Some Austin music venues reopen to smaller crowds—but with thin margins and canceled tours, others never will
For a moment, everything almost seems normal.
The Friday night crowd at Riverside's Come and Take It Live is small but spirited. A few people watch Austin-based metal trio Muzzle Blast from the concert floor; others smoke on the patio or congregate around the bar, with far less than six feet between them and nary a face mask in sight.
Come and Take It Live is one of a handful of live music venues that have reopened since the end of May, following citywide shutdowns in mid-March to curtail the spread of coronavirus. As the Austin economy lurches back to life—and as the number of reported COVID-19 cases continues to increase—venue owners face a difficult proposition: Do they reopen their doors and hope their precautions help prevent infection, or do they stay closed and risk burning through their final reserves of cash?
For Come and Take It Live owner Anthony Stevenson, the answer was a simple matter of survival.
"Keeping a roof over our heads and keeping our employees fed is at the top of the list," he says.
Come and Take It Live is currently operating at half of its roughly 800-person capacity. Stevenson says he has encouraged venue staff to wear masks, made hand sanitizer readily available and tried to avoid contact when checking IDs or closing bar tabs. Still, he admits it's difficult to enforce any safety precautions once shows get started—especially as the state continues to loosen restrictions.
"I feel like people are becoming more and more comfortable already, and it's hard to adhere to guidelines when we don't know what they are 100%, because they have been changing," he says.
Many venues—particularly those on Red River Street, Austin's live music epicenter—remain closed and probably will for the foreseeable future. For many of these venues, to open at anything less than full capacity would be financially unsustainable due to their already razor-thin profit margins.
"Live music venues have a 98% cost model, which means that if you're really killing it in the business, you're making about 2% net," says Cody Cowan, executive director of the Red River Cultural District, which comprises more than 50 local businesses.
Cowan distinguishes between two types of live music venues in Austin: those that incorporate it into a larger business venture that includes retail, food and more; and those that make their revenue primarily from shows. Many Red River venues fall into the latter group, and they earn the vast majority of their annual revenue from tours and festival-adjacent shows. As long as the entire touring industry remains on hold, many midsized venues likely won't be able to justify reopening.
"Every big concert tour that has been scheduled here for the rest of the year, there's a likelihood that it won't happen," Mohawk general manager Tyson Swindell says. "The whole industry has re-routed their tours. It takes six months to plan a tour. You can't just pull the plug on it and then copy and paste everything over to three months down the line and hit 'go.'"
Cowan and Swindell both emphasize they are not public health experts and cannot give any scientifically backed forecasts for the future of Austin's live music industry. Still, Cowan predicts that if the coronavirus outbreak persists, several more venues will go the way of Barracuda, Plush and Scratchouse, which all shuttered last week.
"Managing expectations is really important," Cowan says. "If we can save 25-30% of the venues in Austin at this point, since we're disinclined to provide rent relief, we're going to be really fortunate."
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After months of speculation, a new report says political personality Beto O'Rourke is mulling a run for Texas governor that he will announce later this year.
Sources tell Axios the former congressman is preparing his campaign for the 2022 election, where he will likely vie for the position against incumbent Gov. Greg Abbott. The only other candidate that has announced he will take on Abbott for governor is former Texas GOP Chairman Allen West—no Democrats have announced they are running as of yet.
"No decision has been made," Axios reports David Wysong, O'Rourke's former House chief of staff and a longtime adviser, said. "He has been making and receiving calls with people from all over the state."
A new poll from The Dallas Morning News and University of Texas at Tyler shows O'Rourke is narrowing the gap between himself and Abbott's prospects for governor. In the poll, 37% said they'd vote for O'Rourke over Abbott, while 42% said they'd vote for Abbott.
Abbott has been in the hot seat due to his handling of COVID-19 and the signing of landmark legislation into law, including new abortion and voting rights laws; 54% of poll respondents voted they think the state is headed in the "wrong direction." Still, Texas hasn't had a Democrat as governor since the 90s.
O'Rourke's people-focused approach to the 2018 Senator race, which he lost to Sen. Ted Cruz, gave him a widespread following and many hoped he'd throw his hat into the ring since he said he was considering it earlier this year.
"We hope that he's going to run," Gilberto Hinojosa, the state chair of the Democratic Party, told Axios. "We think he'll be our strongest candidate. We think he can beat Abbott because he's vulnerable."
Austin rapper Jordi Esparza may not have won the 2021 Red Bull Batalla, the world's largest Spanish freestyle rap competition, but for a spirited two rounds, the 22-year old Mexican native looked like he had every right to.
On Saturday evening in Los Angeles, the event itself looked like Cobra Kai meets Star Search with graphics adding a very Batman Beyond aesthetic. Over a dozen rappers hoping to represent the U.S. in the international round of the competition took to the stage with in-your-face jabs at accents, sexual orientation and odors, among other things.
This was Esparza's second rodeo; he had placed third at the 2020 National Finals, automatically securing him a spot this year.
However, things were different this year. He was not nervous about the contest. Unlike in 2020, when he made his Red Bull Batalla debut, the anxiety of the event led him to "feeling so bad."
Affecting a casual calm, the locally-based landscaper said he just felt "so relaxed, so happy" and primarily wanted to "enjoy everything."
Choosing his first-round opponent, Esparza, whose stage name is Jordi, elected to go against LA-based Boss.
Esparza freestyled an attack on his opponent's weight and cholo style of dress.
Boss—bracketing his Latin freestyle with English appeals to the crowd—mocked Jordi's lack of education, made fun of how clean Jordi's shoes looked and suggested that Jordi just came back from a Footlocker.
That first round went to Jordi.
But his next opponent Eckonn would prove to be his undoing.
Eckonn compared Jordi to Hannah Montana, while Jordi soulfully explained that he had learned from the best.
Esparza's verbal dexterity is matched by a rattling rhythm and a game face that is as mawkish as it is mockish. The overall effect is that of an underdog with bite.
Eckonn beat Esparza in that round with the overall championship going to Palm Beach-based rapper Reverse.
However, Esparza was just happy to be there. He recently told Austonia going to the finals again was a dream come true—a pinnacle that he said he won't know how to top.
With his nimble jabs and sneaky prowess, honed from pop culture and the swagger of a young working man hungry to be more, Jordi Esparza is just getting started.