Monday, April 27, 2020 by Chad Swiatecki

Survey seeks data on full impact of Covid-19 on city’s music economy

The city’s major music nonprofits have partnered with a national consulting firm to conduct a survey of the economic and some health impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on Austin’s music community.

The survey from Music Cities Together, which is also being conducted free of charge in other cities across the country, aims to find out how much income musicians, venues and other related businesses expect to lose while the city’s live music economy is shut down. When the survey closes Thursday, participating groups such as Health Alliance for Austin Musicians, Austin Music Foundation, EQ Austin and the Red River Cultural District will receive results that they can use to help local and state policymakers decide how to provide assistance for individual artists and businesses.

The city’s live music economy took a massive hit in March when the South by Southwest festival, which draws thousands of visitors over 10 days and accounts for roughly 30 percent of many venues’ annual revenue, was canceled.

“We’re learning a lot day to day from epidemiologists and also from history, but we really don’t know what this is going to look like, and anyone taking stabs at it is playing Nostradamus right now,” said Cody Cowan, executive director of the Red River Cultural District. “When it comes to economics, the only thing we don’t know is how bad it is going to be, but we already know it’s going to be bad.”

In recent weeks, the city has started to take action to assist musicians, allocating $2.5 million from emergency reserves and an existing fund that can be deployed to aid nonprofits already connected with the music community. Less clear is what will be possible for venues and other hospitality businesses that have effectively been closed since public gatherings were prohibited in March. Cowan said the monthly overhead costs for most clubs runs from $10,000 to $40,000. Because commerce centered around large gatherings will likely be the last to restart, he said those already vulnerable businesses will need massive amounts of assistance to have any hope of reopening.

“It’s easy to say we’re going to need a lot of money to get through this, but for people who manage city budgets and business that’s not helpful and we really need to look at what’s the least amount that businesses need to be on life support so later some will be able to be resuscitated,” he said. “Looking closely at the revenue models, I don’t see how any venue is going to be able to reopen without large reinvestment, whether that’s from wealthy investors or public investment.”

Don Pitts, head of Music Cities Together and the former head of Austin’s Music and Entertainment Division, said when it comes to feeling the impact of the virus on local economies, the closure of SXSW made Austin’s situation more acute. He said the survey results could serve as a kind of update of the 2014 music census that showed a large portion of Austin musicians earn poverty-level incomes from performance and other revenue streams.

“Austin was an anomaly because the South By shutdown threw us into the pandemic at least a week or two sooner than anyone else and with a larger impact than other cities in the first quarter of this year,” he said. “The insights we’re getting right now can definitely help in conversations going on in Austin about helping musicians, venues, music business people, and from that we’re finding out how to help musicians, which is different than helping the business owners. What we know from the previous census is there’s a large portion of these folks who are making less than $10,000 a year off of live music because they’re not able to do it full time.”

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

COVID-19

Music and Entertainment Division: A department of the city’s economic development division geared toward growing the music and entertainment industry.

Red River Cultural District: Established in 2013, the Red River Cultural District runs from Sixth Street to Tenth Street and is a cultural district with the Texas Commission for the Arts. Its creation was intended to help preserve the live music venues located within the district.

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