Business

In Austin, No SXSW Means Layoffs, Lost Wages, Missed Opportunities Amid Coronavirus Fears

Austin, Texas
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Austin, Texas.

"It’s like if you’re a Christmas tree supplier and now Christmas is cancelled."

AUSTIN, Texas — One week after the city of Austin declared a local disaster and canceled South by Southwest for the first time in the festival’s 34-year history, a sense of unease and uncertainty about how this year’s non-event will play out feels palpable around town. When Mayor Steve Adler held that previously unthinkable press conference on March 6, he referenced city officials’ estimates that SXSW has a more than $350 million impact on the city annually -- a huge figure for a city with an annual budget of $4.2 billion. The cancellation prompted the organization of SXSW to lay off a third of its staff, or at least 50 people.

Locals in the music industry, as well as those who had planned to come to Austin before SXSW’s unexpected cancellation, express even more concrete concerns over losing what was a dependable, annual financial boost. By and large, they also hope that the arts community here can band together to somehow salvage this year’s edition of the city’s big week.

Pala, an Austin-based post-hardcore band formed in 2016, applied to be a part of SXSW several times in recent years, only to be turned down. But based on the crowds they've drawn previously at Sixth Street establishment Dirty Dog Bar, the venue had invited them to play its official SXSW showcase this year making them, for a short time at least, an official SXSW band.

Frontman Andy McErlean says the worst part of losing SXSW isn't a financial cost, it's an opportunity one. Pala was offered either $250 for their showcase set (split among four members) or the chance for every band member to receive a full SXSW wristband, granting them access to any of the hundreds of official showcases and to a variety of panels, mentor sessions and networking events that might have helped McErlean and his bandmates further their music careers. He says the band took the news with a mix of “disappointment and shock -- it really is this huge event that lights up the whole city.” Pala is still playing gigs next week, but McErlean recognizes many of his neighbors in the Austin music community have it worse at the moment.

“[The music community] is really worried that people aren’t going to come out as much, spend money at the bars or for tickets. That allows venues to pay their rent, pay their staff and keep the lights on, and that of course trickles down to staff,” McErlean says. “But now a lot of friends of mine in the music community are like, ‘I don't know how I’m going to make ends meet.’ It’s like if you’re a Christmas tree supplier and now Christmas is cancelled. Well, shit, all your eggs were in that basket and it’s a little edgier now.”

Cody Cowan, the executive director of the Red River Cultural District, which includes music mainstays like the Mohawk, Stubb’s and Barracuda, put it plainly in an interview with local NPR station KUT: "You're going to see a lot of people who are having a hard time paying rent -- both as businesses and as staff.”

That large music community extends well beyond musicians and venues. Austin professionals in hospitality, transportation, lighting production, live sound and more are now all trying to figure out short-term solutions and longterm strategies to deal with the evolving COVID-19 (aka, coronavirus) situation. Recently, this has taken the form of various community-wide initiatives.

Stand With Austin is a charitable fund driven by local businesses to help “individuals and small businesses most negatively impacted by the cancellation of SXSW” recover. Banding Together ATX is a similar initiative by the Red River Cultural District and music organizations directly “to help provide financial relief to those in the Austin live music community that have been negatively impacted by the cancellation of SXSW.” We Can Do Magic is a kind of related coalition of music venues and promoters pledging to carry on with performances in the near-term to help sustain the community. And for a more grassroots, DIY approach, ILostMyGig.com has sprung up as a PayPal and Venmo database of user-submitted gigs-and-paycheck losses from many would’ve-been SXSW contract workers in areas like lighting, sound production or event DJ’ing. As of Tuesday, the site already had more than 400 submissions collectively claiming more than $2.1 million in lost wages.

“No one saw this coming -- for a lot of us, it is a quarter or a fifth of our income because we know it’s always going to be there,” says Kelly Ostrander, a freelance lighting designer in central Texas whose work covers conferences and music performances. (Ostrander expected 10 days of work from SXSW and more than $2,500 in wages, “probably a fifth of my AV income for the year.”) “There’s even people who travel in from other states and come live in a hostel for two weeks in Austin because they know even if they aren’t booked for a gig, they can find one. It was a sure bet until now. Now it’s not.”

Going forward, the city of Austin has implemented restrictions on gatherings larger than 2,500 attendees. Despite that, a plethora of smaller, non-SXSW performances seem set to proceed next week, including Pala’s now unofficial set at Dirty Dog on March 17 or a March 19 showcase featuring the delightful puppet emo band, Fragile Rock. Further ahead on the calendar, high profile large-venue tours like the The Strokes’ recently-announced U.S. swing still have planned stops in the area, too (at the nearby Circuit of the Americas in Travis County in May).

But as with everything involving the coronavirus, things can change quickly. (The NBA season, NCAA tournament and U.S. travel from Europe were all things that existed when reporting for this article began.) In Austin, the University of Texas announced all on-campus sporting events would be postponed. On March 12, the Frank Erwin Center on UT’s campus postponed all events until further notice, meaning a Chris Stapleton concert this week definitely wouldn’t happen and future events like a Tame Impala date in July may be in jeopardy. And two high-profile bits of annual SXSW counter programming -- Willie Nelson’s Luck Reunion festival and the Austin Rodeo, which boasted its own concert series featuring Neon Trees in 2020 -- made the same decision later in the day.

Perhaps most ominous of all, on the day SXSW 2020 would’ve officially started -- today, March 13 -- Mayor Adler once again called a press conference. This time, it began promptly at 6:00 a.m: the first two confirmed cases of the coronavirus had officially arrived in Austin, meaning more rapid changes are likely to come.

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