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'The biggest group effort I’ve ever been a part of’: Austin club owners join national lobby for struggling independent venues
Four weeks ago, with live music venues throughout Austin well into the grip of financial hardship from closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Stephen Sternschein didn't see much cause for optimism.
The co-owner of the Empire Control Room & Garage and The Parish was facing the same rent and utility costs—estimated at $40,000 per month for most clubs—as his peers, with no prospect of being able to restart his businesses anytime soon. And he knew other owners around Austin were starting to dig deep into their savings to pay their bills and hold off on possibly deciding to close for good.
Something big had to be done to save independent clubs in Austin and around the country.
And so, with a consortium of fellow owners and promoters around the country, the one-time entertainment attorney made dozens of calls and organized online meetings to help form the National Independent Venue Association.
That group has taken up lobbying efforts to push for federal aid for more than 1,300 member clubs, and expects to see action taken in Congress this week that could deliver a much-needed win.
"I choose be optimistic and believe we are going to have our sunny day, and that it's going to happen soon," he said. "I can't read any tea leaves and say that tomorrow we're going to be open, but four weeks ago I just thought that we really need some piece of good news to look forward."
The association has garnered attention quickly, with press outlets like Rolling Stone and the New York Times laying out the case for why music venues that are historically thin-margined even in good economic times face such a precarious future.
The packed-in, sweaty social dynamics of live concerts make them an unappealing prospect during a time of quarantine and social distancing. Plus there's the wrinkle that the live acts needed to draw audiences into clubs aren't in a hurry to get back in front of crowds of people who could be virus carriers.
"What we're struggling with is [figuring out]—what is the right moment to reopen? In terms of how long we'll be stuck financially, it's definitely going to be through the end of this year, if not through the end of next year," Sternschein said.
"It almost doesn't matter when we open our doors because for a period of time of at least six months we're not going to be in a position to make money, and will probably lose a bunch of money. People want to come back and party but they're not going to do it now and feel safe."
That upside-down business model means venues will need financial lifelines to stay afloat and have any chance to reopen.
There is some cause for optimism for Austin venues. City leaders are examining how much of the $170.8 million available from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act could be used to assist those businesses. Earlier this month the Red River Cultural District proposed that $2 million per month of closure would be needed to preserve the 54 small businesses that have been identified as primarily live music venues by the Music Venue Alliance of Austin.
NIVA estimates slow action or lack of large-scale relief could cause up to 90% of its member venues to close in the coming year.
Those dire prospects make possible votes in Congress this week crucial. Sternschein, who has led fundraising efforts for the group that helped to hire a lobbying firm, has spent his time engaging with major brands to begin building long-term support for venues in a post-pandemic economy.
He said prospects for federal financial aid in the Democrat-controlled U.S. House of Representatives has never been a concern, and that a letter of support from Sen. John Cornyn filed late last week gives a needed boost for a vote in the Republican-majority Senate.
"I'm going to frame that [letter] and put it on my wall," he said. "It represents the biggest group effort I've ever been a part of. It's so incredible because we went from nobody knowing who we were as independent venues … even eight weeks go no one in politics outside of Austin knew about this part of music other than big festivals like Coachella. Nobody would have had one word to say about independent venues. Today, we have a majority of the House and Senate supporting initiatives we've brought to them in the past few weeks."
Much is still to be decided, but the possible combination of assistance at the federal and city levels would provide some needed financial cover for Austin venues that are crucial to the city's reputation as the Live Music Capital of the World.
So far the most high-profile music spot to close during the pandemic is the Shady Grove restaurant on Barton Springs Road. Over the weekend the owners of dance club Plush, which was a prominent space for live acts during South By Southwest, announced the club will not reopen, creating the first pandemic-related vacancy among the cluster of music venues in the Red River Cultural District.
Cody Cowan, executive director of the RRCD, said many owners are "holding their breath underwater," tapping into their personal savings and trying to wait out the closures due to the coronavirus. While he continues to push for local relief at city hall, Cowan said NIVA's work gives hope to venues around the country.
"We're in the game, and it seems like the level of camaraderie that's happened nationwide is inspiring," he said. "Steve represents the creative hunger we have in our community. Many folks are pretty invisible but it's the handful of people like Steve who have this relentless drive for innovation and sustainability who have allowed us to come together and evolve past our previous tribalism."
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Editor's note: Addie Broyles is a longtime food writer, who wrote for the Austin American-Statesman for 13 years. This piece was published in her weekly newsletter, "The Feminist Kitchen," where she shares stories about parenthood, grief, ancestry, self healing and creativity. Check it out here.
You know Bruce McCandless' most famous moment, but you probably don't know his name.
McCandless is the astronaut who, in 1984, became the first untethered astronaut in space. He's the guy on those posters, mugs, shirts and everything else NASA could sell with the image of his "leisurely waltz with eternity," as his son calls it in his new book, "Wonders All Around: The Incredible True Story of Astronaut Bruce McCandless II and the First Untethered Flight in Space."
'Wonders All Around' is a new book by Austinite Bruce McCandless III about his dad, the astronaut Bruce McCandless II. (Bruce McCandless III)
I met McCandless III, who lives in Austin with his wife Pati, for a coffee a few months ago, thanks to the introduction from a mutual friend. As we talked about losing our dads, being writers and parents and living in Austin while still dealing with COVID, his dad's famous flight didn't come up, but the process of writing such an epic biography of a complex, only recently passed man was something worth unpacking over coffee.
I hadn't read the book yet, but over the next few weeks, I got to know the McCandless family in such a sweet way that I wanted to write a little about the book here to perhaps inspire you to seek out a copy of "Wonders All Around."
As much as this is a book about space, it's also a book about grief. And persistence. And stoicism. And masculinity and maternality.
The elder McCandless died in 2017, just a few years after losing his wife, Bernice, to cancer.
This passing of the torch from father to son left the younger McCandless inspired to take on this decades-long narrative. McCandless III sets the tone for the book with a memory of the family sitting around the dinner table at their home outside Johnson Space Center near Houston in the mid 1970s, when his dad, who joined NASA in 1966 at the age of 28, wasn't sure he'd ever actually make it to space.
"Our dinners were somber affairs. We ate around a rectangular Formica table in the breakfast nook. Tracy and I sat on benches padded with orange vinyl cushions. Mom and Dad occupied faux-Spanish style chairs with green felt upholstery. Despite the informal, Howard Johnson's-at-the-airport feel of the furnishings, there was a tension in the air that set in right around the time the frozen string beans started steaming. I had the feeling that my sister and I had forgotten to do something important, though I couldn't figure out what it was, or that judgment had been rendered on us and we'd been found guilty of … something — again, it was unclear what. Horseplay was prohibited. The TV and all sources of music or other frivolity were turned off, and singing was strictly forbidden. The only sound came from the aquarium pump. My father had a 100-gallon tank along the wall behind his chair. Sometimes the big plecostomus would attach itself by its mouth to the glass facing us, and I imagined it sucking all the oxygen out of the room."
Imagining what it must have been like to require oxygen to survive, not in outer space but in the living room with your family, sets up the story of the McCandless ancestors, including a guy who was killed by Wild Bill Hickok and the author's grandfather, who was an admiral in the U.S. Navy.
No pressure, Bruce.
It was fascinating to read about the 18 years that Bruce McCandless II worked for NASA before he finally had his first flight, which debuted the Manned Maneuvering Unit, a jet-fueled backpack that he and Ed Whitsett Jr. spent so many years developing. (That's the joystick-controlled machine he's wearing in that mind-bending poster that hung on millions of Americans' walls over the following decade.)
The author McCandless has the unenviable task of trying to put into words what that flight must have felt like. His dad flew 150 feet away from the shuttle Challenger, which would, of course, break into a million little pieces just a few years later.
When President Reagan called the shuttle to congratulate the astronauts that day in 1984, the command center set up a demonstration space walk to give the president a live view of McCandless through the shuttle window.
Bruce McCandless II, trains with Kathy Sullivan, right, in preparation to launch the Hubble Space Telescope. (NASA)
The only problem was, there wasn't much fuel left. McCandless went out anyway, trying to stay within 10-15 feet of the spacecraft. He got into position and turned off the unit to preserve propellant. After the president said a few words and the video switched off, McCandless turned on the unit and "looked for the closest piece of the orbiter, pointed at it, put the hand controller in +X (and) got a sort of sighing noise as it accelerated in that direction." He ran out of fuel just as he grabbed onto a rail on the orbiter. Hand over hand, he brought himself back to the donning station.
It's that kind of suspense that made this book so thrilling to read.
There's space tension like when McCandless is operating as CAPCOM, the only person talking to Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin while they are walking on the surface of the moon, and his commander wants him to break protocol and call them back early, even though there are no signs of distress.
The book is also so touching. I cried while reading about the declining health of Bernice, who survived so many astronaut wife struggles over the years and at the end of her life remained a loving partner and mother.
Bruce McCandless was a Navy pilot who was picked to join NASA in 1966. His first space flight wasn't until 1984. (NASA)
It's easy to forget that McCandless II had an entirely other memorable historic moment—launching the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990—and this one seems to have struck an even deeper chord with McCandless III.
The Hubble launch was McCandless' second and final flight. He was 52 and had worked at NASA for 24 years.
McCandless II spends the last chapters of the book making a compelling case that his dad's work to fix and update the Hubble are among the greatest achievements to science. He continued to work on Hubble for another two decades after retiring from NASA through his work at Lockheed Martin.
Bruce McCandless, left, and the flight crew that launched the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990. He was 52 years old. (NASA)
He was the "nuts, bolts, screws, and wires guy," the auto mechanic rather than the scientist, who kept the telescope going 340 miles above Earth for more than twice its life expectancy. The Hubble has been cited in more than 18,000 scientific papers and has revealed countless secrets and unsolved mysteries from around the universe and beyond.
"The size, shape, and sheer spectral weirdness of the images boggle the imagination and make prophets and dreamers of us all," McCandless writes toward the end of "Wonders All Around. "Some of us pay therapists to tell us we're important and unique. Then we check in with Hubble so the satellite can inform us just how galactically marginal we all are. The truth is somewhere in the middle."
What a beautiful reminder.
Austin FC looked to go 2-0 against the Colorado Rapids in their first-rematch since their breakthrough 3-1 victory in April. Instead, the club tallied yet another scoreless match at home as they lost 1-0 to the fourth-place team in the West.
Austin now sits at the bottom of the Western Conference for the second week in a row and have been shutout for 9 of their last 11 matches.
At first glance, Austin looked to have a fighting chance as they took the pitch with their healthiest lineup in weeks. With just four players on the bench and a late-game surprise appearance by left back Nick Lima, who now sports a mohawk, the club had potential to break a 225+ minute scoreless streak and notch their first back-to-back wins against a team.
Instead, the club started fast but finished slow. Austin tallied just two shots on goal to Colorado's 6 as the team continued to struggle to find an offensive identity.
Colorado's Andre Shinyashiki got past even goalkeeper Brad Stuver in the 29th minute of play to give the away team the lead. Austin was unable to bounce back in the match.
There's hope on the horizon, however: Austin's three new signees, including $6.4m striker Sebastian Driussi, are projected to join the team next week.
It's all about the Lone Star State for Austin FC next week as they compete against Texas teams Houston Dynamo at home on Wednesday and FC Dallas on the road on Saturday.
79' Nick Lima is back!
Nick Lima back at RB for the first time in weeks! https://t.co/eln9IFyoMB— Claire (@partain_claire) August 1, 2021
For the first time since a tumultuous June 24 match, right back Nick Lima is back on the pitch- this time with a new look. The defender subbed in for left back Zan Kolmanic sporting a new mohawk haircut in the 79th minute of play.
STUUUUUUUU 🗣 pic.twitter.com/tRRyGxTooK— Austin FC (@AustinFC) August 1, 2021
Brad Stuver gets the crowd yelling his name after blocking Rapids star Michael Barrios' shot with a solo save. Just after, Stuver gets his fingertips on another Barrios ball just in time to get it off track and out of the way. Either save could get Stuver on the MLS highlight reel for today's match.
40' Redes' run for goal is stymied
Redes gets his closest look of the game as he reaches the nearly-unmanned goal, but he takes a tumble just before he strikes. A ref decision says no penalty kick will be allowed, and Redes slowly rises back up with a bit of a limp.
Austin still hasn't managed to tie it up, but Cap. Alex Ring came close in the 36th minute with a header that flew just a bit too high.
29' Colorado strikes first
Austin has been near goal more often than any match in recent weeks, but it's Colorado's Andre Shinyashiki who scores first at Q2 Stadium. Austin's two defensive strongholds Matt Besler and Julio Cascante can't react quickly enough to break his stride as Shinyashiki wins over a 1v1 battle with Brad Stuver. Colorado leads for the first time in the two teams' history.
Perez gets first start for Austin
No new signees on the pitch tonight. Head coach Josh Wolff is mostly sticking to what he knows, with Manny Perez and Rodney Redes being the exception. Redes started last week against Seattle for the first time in weeks after scoring in a friendly vs. Tigres UANL of Liga MX, while Perez will have his first start with Austin tonight.
Will recent signees play tonight?
The club has stirred up new hope by signing Argentine Sebastian Driussi with their most expensive contract yet a month after another striker signing in Moussa Djitte. Austin also welcomed their first true hometown player just a day later as they signed Austinite McKinze Gaines.
Austin FC hopes to answer their scoring woes with the three players as they head into potential rivalry matches against fellow Texas teams Houston Dynamo and FC Dallas, but they might not hold any merit for Saturday's Colorado rematch. Djitte is MIA after receiving a contract in late June, and Driussi is still waiting for the go-ahead to play as he watches the match in Austin. Gaines may not have to travel far to play with the team, but it'll still be at least a few more days before he plays in front of his hometown crowd.
While all three signees aren't on tonight's roster, there's still plenty of buzz that could drum up more excitement on and off the pitch.
La Murga marches to McKalla
Austin FC fan band La Murga de Austin teamed up with supporters' groups Los Verdes and Austin Anthem as hundreds marched to Q2 Stadium two hours before the match. Hundreds of fans filed in, home opener style, to celebrate the upcoming match with brass, bass drums and plenty of fanfare.
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