Construction, club closings and controversy appear to rule nowadays in the venerable Texas music city. Above: The Sonics June 14th at Red 7. Currently negotiating around an unfeasible rent increase.
TEXT & PHOTOS BY MICHAEL PASSMAN
It started with the closing of Liberty Lunch, then urban centralization with people wanting to live downtown and complaining about the music. Decibel meters were handed out and both sides complained. The cops show up regularly and outdoor shows get shut down. Red River became a musical district and clubs opened up and thrived despite complaints from tenants in new residential buildings. Then…
The Austin Music Census was released this month. The results showed that live music contributed 1.6 billion dollars to the economy, yet the majority of musicians make below the average wage for Austin. In the city that prides itself as The Live Music Capital of The World, those who make it that way cannot afford to live here and many are looking elsewhere. Club owners cited rising rents and noise ordinances as having major impact on their ability to operate. Conclusion? In a city that promotes itself for music, those who do it can’t afford to continue, there are fewer venues for them to do so, and those venues left are threatened with going out of business, not to mention less time in the evening for musicians to actually play.
Also in June, two live music venues were threatened with closure due to rent increases: Holy Mountain and Red 7. Holy Mountain is closing on October first and Red 7 is negotiating with its landlord. Prospective tenants have already toured the property where Holy Mountain is.
Then came Cheer Up Charlies. This small venue at 10th and Red River that hosts both national acts and unknown bands had a significant amount of their venue restricted so Hyatt Hotels can build a parking lot next to them. Plants were removed, scaffolding was put in place to remove rocks and plants from a scenic cliff surrounding half the property, and fencing was put up. The developers went from saying it would be in place two weeks to saying it would be there 18 months. Compensation was offered to the club owners that was one fourth of what they stand to lose monthly, not to mention that ongoing construction discourages people from going to a club. Hyatt worked with the city to reclassify a dumpster area as an alley, thereby requiring Cheer Up Charlies and its neighbor The Mohawk, which is the largest venue downtown that showcases indie acts to find a place to move them when there really isn’t one, as well as telling the Mohawk to remove its venue space to make way for more construction.
Below: Cheer Up Charlies and The Wall of Contention: Public space and storage area no more
Below: This is an alley
This last act caused uproar. People gathered in Cheer Up Charlie’s parking lot to prevent construction. It worked. The Watershed Department showed up and advised the journeyman that if they even touched the area, they were in violation. A March was planned and maybe 50 people took to the streets (pictured, below) to demonstrate and were given a thoughtful police escort to City Hall, where they declared their leaders and peacefully dispersed, walking back to Cheer Up Charlies on the sidewalk.
City Council reps are meeting at this very moment. Supposedly “ideas are being floated around.” As the time of this writing, construction was slated to proceed on Monday, the 29th of June, ideas were scaled back and Hyatt is more communicative. In other words, death is inevitable, but it will just be slower.
We know the causes. People come here for SXSW, SXSW gets bigger and bigger, people decide they want to move here, the tech startup boom is ongoing, the economy is healthy, and buildings get torn down and replaced by high rise condos. It happens everywhere. Many look to SXSW as partially to blame, but those who started SXSW were music fans themselves. They were in there in the beginning, way back in the Raoul’s and Club Foot days. I think had they known the consequences of their own success, they would have acted differently to keep SXSW about the independents and not the music industry/branding free for all it is today.
A quick look at music weeklies from around the country show Washington DC has 19 shows tonight, Portland has 14, Los Angeles: 96, Nashville: 46, and Chicago has 57. Tonight in Austin: 75. Gone is the myth that it’s concentrated in one area and that makes it unique. It’s not. Dirty 6th as we call it is mostly a gauntlet of college drinking bars without live music with maybe a few venues per block and six or seven blocks. Dirty 6th is more famous for drunken fails than anything else. Red River has nine clubs with live music tonight. Outside of downtown, there’s South Austin with good music venues spread out over a large area, one club near the University of Texas, Hole in The Wall and the on campus venue Cactus Café, Ginny’s and The Aristocrat on Burnet Road in North Central Austin, Hotel Vegas on East 6th, a few places on East 12th, Longbranch and Red Scoot Inns, both East Austin, Nomad, and Sahara Lounge, various other places such as Spider House, a few record stores, some cafés, coffeehouses, and restaurants. It’s already spread out.
Below: (top) The Soulphonics at The Carousel Lounge; (bottom) Jack Oblivian at Hotel Vegas
Austin City Limits Music Festival remains, but that is a large event with mostly popular touring acts that many in the local music community don’t support nor perform at. That’s a big concert, not the development and musical incubation Austin is known for. Additionally, Fun Fun Fun Fest, the music festival that IS independent, is facing conflict with Auditorium Shores over needed space The Parks and Recreation Department does not want them to use, and Carson Creek, a concert area outside of Austin City Limits best known for Austin Psych Fest/Levitation, is facing complaints from one neighbor over traffic during the festival and attempts to either stop festivals from happening altogether or severely curtail its duration and times that artists can perform. Now ask yourself: Live Music Capital of The World?
Think about that for SXSW next year. Maybe the same number of clubs and many of the drinking only bars on 6th suddenly getting bands to play as the norm, but more clubs spread out over long distances, then think about how one will get to all these places. Think about how many shows one is likely to miss due to the extreme traffic congestion combined with longer distances that can’t be done on foot. And there you have it: Just another big city with a live music scene, except LA has more venues and tonight at least, those venues are often packing in a lot more bands.
Maybe Dave Grohl will save Austin by buying the properties on Red River Street.
BLURT staff photographer and contributor Michael Passman lives and works in Austin, Texas.