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Can Austin's outdoor music venues survive a warming world?

Festival attendees seek water and shade during the heat of Saturday of Weekend One at ACL Fest 2019 in Zilker Park.
Gabriel C. Pérez
KUT News
For many music venues in Austin, outdoor stages simply made economic sense. Now venues are rethinking their setups as extreme heat becomes more common.

This story was originally published by our sister station, KUTX.

An early evening thunderstorm was subsiding, so tickets in hand, we started the long trek out to the Germania Amphitheater to see Neil Young and Crazy Horse. Arriving some 45 minutes later, the rain had stopped. But we immediately saw something was wrong: A long line of cars were already exiting the venue. The "rain or shine" concert had been canceled anyway.

If you’re looking for an example of the perils of outdoor music in Texas, look no further. A safe bet in a moderate seasonal time of year, hundreds of ticket holders were still turned away. You can control almost every contingency but one: the weather.

A graph shows May through September hitting record-high temperatures.
National Weather Service
The summer of 2023 almost broke the all-time record for the number of triple-digit days in Austin.

That doesn’t mean the world isn’t trying. No one who lives in Central Texas needs to be reminded that the global climate crisis is intensifying. Last summer, Austin experienced a near-record 80 days of over 100 degrees. Forty-five of those days were 105 degrees or above. It wasn’t just hot. It was punishing.

The extremes are only getting more extreme, and lasting longer. The PTSD of the grid failures during the 2021 "Snowpocalypse" and 2022 ice storm still grip us all, and flare up with every ERCOT usage warning issued in both summer and winter months. We are seeing fewer freezes, but when they occur, they lock in for longer periods of time.

And, yes, Texas summers have alway been hot. But this is something else. If you have trouble seeing the change, consider this: The Armadillo World Headquarters, the concert venue that dominated the '70s Austin music scene, sat inside a huge, old, metal armory in South Austin. It had no air conditioning, but people still flocked there in the summertime. Can you imagine that happening with today’s temperatures?

A black and white photo showing people sitting at round tables inside the iconic Austin music venue called Armadillo World Headquarters.
Courtesy of Austin Museum of Popular Culture
Attendees sit down for Thanksgiving dinner at Armadillo World Headquarters.

What's the future of Austin summers?

Former KXAN chief meteorologist David Yeomans, before taking a new job up north in Chicago, summed it up this way:

“We have heat trapping gases in our atmosphere. We always have. That's what makes Earth a livable planet," he said. "But since the Industrial Revolution, we’re burning fossil fuels, artificially increasing the concentration of these heat-trapping gases, there's more CO2 than there used to be — 50% more.

KXAN meteorologist David Yeomans sits in a chair while he looks at at a week of high triple-digit heat forecasts.
Courtesy of David Yeomans
David Yeomans looks at his forecast for a week in summer 2023.

"So, of course, that's warming temperatures. Every particle of exhaust that comes out of your tailpipe, every particle of smoke that comes out of the Fayette coal plant an hour east of Austin, is another feather that's being added to the down comforter in our atmosphere. And they don't go away tomorrow. The residual time of CO2 up in the sky is about 100 years. So what we do today has a huge impact for a long time going forward.

“Our average weather is just the mid-line on our extremes, right? We're always up and down, and we always have been. But temperatures have gotten measurably hotter. In the last 20 years in Austin, the 100-degree day count has shot through the roof. The line is going up. We used to average 15 triple-digit days per year. Now we average, over the last 30 years, 29 of them. We've already doubled our average 100-degree day count. And how many did we have last summer? Eighty 100-degree days?

"Even in an intermediate emissions scenario, meaning we continue to cut our greenhouse gas emissions at the rate we're doing, in 20 years, Austin is going to double our 100-degree day count again. So, instead of an average of 29, it would be an average of over 50 100-degree days. If you extrapolate that to our worst summers — 80 to 90 days in our worst summers — let's double that in a worst case scenario. By the end of the century — we may not be around, but our kids will, our grandkids [will] — the [days] could triple. In those situations, it is possible that half of the days in a given year in Austin would be 100 degrees.”

Music venues consider a hotter future

Those are sobering thoughts for all of us that choose to live here, particularly for those that try to make a living hosting live music out in the elements.

We opened an outdoor room in Texas because the weather was fairly predictable. [It] wasn't that dramatic," James Moody, owner of the Mohawk on Red River, said.

“You had, what, less than 60 days of quote unquote winter? And then the rest was some version of summer. How it's changed is that the ice has gotten more crazy and icy, and the sun has gotten hotter," he said.

"The Mohawk is a very resilient venue. It's an old Mexican restaurant from the 1950s called El Charro," Moody said. "[It] changed into different things over time, but we call it a banger. It's a kind of place where people come out in really weird weather moments. We weather a lot of storms on Red River. We just do. That being said, I think the [past] summer was really rough on the local economy, not just [our] particular business, but in talking to all the surrounding businesses, it was an unexpected, really difficult summer, way more than anyone [expected]."

Fuck Money performing at Mohawk around a large crowd.
Patricia Lim
KUT News
A performance takes place at Mohawk during Oblivion Access Festival in summer 2023.

Lawrence Boone, who books music for the Far Out Lounge on South Congress, concurs. “It was very hot, very dry and very expensive. We were booking shows every single day — a lot of them really good shows with touring bands and bigger local bands — and no one was showing up because it was literally 112, 115 degrees. There was just no reprieve," he said.

"Physically, it was tough for the staff to be here, for an engineer to be here for six hours, whatever it is out there baking in the sun. Our patrons felt the same way," Boone said. "It was just too hot, maybe even for a band they really, really like. They would maybe just say, maybe I'll catch them in the fall or spring, and go to the lake instead. It was just too hot for entertainment purposes. Outside, it was just too much.”

Moody said everyone's OK with a week of it, but no one expected three months of extreme heat. "Two things happened that I think people weren't prepared for. One, we're kind of used to locals packing up and going away during those hot runs because they're usually replaced by tourists that are curious about Austin," he said. "So the locals will leave and the tourists will come and it all kind of works out. This particular summer, the locals left and the tourists left."

He said the news started "hyper-reporting" on 108 degree weather. "The tourists said, 'Let's change that flight to somewhere else.' And it was a double whammy for everybody in the city, no matter who admitted it or not," Moody said. "It was not just being surprised by the locals leaving and the tourists not replacing them, but then having to reconcile the projections that you placed for what the summer was supposed to be. Really brutal."

It was. And Austin is covered with outdoor venues, particularly the Red River District.

Outdoor venues made economic sense

Graham Williams, an Austin native who these days runs booking agency Resound, thinks the reason why is not just the — formerly, at least — moderate weather.

“It's sort of an economic thing really. I don't think the venues that are outdoors are doing it because they like being outdoors. It costs millions of dollars less to not put in a roof and air conditioning and all that," he said. "It's an easy thing to pull off in Austin. ‘Oh, we have a barbecue restaurant with some land behind it, [let’s] put a stage in the corner and we could have more people.’ That's kind of the story of Red River. There's just a lot of outdoor venues because it's doable.”

“There's a much newer Austin,” he continues, “a much more business oriented money Austin, where I think people will invest in this town the way they wouldn't when I first started doing this. It seems like the next wave of venues that have these people with money behind them probably will say, ‘We can do this much more business by being air conditioned and indoors and not have to worry about getting rained out.’ But if it weren't for that, we wouldn't have a choice.

"It seems like there's enough money coming into Austin that you'll see more indoor spots popping up down the road. That's why it seems that people will take venues that exist and invest in, like adding roofs and stuff, maybe. I don't know.”

But most existing venues operate on notoriously slim margins. Ben Leffler, who works in Councilman Ryan Alter's office, told us while there is finally some city money available to help venues, there's nothing specifically marked for improvements like shade structures and misters, though that could be something that becomes part of future programs. There are rebates that help businesses make their buildings more energy efficient through Austin Energy and Austin Water, but that doesn’t mean much if you don’t have a roof.

“I'm worried about this summer repeating last summer," Moody said, “and I don't know if it's optimism or realism. I've been here 18 years and we've had a number of different cycles. So does my optimism say we're in a 3-year cycle and we should weather it, or does my realism kick in and go, 'Do we need to prepare for a new future? Do we need to invest in overhangs? Do we need to look into shade structures and misting?'

"We're not in an environment where there's excess capital in the live music space where you have money setting aside for such strategies. So we generally do wait out cycles," he said. "We've had one really challenging one and we're waiting to see what happens this summer. And I think if that happens, you have to start thinking differently, frankly.”

Some venues are already making changes

Ryan Garrett, who manages Stubb’s, the large outdoor Red River venue and BBQ restaurant, confirms last summer was very tough for them, too, enough to where they are already thinking somewhat differently.

“We have water stations in the amphitheater and are doing what we can to educate and make sure that people are safe and have a positive concert experience. But when you get those kinds of temperatures, you see that heat index. ... It's even hotter downtown, coming off the concrete and the steel and the glass," Garrett said.

"We've got a program called "Know Before You Go" that will [let] the concertgoers know what to expect in regards to weather. We do what we can to mitigate lines. When you've got a band that caters to a younger demographic, the lines can get long, early. Our line faces west, and that's tough to be on a city sidewalk facing west in July and August," he said. "Not recommended. We're extending education and information about the climate for concertgoers in advance of arrival."

Garrett said this is part of his business' pivot. "You gotta limit the liability of hosting 2,500 people in those conditions," he said. "Also, as a collective, the Red River Cultural District has advocated for sound extension, where we're able to operate later. Instead of a 7:00 door, what about an 8:00 door on a Friday night and let that sun go down? Let that earth cool a little bit, where people aren't standing in direct sunlight, and then run it to midnight or 12:30 instead of wrapping at 11 p.m?”

You would think everyone would be for this, right? Musicians are soaking up the heat right along with concertgoers.

Austin musician Caleb De Casper admits the heat was a lot. "It was miserable for me, it was miserable for them. Why do I want to play this show to a bunch of people who are, like, depleted? There's no energy. I'm an energy vampire. I have to take that from them. And there's nothing.”

Caleb De Casper, wearing all pink and holding a fan, performs at Stubb’s Waller Creek Outdoor Amphitheater on July 25, 2021
Gabriel C. Pérez
KUT News
Caleb De Casper performs at Stubb’s Waller Creek Outdoor Amphitheater in summer 2021.

Yet, according to Williams, who runs Resound booking agency, said shifting start times for touring bands can get complicated.

“Texas is huge, to get out of Texas is a feat. If you're from the East Coast, you can hit three cities in the same day, you know? I mean, Austin to New Mexico's 10 hours or something?" Williams said. "So bands don't really want to go on super late and then have to drive overnight or get up at the crack of dawn just to make it to their set for the next show. I feel like touring artists tend to want to stick to a little bit of an earlier set time."

The truth is: Summer is never prime touring time in the south for a lot of artists, particularly those dependent on college audiences. In the early days of Austin’s music scene, the town would noticeably wither in the summer when UT was out of session. Austin’s rapid growth has changed all that, and older legacy acts aren’t as concerned about school schedules. But are those shows going to be sustainable in Austin summers?

A troubling trend

Mose Buchele, host of KUT’s "The Disconnect" podcast, which did a deep dive into the reasons for the Texas grid failures, sees a troubling trend.

You could very well see crowds getting younger and younger, which is not what I always see at Austin shows. I see a lot of people from across the age spectrum that seem to really cherish going out to [see] live music," Buchele said. "When you start dealing with this kind of weather, people who are going to be more conscious of that are probably likely to stay home."

And as the heat extends beyond the summer months, what will that mean for the shows that venture here? We’ve already seen ACL Fest push deeper into the fall schedule. What will keep these outdoor venues afloat?

Audience members shade themselves during the Austin City Limits Music Festival on Oct. 8, 2023, at Zilker Park.
Patricia Lim
KUT News
Audience members shade themselves during ACL Fest in summer 2023.

"It's going to be bad," Buchele said. "Maybe it won't be like 80 days of triple digit heat, but a normal year perhaps of over 50 days, and then the anomalous year as well. Way more than anything we've experienced before. We basically need to start getting used to the idea that summers are going to be what would have been considered unbearable for people a few decades ago."

Yet Williams, who’s been doing this since the days he booked the original Emo’s, takes the long view.

“People always say, ‘It's so hot this summer.' And bands always complain when they're on stage. We all kind of roll our eyes because every band says that who aren't used to playing here," he said. "Yeah, it was noticeably hot. It just didn't cool down at night the way it normally does. There were times I'd be at a show and I'd just walk to my car, turn on the car with the AC for 10 minutes, check my phone, and then go back.”

“It’s Texas,” he said. “It doesn't rain a ton. It's pretty warm most of the year. I mean, right now it's what — we're in February and it's 70 degrees out right now and sunny, so. Yeah, it was pretty rough. It definitely seemed to have affected ticket sales. Anything that was outdoors, I think there was probably some hesitation from folks who may have thought like, 'I'll go sit in the air conditioning at Alamo Drafthouse and watch a movie for my thing this weekend instead of go out to a hot, sweaty show.'"

Williams points out that the problem is not exclusive to our city.

“Other folks have tackled it. Before we did, people in New Mexico and Arizona, they're in desert areas that weren't always deserts. Their summers are wildly hot, and they've just kind of adjusted to it. They can actually have big concerts in December if you want, where other folks are batting down the hatches," Williams said. "That might be how we adjust to get through summers, because there won't be as many of those concerts. But, they'll be other things we’ll work towards. As long as you fill the gaps and artists are able to get on stage and play to their fans at other times of the year, it nets out to the same amount of shows for everybody.”

Boone, who books for Far Out Lounge, said you have to operate like the weather is going to be beautiful every single day. "You can't look at your calendar and be like, 'Oh, a big band wants to play. Sorry. It might be hot that day.' Or, it might be cold that day, or it might rain that month. You have to operate as if it's going to be flawless every single time," he said.

Pedro Carvalho (left), co-owner of the Far Out Lounge, and Lawrence Boone (right), in front of Far Out lounge.
Julia Reihs
KUT News
Pedro Carvalho, left, co-owner of the Far Out Lounge, and Lawrence Boone.

"You promote it that way, and you cross your fingers and hope that that's the way it turns out," Boone said. "And then as the event approaches, if you have to make changes, that's part of the job, just taking losses. Hopefully, you've done enough the rest of the year to make up for those losses.”

Maybe that’s it. A migration of sorts. Surrender to the heat, with an eye towards times when the sun isn’t as oppressive.

'It's very easy to feel like we're screwed'

Climate change, is, of course, a massive global problem with no easy solutions. In the end, what happens to outdoor venues in Austin could be the least of our worries.

Yeomans, the former KXAN chief meteorologist, asks what everyone is thinking.

“It's very easy to feel like we're screwed, right? Nothing we do today will matter. We are locked into some level of warming because of what we've done," he said. "But what we do now is going to make a huge difference in the future. And that's what keeps me motivated. There are solutions to this. It's not unknown."

He said some things are going to require bigger solutions and more people getting on board. "Over history, since we started burning all these fossil fuels, 100 major companies are responsible for 71% of all greenhouse gas emissions ever. They include things like Shell, BP, Chevron," Yeomans said. "To change all this on a big scale, it's not going to be you changing your light bulbs."

What can we do? "Let's transition our electricity sources so that your phone is not charging from coal, because 60% of it is right now when you plug your phone in. Let's transition," he said. "Make that 40% renewable hydropower, wind power, solar. Let's make that a bigger share. You can keep driving your pickup. You know, you don't have to change your daily life to do anything with that. What motivates me every day is that I see the future in this. I see what's happening, and I see our trajectory in the world's climate and in Austin's climate.”

Yeomans has a knack for making the solutions to massive problems sound simple. And with more political activism and less intractable thinking, real change can be accomplished. But even if it all ramps up tomorrow, no one doubts Austin is facing an even hotter future.

We’ll do out best to do what we’ve always done here. Adapt. Survive. Maybe fewer of us will go to summertime shows. There might be fewer shows to go to. Probably every outdoor venue is not going to survive without changes. But music is essential to life in Austin. No one wants to do without. There’s a certain resilience in that.

Just ask UT sophomore and KUTX staffer Maile Carballo, who might represent the new future.

Honestly, I have a whatever mentality," she says. "I'm a pretty practical person, so I'm to the point now where I'll just sweat, you know, stay hydrated and come prepared. It'll be OK.”

With additional reporting from Miles Bloxson and Elizabeth McQueen

Maile Carballo giving a flower to IDLES at Stubb’s in 2021.
Courtesy of Daniel Cavazos
Maile Carballo gives a flower to IDLES at Stubb’s in 2021.

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