mohawk’s mask policy was thrown into the usual litany of service-related updates, along with a notice on bugs in the point-of-sale system that keeps track of bar tabs and a heads-up that the venue doesn't stock Dr Pepper anymore. It’s menial stuff like that — the staples of normalcy — she and the rest of her team had been waiting for.
Everybody was back — gathered around the inside bar — before an actual, honest-to-God live music show.
“If you see me crying," she told the Mohawk staff, "it’s not because I’m sad.”