Carolina Santillan, a Dallas-based artist, was gearing up to finally perform in New York—and in Chicago, and Detroit, and Los Angeles. She and her creative partner, Maxwell Henderson, play gritty, industrial electronic techno as BATHHØUSE. After joining Austin’s Holodeck Records in February, the two set out on their first national tour. A SXSW label showcase at Hotel Vegas, featuring Austin’s Lou Rebecca and Automelodi from Montreal, comprised the heart of their tour schedule.
On March 6, the Holodeck crew’s first date out of town in Oklahoma City, SXSW canceled the entire festival due to mounting concerns about the novel coronavirus. The band continued on to Wichita and Chicago, performing shows as gatherings large and small were gradually being canceled across the United States to prevent the virus’s spread. A week later, as Santillan and her tourmates were set to play in Philadelphia, they canceled the rest of their dates and drove back home to North Texas. “There were a lot of opinions while we were in the car,” she says. “I didn’t want to stop. I wanted to keep going. But we had to really think about it. We could potentially be in danger, and other people could be in danger because of this.”
As Santillan and her tour mates were driving to Oklahoma for their first tour date in early March, hundreds of other artists, musicians, and bands were concurrently making their way toward Texas. Most musicians weren’t making a trip just for the behemoth SXSW festival, though. The long-standing tradition of SXSW spillover shows happening throughout March is a given for musicians who route their tours through Austin, and play offshoot festivals and venues in other major music communities in Texas—like Denton, McAllen, and Dallas—either before or after their SXSW run. But tours aren’t possible anymore given growing coronavirus concerns, and won’t be for a while: yesterday, Texas governor Greg Abbott issued an executive order banning gatherings of more than ten people, effective through April 3.
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Brendon Anthony, who runs the Texas Music Office, says the economic impact of far-flung smaller shows orbiting SXSW each March is immeasurable for local economies. They’ve become ingrained in Texas’s cultural fabric each spring since the festivals’ inception 34 years ago. “Spillover is going to be felt much more deeply than simply the money from the conference not coming in,” he says.
Anthony says the Texas Music Office is meeting with other government entities and nonprofits to find viable solutions to help sustain local music economies—as well as the venue employees, sound technicians, and lighting designers who make it all possible—during this time of uncertainty. “We’re having conversations on how we can provide a series of bridges between the last money making period and the next one,” Anthony says. “There are just no models for this. Asking companies, asking different agencies that collect different types of fees in Texas to take a month off, or take two months off, is unprecedented, so we’ll have to see what that road map is.”
Texas’s music communities are especially vulnerable to this abrupt and indefinite halt to nightlife. At one Austin venue, a manager who wished to remain anonymous told me Tuesday that they’re filing a mass layoff claim with the city. At another popular mid-sized music venue in Austin, a representative estimated that SXSW’s cancellation and subsequent closures have caused a total of $160,000 in losses just in bar revenue; local musicians often populate its bar staff, too.
What’s more, musicians often rely on touring and merchandise sales to pay at least a portion of their bills. And this investment goes beyond concrete expenditures: Ava Boheme, of avant-pop Dallas band Starfruit, lives at home and teaches part time to enable a life making music. When the band had to cancel its first large-scale tour this month, Boehme estimates that they lost about $2,500 in payments from venues, not counting promotional costs and the labor involved in self-booking twenty shows.
The growing urgency and immediacy of the COVID-19 pandemic is something that can’t be ignored. Texas’s music communities are resilient, though, and are readjusting to the indeterminate hiatus on live music until the pandemic slows.
On Friday, March 13, several prolific local do-it-yourself bookers like Regina Bugarin, Rob Buttrum, and Rick Eye sat at the DIY mainstay venue Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studios in Denton, comfortably spaced out across the bar area. There, well before the statewide ban on gatherings, they debated whether or not to keep events going at the club and at other local establishments. Rubber Gloves’ venue manager Chad Withers wore a faded persimmon hat with the words “Get Well Soon” emblazoned on it—merch from Oakland artist Boy Scouts—as he juggled an onslaught of messages and an arriving shipment of ginger beer.
Withers wondered if it would be enough to place hand-sanitizer stations across the venue. (He was having trouble finding any on the shelves.) Bugarin, who had 25 other shows hanging in the balance, worried about the bands coming from out of town who’d have nowhere to play. After debating the merits of hand-washing reminders, the financial toll a cancellation could take on the bands, the club, and the impact on the community’s mental health, they decided to cancel Denton’s annual BUTTS festival originally planned for this weekend.
BUTTS FEST—which stands for Better Understanding Trash Through Service, referring to cigarette debris removed from Denton’s downtown square by a small group of eco-concerned citizens—is a two-day extreme music showcase that would have brought together experimental music, free jazz, no-wave, hip-hop, and punk to Rubber Gloves’ three stages. Before the cancellation, SXSW fringe bands from New York—noise-rock act Gold Dime, glam rock/dream-pop group Moon Kissed, and cinematic harp/violin duo Leya—anchored the bill. Denton’s Flesh Narc, of which Eye is a member, is known for eviscerating rooms with to-eleven improv freakouts. Local staples Harvest House and Armadillo Ale Works had planned to host sets, too.
“The goal for me would be encouraging people to slow the spread and take it seriously. Because there’s a lot of people who aren’t taking it seriously,” Rick Eye says. “I understand the other angles too. It’s very complicated.”
Other cities throughout Texas faced similar predicaments with their own events. McAllen’s Dreams festival, which was also scheduled for this weekend, featured indie-pop draws like L.A.’s Los Wálters, New Zealand’s Yumi Zouma, and Mexico City’s Little Jesus on its bill. The festival was raising proceeds to benefit Angry Tias and Abuelas of the Rio Grande Valley, an organization that helps asylum seekers at the U.S.–Mexico border.
Patrick Garcia, a go-to DIY programmer in South Texas who works under the stamp Tiger’s Blood, is the booker behind the two-day festival. While Garcia was deliberating whether or not to cancel the event, President Donald Trump announced a ban on travel to the U.S. from European countries, where the coronavirus has spread exponentially fast. “I didn’t think he was actually going to say anything,” Garcia told me last week, as he was reeling from talks with venue runners and artists. Initially, he decided to keep the show going.
“We’re not stupid,” he says. “We understand that we’re a low income area, a lot of people are uninsured … just because there are no cases doesn’t mean that people don’t have it. It is weighing on my conscience.” Garcia ended up canceling day one of the festival last Friday, and day two on Monday, just before Hidalgo County’s seven-day disaster declaration banning any events of fifty or more people. (The Rio Grande Valley has since confirmed its first COVID-19 case.)
On Sunday, John Iskander, who has been running Not So Fun Wknd for twelve years in Dallas, was preparing to post T-shirts on his website. This year, he’d hoped to bring Dallas-based stoner rock powerhouse True Widow together with gentle electro-jammer Part Time, and Polyvinyl musician Anna Burch, who has new material out just as the label had announced its forthcoming Texas office in late February. Los Angeles post-punk trio Automatic, who supported Bauhaus on a reunion tour last year, was on the bill, too. “More than 80 percent of the bands have asked to reschedule,” he says. Now, he’s hoping T-shirt sales will help him recoup some costs from the festival’s cancellation.
Even before Abbott’s ban, Withers ended up deciding to close Rubber Gloves, which regularly hosts shows like the adventurous BUTTS festival, at least through the end of March. He’s currently working out other ideas, such as streaming sets from the space for free on the venue’s website, along with a call for donations. And less than an hour southeast of Rubber Gloves, DJ Blake Ward and the folks at Double Wide in Dallas’s Deep Ellum are planning to film episodes for a music series called QuaranTV. They’ll take donations for the bands that were slated to perform there. A growing national list of virtual music events, tools for streaming, and a list of emergency funds for artists can be found in this Google doc compiled by Cherie Hu, the founder of Water & Music, an online music community based in Brooklyn.
In lieu of this year’s canceled spillover festivals, supporting artists directly is also a viable, encouraging option. Today the music streaming and merchandise service Bandcamp is waiving their revenue share, with all proceeds on their site going directly to artists. Plenty of Texas musicians are live-streaming sets, and viewers can send donations along.
As always, artists in Texas are still taking care of each other as they have to cancel paydays. Dallas social practice artist Darryl Ratcliff rallied for the Dallas Artist Relief Fund, which also seeks donations of nonmonetary services from companies and independent professionals, like therapists or accountants. And Rachel Gollay, a musician based in Fort Worth, spearheaded the Fort Worth Artist and Service Worker relief fund, which has almost met its goal of $10,000 as of Friday afternoon.
Santillan and Henderson of BATHHØUSE are looking ahead, too. They’ll record and release their first LP on Holodeck this year—good news for fans who have only had live recordings of the duo’s music thus far. The pair returned home to their Cedars neighborhood apartment last week, where they’ll keep rehearsing with a headphone amplifier (their practice space was damaged in the tornado that ravaged Dallas in October). In a few weeks, though, Santillan hopes the space will be ready for them again to keep pushing their music forward. “We get to learn from that week and figure out things that we could have done better … having more merch out, creating more designs,” she says. “When we come back, we want to do it ten times better than before.”