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Could Austin’s Live Music Community Survive Without a Red River Club District?

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There’s plenty of talk lately about the future of live music in Austin. The Austin Music Census polled thousands of stakeholders—musicians, club owners, sound technicians, and more—about the current state of Austin music and the prospects they see for the future. The answers that the census compiled paint a bleak picture of a city whose music community is struggling to keep up with the major development that its music culture in part fueled, but the benefits of which they don’t really see. Club owners and performers alike talked about the challenges in getting fans to pay a cover for local music. Meantime, the wages that people in the music industry in Austin earn are hardly enough to keep up with the rent, which could have a large segment of Austin’s creative community looking toward San Antonio.

Around the same time that report was made public in May, Holy Mountain and Red 7, two of the successful clubs in the city’s Red River Cultural District—a distinction that Austin applied to the stretch of Red River Street between Sixth and Tenth streets where live music venues including Stubb’s, Beerland, Mohawk, and more reside—revealed that, despite regularly booking popular shows and running thriving venues, rent increases from their landlords could well chase them out of town.

The status of those venues remains in limbo, but a few blocks north, things are starting to look dicey for two more of Austin’s most important live music clubs. Both the Mohawk—Austin’s most vital destination for touring indie rock bands—and Cheer Up Charlie’s—a thriving space for local artists to perform and hang out amid its well-manicured landscaping—are dealing with very sudden changes as a result of the development of a parking garage for a new Hyatt House hotel going in nearby. As Deborah Sengupta Stith of the Austin American-Statesman reports: 

James Moody, owner of the Mohawk at 912 Red River St., said on Friday that his club received a notice from the City of Austin Public Works Department on June 1 to vacate a space on the south side of his club’s building, where a large Dumpster has been stored for the past 10 years. “This notice is a direct result of hotel development in the area,” he said.

The area in question is a shared disposal area for the Mohawk and neighboring club Cheer Up Charlie’s. Each club has one Dumpster in the area, and Moody said the Dumpsters have been repeatedly authorized by the City of Austin fire and building departments over the years. Now, he said, the city is saying the area is a vacated alley and the Dumpsters are blocking the right of way. The notice from the city also notes that portable toilets and a fence-type structure are in the right of way, in reference to the club’s upstairs deck which has also been on the property for over a decade, Moody said.

The club recently added a large section to the other side of the club’s upper deck. The extension involved an extensive permitting process for the whole property from the city’s building and fire departments. The entire space of the club is also permitted every year. The notice from the city gave the club 15 days to vacate the space in question. Moody said they don’t know where they can relocate the Dumpsters and what will be involved in remodeling the deck.

Over at neighboring Cheer Up Charlie’s, meanwhile, the natural limestone rock wall that borders the outdoor stage is one of the club’s most iconic features—and it’s in danger from the same construction, as are $10,000 worth of landscaping improvements that the club had recently made to the outdoor space. Stith spoke to that club’s owners, too

Construction on the club’s property will begin on Monday, [co-owner Tamara] Hoover said. A scaffolding will be constructed along the rock wall, and it’s not clear how much of the wall might need to be removed, Hoover said. “The landlord’s geoengineer is going to be on site,” she said. “He’s going to basically identify rocks that look unstable. There’s a little cedar tree above that has roots pushing out rocks so they’re going to pull that tree out. A lot of the native Texas brush that’s at the top, they’re going to pull that out.”

The construction company also will build a plywood and chainlink fence along the west side of the property for the duration of construction, Hoover said. She said they’ve been told the project will take 18 months. The project will require removal of an astroturf bench and landscaping along the wall.

“I guess they’re calling it a planter box that we added but really we’re talking about an entire planter walkway that’s really blended in with the wall,” [co-owner Maggie] Lea said. She said the club has invested over $10,000 in the landscaping, and customers regularly comment on how they’ve beautified the space. “We’re really stressed out about having to explain to customers, ‘You just told us you enjoy this thing and now it’s being uprooted,’” Lea said.

As of Tuesday morning, the landscaping at Cheer Up Charlie’s has been removed, and scaffolding to protect the club’s visitors from falling rock as the limestone is shaved down to make room for the garage’s foundation is coming next. Both the landscaping removal (and the replacement of the landscaping at the end of the eighteen-month construction period for the hotel) are paid for by the Hyatt House, as is $5,000 a month in compensation. But Hoover and Lea are concerned that the losses to their business could well outstrip that offset. It’s hard to quantify how much a venue’s atmosphere and character contribute to its appeal in dollars, but an offset of less than 5 percent of the venue’s monthly revenue of $105,000 might not cover it. (Hoover and Lea told the Austin Business Journal that they expect the impact to be closer to $20,000 a month.) 

Austin’s code enforcement department was summoned to ensure that the development was fully compliant after a social media push by Lea sent numerous supporters of the club to make calls. It’s unlikely to have a significant impact on the development, but it may slow down the process.

Regardless of what exactly happens here, the challenges faced by Holy Mountain, Red 7, Cheer Up Charlie’s, and the Mohawk all make one thing very clear: running a live music venue—even a wildly successful one—in the “cultural district” of the Live Music Capital of the World is an uncertain proposition at best, for reasons that have little to do with the marketplace demand for your product. And all the statues of Danzig riding a dragon that money can buy can’t protect Austin’s live music community from rent spikes that are up nearly 50 percent or from developers whose construction threatens to destroy the improvements that the venues make to their space and restrict their access to things like waste disposal. All of which raises a question that, to those who’ve spent any of the last fifteen years enjoying the live music community that’s been built around Red River, may seem hard to imagine: What would Austin’s music scene look like without the clubs in the Red River Cultural District?

This isn’t exactly a new question—it’s been one worth considering since Emo’s, the city’s most iconic punk and indie rock club, closed down in 2011. (The club repened a few months later with a different identity, a different mission, a different owner, and in a different part of town.) But all of these changes suggest that what was once discussed as a potentially grim future for Red River could well be a grim present. If the four venues currently facing threats aren’t safe, then no venue on Red River—outside of, perhaps, Stubb’s (whose resources are buttressed by a nationwide retail barbecue sauce business, and which has no near neighbors to threaten it)—is safe. Hoover and Lea have expressed uncertainty in recent days that Cheer Up Charlie’s will survive the eighteen months of construction it’ll take for the Hyatt House to go in, and both Holy Mountain and Red 7 could be forced to close when their leases expire in October. It’s hard to picture a venue as vital to the city’s identity as the Mohawk closing, but if the other venues that make Red River a destination were to go, being the last venue standing would be a very different identity for the club than being the biggest venue of many. 

Still, there was live music in Austin before there were venues on Red River. People cried over the closing of the Vulcan Gas Company, in 1970, the Armadillo World Headquarters, in 1980, and the Liberty Lunch, in 1999. Red River became the heart of the Austin music scene because everywhere else, the clubs got closed down. (The Vulcan Gas Company closed because of rent hikes; the Armadillo and the Liberty Lunch closed to make room for real estate developments.) If Red River were to go from “Cultural District” to “Riverwalk District”—something that the city certainly seems interested in, no matter what resolution they pass to rename the area—it’s unlikely that something just like it would pop up. The rent in East Austin is often already too high for venues to stake a claim, and neighborhoods outside of the downtown area would presumably have noise and parking issues to contend with before, say, Cameron Road could be a viable contender. 

So it’s possible that, in a post–Red River Austin, live music would be a lot more scattered. There are thriving venues outside of downtown: Hotel Vegas, on East Sixth Street, now serves the same teeth-cutting purposes for local bands that clubs on Red River have for years; Nomad, off of Cameron Road, does well when it offers live music; touring acts like Rhett Miller and Cody Canada & the Departed, who might have played downtown clubs in years past, have recent stops at Strange Brew in South Austin; and, of course, venues like the Continental Club and Hole in the Wall have successfully hosted live music for years outside of downtown Austin. 

But just because a scattered, fragmented Austin live music community has worked in the past doesn’t mean that a turn away from the concentrated grouping of venues that make up Red River right now wouldn’t come at a high cost. The growth of Austin over the past two decades coincides with the growth of Red River as a cultural force, and the Austin that weathered the loss of the Liberty Lunch is very different from the Austin that currently sees its music institutions threatened. The city would survive, sure. It always does. But the things Austin would lose—in terms of culture, of community, of marketability, of its ability to properly host the tourism behemoth that is SXSW, and more—are things that could come at too high a cost. The people who eventually end up staying at Hyatt House might be drawn to a Riverwalk, but it’s hardly a sure thing—and if developments geared toward the people who want to visit the current version of Austin keep changing the city’s face, there’s no guarantee that those visitors will still want to come. 

(Image via Flickr)

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