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Grammy winners urge Austin leaders to find more money for music venues

Austin American-Statesman logo Austin American-Statesman 10/7/2020 Ryan Autullo
a person riding a skateboard up the side of a building: The sign at the entrance to The Hole in the Wall reads "Save our stages" on Wednesday. The venue on Guadalupe Street near the University of Texas remains closed due to the pandemic. [LOLA GOMEZ / AMERICAN-STATESMAN] © Lola Gomez The sign at the entrance to The Hole in the Wall reads "Save our stages" on Wednesday. The venue on Guadalupe Street near the University of Texas remains closed due to the pandemic. [LOLA GOMEZ / AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

Seven Grammy winners with ties to Austin are imploring city leaders to find additional funds to help local music venues avoid closing permanently because of the pandemic.

In a letter emailed Wednesday to Mayor Steve Adler and all 10 council members, the Grammy winners warned that without the city's intervention more venues will close and Austin will lose its throne as the Live Music Capital of the World. The letter went on to suggest that Austin should take up for musicians as repayment for the large amounts of revenue the music industry has brought the city over the years.

a sign on the side of a building: Satirical signs on the popular Red River Street live music venue Mohawk warn of the economic crisis that many live music venues in Austin face because of the prolonged shutdown during the coronavirus pandemic. Seven Grammy winners with ties to Austin are imploring city leaders to find additional funds to help local music venues avoid closing permanently. [JAY JANNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN] © Jay Janner Satirical signs on the popular Red River Street live music venue Mohawk warn of the economic crisis that many live music venues in Austin face because of the prolonged shutdown during the coronavirus pandemic. Seven Grammy winners with ties to Austin are imploring city leaders to find additional funds to help local music venues avoid closing permanently. [JAY JANNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

The Grammy winners signing the petition were Christopher Cross, Lyle Lovett, Shawn Colvin, Patty Griffin, Eric Johnson, Joe Ely and Edie Brickell. Among the 65 or so other local music leaders who signed it were Grammy nominees Marcia Ball, Ruthie Foster, Mirò Quartet and Rick Richards.

"Each of us can speak to this need personally," the letter read. "Austin provided the incubator for each of our careers. We cut our teeth here in Austin, and collectively we helped put Austin on the map. If Austin venues continue to disappear, however, so will the opportunity to foster future careers like ours. Simply stated, there will be no more musicians like us hailing from Austin."

a store front at day: The doors to music venue Barracuda, on East Seventh Street near Red River Street, were closed Wednesday. The business has been shuttered for months due to the pandemic. [LOLA GOMEZ / AMERICAN-STATESMAN] © Lola Gomez The doors to music venue Barracuda, on East Seventh Street near Red River Street, were closed Wednesday. The business has been shuttered for months due to the pandemic. [LOLA GOMEZ / AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

Wednesday's letter comes a week after the council tossed a $15 million lifeline to industries in the entertainment sector through the SAVES resolution — or Save Austin's Vital Economic Sectors. But only $5 million is exclusively for music venues. Another $5 million is available to music venues, but also to restaurants and art organizations. The final $5 million is for child care services.

"It's critical we save our iconic music venues and it's why City Council just passed the SAVES resolution last week, putting $10 million to this use," Adler said Wednesday. "We look forward to working with the venues and their landlords to see how we best use that funding to protect our live music infrastructure during this pandemic. The SAVES program was just initiated seven days ago and we need to see how successful it can be. If we need more available resources later, we can act again."

The letter came hours before Gov. Greg Abbott announced Wednesday that bars in Texas can reopen on Oct. 14, but at 50% capacity and only with approval from county judges.

Live music came to a screeching halt in March amid the closing of bars and restrictions over crowd sizes. So far, at least nine music venues in Austin have closed during the pandemic, including Shady Grove, Threadgill's and The North Door. A survey conducted by the University of Houston's Hobby School of Public Affairs earlier this year found that up to 90% of the city's live music venues could close by this month.

Several music venue owners and advocacy groups in August said they felt let down by relief awarded that month by the city through a pair of city-administered grant programs. Some legacy clubs, like Flamingo Cantina and Saxon Pub, said they did not receive any funding; other leaders, like Mohawk owner James Moody, said the relief was too little, too late.

Some council members, unimpressed with the $5 million to $10 million devoted to music venues in the SAVES resolution, offered up plans to increase the funding but could not convince enough of their colleagues to make it happen. Rejected by the council was a proposal to direct the city manager's office to look into the possible impact of temporarily using at least $10 million from Austin Convention Center reserves. The council also voted against a similar item that would have directed the manager to explore reducing incentives to local corporations by up to 75% to free up money for the music industry.

a store sign on the side of a building: Antone's Nightclub, as seen here Wednesday, has closed due to the pandemic. [LOLA GOMEZ / AMERICAN-STATESMAN] © Lola Gomez Antone's Nightclub, as seen here Wednesday, has closed due to the pandemic. [LOLA GOMEZ / AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

The musicians in the letter said it's time for Austin to "pay it forward."

"More than enough money is readily available to sustain our venues, in large measure from the very funds that the music industry has helped generate over the years by promoting Austin. Now is the time for the City Council to take a portion of those funds and invest in our future, if we are to remain a part of the City's future.

"We strongly encourage the City Council to scrutinize all available sources of funding, whether they be unexpended balances, less critical budget items, or innovative ways in which the wealth of accumulated hotel occupancy taxes could be utilized as many other cities have implemented. If the Austin music industry survives and thrives once again, then all those funds will be readily replenished and more. If not, then you won't need the money, anyway."

a group of people flying kites in front of a fence: The site for music venue Shady Grove, as seen here Wednesday, was permanently closed due to the pandemic. [LOLA GOMEZ / AMERICAN-STATESMAN] © Lola Gomez The site for music venue Shady Grove, as seen here Wednesday, was permanently closed due to the pandemic. [LOLA GOMEZ / AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

Council Member Leslie Pool, who has been vocal about the need for increasing funding to the musicians, said Wednesday that she is not giving up despite failing thus far to convince a majority on the council to tap into the city's hotel occupancy tax reserves. City staff has recommended against doing that.

Pool did persuade the council last week to vote in favor of directing the city manager to identify income at the Austin Convention Center that is not generated from hotel occupancy taxes and present options to use the funds for music venues and other industries supported by the SAVES resolution.

"The list of musicians attached to this letter is impressive and speaks to the depth and breath of the concern over the loss of our important music venues and independent restaurants," Pool said. "I hope we can dig deeper to provide the relief that is so needed in our community."

a sign on the side of a building: The sign at the entrance to The Hole in the Wall reads "Save our stages" on Wednesday. The venue on Guadalupe Street near the University of Texas remains closed due to the pandemic. [LOLA GOMEZ / AMERICAN-STATESMAN] © Lola Gomez The sign at the entrance to The Hole in the Wall reads "Save our stages" on Wednesday. The venue on Guadalupe Street near the University of Texas remains closed due to the pandemic. [LOLA GOMEZ / AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

Staff writer Deborah Sengupta Stith contributed to this story.

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