This week, the Barracuda, in business on 611 East Seventh Street for nearly five years, announced it was closing its doors for good.
Barracuda joins a growing list of Austin businesses that have fallen during the pandemic, including some, like Threadgills and the Townsend, that also featured live music. Every small business is suffering during the shutdown, but it’s especially true for music venues. Their math only works with big crowds, and even then it can be a struggle.
“I think when people come into a music venue, they see it when it’s packed,” says Jason McNeely, managing partner of Barracuda. “And that’s usually for a two- to three-hour period of time. But the rest of the week, it’s an empty space that doesn’t really generate a lot of income for us.”
Austin venues like the Barracuda had come to rely on the annual South by Southwest festival for their survival.
“We’re on a very low-profit margin. March was our moment to pay ourselves and to catch up, pay off debts and to get the momentum going into the summer. The summer’s the most difficult part of the year," McNeely said. "And so we would have a little bit of padding to get us through that and then fall would start and we would be breaking even again. Winter would be like summer, ... a lot slower and more difficult. So March and South by Southwest is everything to the music venue.”
Of course, there was no South by Southwest, and music venues everywhere shut down in March.
The situation is extremely dire for music venues. Their "first-to-close, last-to-reopen" business model finds them with no revenue and bills mounting. The National Independent Venues Alliance (NIVA), a newly formed organization lobbying Congress for financial relief, has enlisted many Austin venues (including Barracuda) as members.
Without government aid, NIVA estimates 90% of independent venues will run out of money in the next six months, half of them well before that. I asked McNeely if aid would have staved off Barracuda’s closing.
“I support NIVA, any kind of advocacy on behalf of creative spaces is desperately needed," he said. "But there was no point where I thought that I could rely on that. I can’t explain to the debt collectors that we’re holding out for government funding.”
As for "limited capacity" openings, McNeely says that doesn’t really work for music venues, either.
“It doesn’t at all. I also own parts of other businesses, restaurants and bars, and it does make sense that we can open up somewhat safely in a spread-out environment. But with a music venue, we’re hosting a special event where people go to see artists. We can’t really monitor and ask people to stand 6 feet apart and have artists perform with masks. It’s just a lot more challenging.”
As of today, COVID-19 cases are up 42% in Travis County, largely attributed to relaxed social distancing. Barracuda is a real loss, but it will not be the last. The clock is ticking for venue owners all over, and especially here in a place we call the "Live Music Capital of the World." What is Austin without its clubs?
City, state and federal officials need to act immediately to do any and all they can to aid and preserve these businesses. Communities and city blocks should adopt clubs and help them with fundraisers. We have to save these businesses. Our talented artists depend on them. And our very identity is at stake.
Have ideas? Join the discussion on the KUTX Facebook page.