Some Austin Music Venues Won't Get COVID Relief Money Until Next Year. They Say They're Running Out Of Time.
Jeannette Gregor was shaking, her voice was quivering.
"I am not a public speaker. This is actually kind of a nightmare for me – especially after about five months of isolation and no social contact," she said back in September. "So if I don't act right, sorry about it."
She'd never held a press conference, let alone organized one. She was a bartender at Mohawk, a Red River club that, like many others in Austin, was one of the first businesses to shut down at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But there she was: in front of City Hall under a blazing sun, surrounded by 60 or so people, asking the Austin City Council for relief for live music venues that make the Live Music Capital of the World, well, the Live Music Capital of the World.
By the end of that press conference, though, she had gotten the hang of it.
"We're not going to take nothing!" she belted. "We're not going to stand by and watch this industry die!"
Gregor and others were successful. Council members later passed the $15 million relief fund known as SAVES. Of that $15 million, $5 million would be dedicated solely to venues in danger of closing; another $5 million would help "legacy businesses," including venues and restaurants; and another $5 million would be set aside for child care operators.
But as 2020 comes to a close, that relief money has yet to materialize, and it likely won't until next year.
At another press conference this week, Gregor was in the same spot outside City Hall, reading off a list of cities that have done what she and others are asking for – cities like Houston, Nashville, Oklahoma City, Denver and St. Paul.
"Not only did these cities see the bleak future of their event community, not only did they set aside funding for job sustainability, but they acted quickly and dispersed the funds!" she said. "City management has done nothing."
To be fair, the city has done things, but things have moved at City Hall-speed. It hasn't chosen an administrator to dole out the money, which became a sticking point over the summer when staff chose the Better Business Bureau to disperse the Austin Small Business Relief Grants. Venues and other businesses bemoaned the application and award process, as well as BBB's administrative fee.
The SAVES money doesn't come without strings attached. The Economic Development Department is requiring certain businesses to do an orientation for the program and go through mandatory business coaching to get grants, among other requirements.
Businesses would be eligible to apply for an immediate $20,000 grant, then an additional $40,000 a month if they enroll in those assistance programs.
The city was supposed to finalize those requirements by Nov. 12, but then staff asked for more time. Now, those requirements won't come before City Council until Dec. 3.
That raises a simple question for Gwen Seale: "Where's the accountability there?"
Seale is an entertainment lawyer who, like Jeannette Gregor and a lot of others, has been galvanized into advocacy during the pandemic. Before, she didn't even know who her City Council member was. But when she saw federal money was coming into cities from the CARES Act, she started keeping a closer eye on things at City Hall – and, as she sees it, things are moving slowly.
"These venues just need the funds now. They need something to hold them over, and they can't just wait for another month or two months," she said. "The fact of the matter is this is called the SAVES resolution, and it should be implemented in time for the music venues to be saved."
Seale says the venues that need this money don't need a lot of rules to come with it – like consultations on how to manage a budget and maintain a sustainable business.
"Many of these venues have been around for decades. They've proven that they can adapt with the times. They’ve proven that they've been sustainable," she said. "The problem that we're facing here is that we're in a worldwide pandemic, and but for this pandemic, most of these venues would probably be going along just fine."
The thing is, these venues have been operating on razor-thin margins for a long time, and a lot of that past is prologue to this entire discussion.
In 2016, the city backed a plan to provide relief to musicians after a survey found the city was unaffordable for them. In 2017, a study argued that rising rents for venues put the Live Music Capital's scene at a proverbial "11th hour."
Venues have been scratching and clawing for city money to offset their overhead for the better part of a decade, arguing that live music venues deserve hotel tax revenue. In September 2019, council OK'd the Live Music Fund, which is paid for with hotel tax money, to help those at risk of closing. Then, COVID-19 arrived, putting every venue at risk.
Chaka Mahone, a community advocate and one half of the hip-hop duo Riders Against the Storm, has been here for all of it.
He's got a unique perspective on what's going on now, particularly around discussions on how Austin can use this moment to make things better.
A lot of the discussion has revolved around equity and how to prioritize artists and entrepreneurs of color. That's further delayed things, as the city tries to bake in more mechanisms to support and amplify diverse Austinites with SAVES money.
"Now, everybody wants to jump up and talk about it. Everybody wants to think about it, but you know, I've been saying this stuff for 10 years," said Mahone, who is vice-chair of Austin's Music Commission.
Mahone has been asking the city to consider its history. In the past, the city hasn't mobilized to prevent black-owned venues from closing or helped Black artists stay in Austin.
Now that's part of that equation – and part of that delay. The city wants to make sure it considers racial equity in how these funds are allocated.
But, Mahone says, the live music economy overall doesn't benefit the folks who were packing people in clubs: the artists, no matter their background.
"So the city's going to give [venues] the money and they're going to pay that back rent or whatever ... that doesn't guarantee they're going to last into 2021," he said. "If [artists are] not there, there's no venues. So, musicians have to put themselves in the picture."
In the last year, Mahone has helped raise $60,000 for artists and essential workers alike, giving out roughly half of that in small grants to people struggling to pay bills through his DAWA Fund. And last week he announced the establishment of a Black Live Music Fund, which received a $10,000 grant from Austin nonprofit Black Fret.
'We Need Action'
At the City Hall rally Thursday, Nakia Reynoso, a musician and leader of the nonprofit Austin Texas Musicians, said Mahone's efforts are emblematic of what's going on right now.
"Listen, what Chaka has done in the last year to create these two funds, he wouldn't have to be doing that if the city was doing their fricking jobs. These are the kinds of things the city should be proactively doing for our communities of color, for our queer musicians, for our female musicians," he said. "What we need is resources. We need money. We need action."
In a memo out this week, the city's Economic Development Department said it's taken its time to "carefully and conscientiously" finalize the grant process, adding that it won't likely be available until February. Reynoso argued that delay was disingenuous and demanded the City Council help provide money sooner.
"Our venues cannot wait that long. They've been moving the carrot time and time again," he said. "If they really truly care about the Live Music Capital of the World the way they market it – in every brochure, in every commercial, in every hotel and restaurant in town – then where is the money?"
With COVID cases trending upward in Austin and uncertainty over federal relief, Reynoso said it's looking more and more like those venues and bars – the ones that were among the first businesses to close – are going to face a dark winter. And it's likely many might not be there when the lights come back on.
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