by Jeff McCord
As COVID-19 cases continue to rise around the world, the crisis is hitting everyone hard, but especially those who were already struggling to make ends meet.
Here in Austin, the mayor has issued a ‘shelter in place’ order for Travis County, which means everything is closed, save for essentials – doctors, hospitals, pharmacies, grocery stores, and restaurants that have set up drive-through deliveries. For musicians and others living gig-to-gig, paycheck-to-paycheck, there’s virtually no work to be had. What happens if, on top of all that, you get sick?
Even in the best of times -which these are certainly not – musicians in crisis have reached out to the many support systems Austin offers. Reenie Collins is the Chief Executive Officer of the Health Alliance of Austin Musicians (HAAM).
“I mean, it’s just really heartbreaking,” she says. “I can’t tell you the texts and emails and calls that we’ve gotten from people. They were already devastated by the cancelation of SXSW. Folks are just really, you know, they don’t have enough to eat. They don’t know how they’re going to pay their rent, how they’re going to pay their utilities. That is not normally what HAAM does. We focus on health care and health care access and do the bigger picture items. But we just knew we had to react.”
In normal times, HAAM helps people get enrolled in the Affordable Health Care Act and helps to the tune of almost two million dollars in premium assistance. Of the estimated 7,000 to 8,000 working musicians in the area (taken from the city’s music census done a few years ago), HAAM has 2600 members.
“Musicians come to us all year long, and if we can’t get them enrolled, we help them find other resources. If you’re on insurance, you’re actually going to help have better health care access, but we work with specialty care doctors and primary medical care doctors, other charity organizations to get HAAM members and musicians help if they don’t have insurance coverage. We also have dental and vision and wellness and hearing and all kinds of services that we provide.”
“The other piece that is so critical right now, is that we’re house health navigators. Our navigators are available to talk to people in crisis in need on a real-time basis and help them figure out what they need to do to get whatever services they need.”
Yet even with all these services, business as usual won’t get the job done. Collins knows this.
“Right now, everybody’s talking about what are we going to do for musicians, what are we going to do for the music community? And there are lots of plans and lots of big talk going on. But there hasn’t been anything concrete yet because people are trying to get systems in place and figure out what they can do. What we decided to do was we actually took $20,000 immediately and put it into an emergency fund. I have a donor. I believe it’s going to be coming in shortly, that’s going to at least double that And I know that’s a drop in the bucket. But if we can get people 100 bucks of just help right now while other things are being figured out, that’s a lifeline.”
“We already have all the infrastructure in place that knows about, you know, musician’s eligibility, what their income level is. So we’re able to move pretty quickly. We are taking the funds for basic needs – HEB food cards and prescription medication and things like that – that are emergencies, so that people can at least get something in their hands.”
As HAAM expands their role, they’re partnering with other services out there. “That’s probably not going to be a long term role for us,” Collins explains, “but we’re working with MusiCares, the SIMS Foundation, Stand With Austin, the Austin Music Foundation to try to get Austin musicians some help. We’re working with anybody that we can to try to coordinate care, coordinate services and leverage all of our resources.”
“Our main concern is as this virus hits, musicians will be affected. And we know that HAAM will be right in the epicenter of that because we’re providing access to health care services. I think people are so scared about just basic needs survival that they’re not even thinking about, you know, am I sick?”
So what do you do if you’re worried you may have the virus?
“If you’ve got symptoms,” says Collins, “you need to call your doctor and talk to them. If you don’t have a doctor, we can help you find a clinic. I think people get overwhelmed and they hear that there is no testing going on. But that’s not really true. There’s not nearly enough. But for people who really have symptoms, we can help them find resources to do that.”
Collins encourages all musicians, HAAM members or not, to reach out for help.
Of course, HAAM itself has not been immune to all the challenges posed by this crisis. All their stepped-up activity comes at a time when they are working remotely (“We’re meeting with musicians online via, you know, webcams and things like that. Just trying to do what we need to do.”). They have had to cancel numerous fundraisers.
“HAAM needs your help. We have lost, just between now and May, we probably have lost $400 thousand dollars worth of donations that would have come in through our events that we had to cancel. But there are lots of ways to help. There’s a lot of stuff going online that streaming. There are all kinds of musicians that are setting up Venmo and tip jars and doing concerts from their homes. Just because you can’t go out, doesn’t mean you can’t support the music industry.”
“ I would just say be kind. Help each other. Musicians are doing stuff, but, you know, all of their sound and lighting people re challenged, all of our bartenders and venues. So I guess my big thing is we’re all going to be raising money. If you can, every little bit helps. What we can do is pull together, take this one day at a time and know that we can help and we can make a difference every day.”
Popular music sharing site bandcamp is waiving all revenue fees (digital and merch) today to get even more money to musicians suffering from lost income. So now is the perfect time to buy your favorite band’s music, t-shirt or collectible LP. To help get you started we’ve pulled together a list of Austin bands with merch on the site. This is by no means exhaustive, we encourage you to poke around and support your favorite musicians!
We’d also like to point out – this a weird time. We’re all practicing social distancing and some musicians aren’t able to get to their merch storage or the post office as quickly as usual. Be patient if it take a little longer for your goods to get to you. Happy Shopping!
Check out more ways to help Austin musicians here.
Joel Laviolette (Rattletree)
Moving Panoramas – includes previous unreleased recordings called “B-sighs”
Mr. Pink Records
Nine Mile Records
Night Glitter – includes pre-sales of their upcoming self-titled record out April 24
Orthy – Donating 50% of sales from today (Friday March 20) to Red River Cultural District’s gofund me – Banding Together
The Vapor Caves
White Denim (Radio Milk Records) – pre-sales for White Denim’s current 30 day album project “World As A Waiting Room” due out April 17, will be matching waved sales fee to donate to the Stand with Austin Fund.
photo by Julia Reihs/KUT
What Happens After a Pandemic and Economic Bust Wallop Austin?
By Jeff McCord
Last Thursday, I spoke with Veronica Briseño, the Director of the City of Austin Economic Development Department. At that time, there were no known cases of the COVID-19 in Austin, and our interview focused on how the city’s residents and business operators would move forward after the cancellation of SXSW, and how the local economy would fare after the loss of an estimated $350 million +. Last Thursday, the city was saying it was still safe to go out in crowds while exercising caution, and was only working to cancel gatherings of more than 2500 people.
Just days later, everything has changed. A national emergency has been declared, and even though testing is still not widely available in the US, the number of cases continues to escalate, including, as of this writing, ten presumptive cases in Austin. Nationwide, as the stock market continues to plunge, social distancing is being encouraged to prevent cases spiking and overwhelming our medical resources. Cancellation is a word seen attached to every sizable event (including every sporting and live televised event and all major tours), and students and employees are being sent home for an indefinite amount of time (including the entire KUTX staff). Businesses, (among them here in Austin, numerous clubs, the Circuit of the Americas, and Waterloo Records) are temporarily closing their doors. Schools have been closed until April 3rd. And the CDC has recommended that any gathering larger than ten people be postponed or cancelled.
Suddenly, it’s not just the entertainment industry, which relies upon high-profile events like SXSW, or the highly vulnerable ‘gig economy’ – musicians, stagehands, tour managers, equipment renters, bartenders, waiters, pedicab drivers – that are affected. The rug is slowly getting pulled out from under almost everyone. Which makes Briseño’s job even tougher.
“Our employees work very closely with the music and entertainment industry, but also with our small business community,” she told me on Thursday. “There was an immediate discussion of how can we help? We’re meeting every day to make sure we’re hitting the needs of the day. We got ourselves trained with the health department to reach out directly one on one with small businesses and talk about preventative measures that can be taken.”
I asked Briseño about Mayor Adler likening the SXSW cancellation to a tornado hitting our city, and if there would be disaster funds available for those most in need. “We’re looking at what funds could be available. I think there could be additional funds if there’s a federal declaration of a disaster. (A national emergency was declared on Friday). But we’re doing our homework right now to see what’s available.”
“We are talking about where we can point folks to in terms of rental assistance. It’s a tough conversation because affordable housing is already an issue for our city and we want to make sure that we are identifying as many tools as possible.”
“We’re going to continue to hear from people on how assistance can be provided. It’s a bit of a wait and see, but we realize that the impact is immediate, too. We’re trying to try to balance that, but we don’t want to develop a resolution too rashly either, knowing that there’s going to be additional impacts as we go through this year.”
Just days later, many of those impacts have already arrived. Both city government and its residents are scrambling at this point to figure out the next steps. In the meantime, Briseño has these suggestions.
“There’s the music and entertainment division and our small business program. We have a loan program through the small business program. And there’s our live music fund, which we’re excited about the first year that we will be administering it. That’s earmarking hotel occupancy tax for for live music opportunities. We’re working to develop those guidelines and there will be more to come on that as well. And then we have partnerships with a lot of our community organizations. And we have partnerships with organizations like People Fund (https://peoplefund.org) and Big Austin (https://www.bigaustin.org) that also provide resources in our community.”
All these are longer-term assistance programs. But these fast-moving times have shifted our thinking. What can do now to help ourselves and others?
KUTX has compiled a list of organizations set up to offer more immediate help: https://kutx.org/features/how-to-support-austin-music-when-you-cant-leave-the-house
And as things move rapidly in this pandemic, the city has website up a site to help everyone find the latest information. http://austintexas.gov/COVID19
Obviously, there is much that needs to be done to help those most in need. In the meantime, we can help by staying home as much as possible, and by ignoring the rampant misinformation out there. We all need to do our best to take care of each other.
Briseño knows this. “We realize this is unprecedented and it will be a bit of time before we fully understand the impact. We want to hear what folks are saying, what their concerns are, so that we can prepare to address them if we can.”
So do we. As events continue to evolve, how are musicians and fans in this rich music community faring? We’d love to hear from you. Reach out to us at [email protected]
(Note: Until recently, Jeff McCord was a part-time member of the SXSW programming team.)