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Austin musicians in dire straits as pandemic keeps doors closed on venues
Karen Brooks Harper

Bonnie Whitmore plays her Facebook Live weekly Tragic Mondays All-Request Hour—one of the few almost-gigs she has had since venues closed down in March. (Karen Brooks Harper)

It was mid-March, and Austin singer-songwriter Bonnie Whitmore was about to start the first leg of a 20-city tour with iconic Americana performer James McMurtry—a boost for her hard-fought music career that had only recently become full time.

Whitmore, 37, was playing Thursday nights at the Continental Gallery and logging regular work as a studio bassist, back up singer, and tour opener. She was to tour Europe with acclaimed Austin band The Mastersons. She releases another album this summer.

And then coronavirus shut down Austin, the Live Music Capital of the World, and Whitmore's career came to a standstill.


Festivals and tours canceled. The venues closed. Studios were deemed nonessential businesses. No more ticket sales. No more merch sales.

"Everybody just kind of came to the realization that none of it was going to happen," Whitmore said.

Her story reverberates across her industry in Austin, home to an estimated 8,000 working musicians.

Most of them subsidized their income with jobs in the service industry, which has also been hard it, and the vast majority earn less than $25,000 total in a year even in the best of times, said Reenie Collins, CEO of the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians.

The biggest chunk of that money for most comes from doing shows at some of the city's 250 live music venues, all of which are shut down.

The cancellation of SXSW was the bellwether of grim times to come, costing many musicians and venues the majority of their year's earnings.

"Our musicians are absolutely in a dire place," said Collins, whose organization donated $30,000 to local musician relief in the first weeks of the shutdown. "They live in a fragile ecosystem that has been totally upended."

Last year, HAAM surveyed its 2,600 members and discovered that about 30% of them reported they worried about running out of food at least once a month.

The organization surveyed its membership again after the bars shut down in March, Collins said. Some 81% now say they can't meet basic needs because of lost income.

"I don't have any paying gigs right now," said Nakia Reynoso, local songwriter and president of the nonprofit advocacy group Austin Texas Musicians. "The financial loss to musicians because of this pandemic is devastating."

Reynoso said artists are getting creative about making money online, such as subscriptions and covers. But an influx of superstars who are doing concerts and benefits online during the pandemic is powerful competition that makes it hard for locals to get people to tune into their shows, he said.

And while losing artists from Austin is a real possibility, he said, losing up to 60% of its venues is just as likely.

"That's one of the hard realities that some folks in the music industry might not really have woken up to yet," he said. "Their favorite club might not be there when this comes back."

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