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Austin's live music scene survived the pandemic. Can it survive the city's growth?

 Crowds gather at Zilker Park on the first weekend of the Austin City Limits Music Festival on Saturday.
Gabriel C. Pérez
Crowds gather at Zilker Park on the first weekend of the Austin City Limits Music Festival on Saturday.

People packed in line waiting to get into Zilker Park for the Austin City Limits Festival on Saturday. They took selfies as soon as they entered, wherever they could find open space. Despite the enhanced COVID protocols, it felt like ACL two years ago.

Last weekend marked the return of Austin’s first big in-person music festival since things shut down in March 2020. And whether you were excited or skeptical about its return, we all found out during the pandemic how hard it is to live without live music — and just how fragile the Austin music ecosystem is.

A 2014 study conducted by research firm TXP found the live music industry brings the city $1.8 billion annually. Reenie Collins, CEO of the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians, puts it this way: “Our entire economy is driven by live music and festivals and musicians and tourism to come to see this live music destination.”

Austin is consistently cited as one of the fastest-growing cities in the country, and music is one of the main attractions. But the city’s inability to adjust to that growth has threatened the creative class; it’s led to skyrocketing property costs, which, in turn, have created an affordability crisis for a lot of folks. Especially musicians.

“What some people don’t realize is that musicians really don’t earn the kind of income that they think they do,” Collins says. “Most musicians earn the [same wages] they earned 10 years ago. Bar covers remain the same. People are still expected to take what's given at the door or tip jars.”

It can be hard for musicians to even make rent. According to data from RealPage Analytics, the average monthly rent in Austin has nearly doubled since 2010, going from $811 to $1,511.

“[One established guideline is] you should be paying 30% or less of your income on rent,” says Cody Cowan, executive director of the Red River Cultural District. “If rent of an apartment is between $1,500 and $2,500 a month, you calculate that up and that means people should be making like $90,000 in order to afford the level of rent right now.”

Affordability is also an issue for venues. Rents in Austin were high even before the pandemic, and most venues' profit margins are pretty slim.

“Venues are like 98% cost models, which means if you are excellent at your job, your profits are less than 5% of what you took in,” Cowan says.

During the pandemic, Austin lost a handful of venues, including Barracuda, Scratchouse and the North Door. Local and federal relief did arrive, but for some venues, it was too late.

Many people will be looking to see whether ACL increases Austin’s COVID numbers, but for all intents and purposes, live music is back. It may have barely survived the pandemic; now the question is: Can it survive Austin’s affordability crisis?

KUT's Audrey McGlinchy contributed to this report.

Click the listen button above to hear excerpts from Season 1 of Pause/Play, "The Pause." Hosts Miles Bloxson and Elizabeth McQueen will take you back to the cancellation of SXSW. They follow with a look at what shows were like when the scene started to open back up last fall.

Subscribe to Pause/Play on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, NPROne or wherever you get your podcasts.

Corrected: October 7, 2021 at 9:29 AM CDT
A previous version of this story stated Austin lost 20 venues during the pandemic. That number could not be confirmed.
Miles Bloxson is a producer and host for KUT 90.5 and KUTX 98.9.
Elizabeth McQueen is an audio producer and podcast host at KUTX 98.9, Austin’s NPR music station.
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