Immediate Action Needed to Save Austin’s Music Venues

Barracuda’s Closing A Harbinger Of Things To Come

By Jeff McCord

This week, the Barracuda, in business on 611 East 7th Street for nearly five years, announced it was closing its doors for good. They join a growing list of Austin businesses that have fallen during the pandemic, including some, like Threadgills and the Townsend, which also featured live music. Every small business is suffering during the shutdown, but it’s especially true for music venues. Their math only works with big crowds, and even then it can be a struggle.

March 17th. 2020. Jason McNeely, owner/partner at Hotel Vegas and Barracuda (left) and Shaun Dickerson of Swan Dive met with members of the Red River District to discuss organizing after SXSW’s cancelation.

“I think when people come into a music venue, they see it when it’s packed,” says Jason McNeely, managing partner of the Barracuda. “And that’s usually for a two to three hour period of time. But the rest of the week, it’s an empty space that doesn’t really generate a lot of income for us.”

Austin venues like the Barracuda had come to rely upon the annual South by Southwest festival for their survival.

“We’re on a very low-profit margin. March was our moment to pay ourselves and to catch up, pay off debts and to get the momentum going into the summer. The summer’s the most difficult part of the year. And so we would have a little bit of padding to get us through that and then fall would start and we would be breaking even again. Winter would be like summer would it would be a lot slower and more difficult. So March and South by Southwest is everything to the music venue.”

I can’t explain to the debt collectors that we’re holding out for government funding.” – Jason McNeely

Mar. 7, 2020. Star Parks performs at Barracuda. Steven Gonzalez for KUTX

Of course, there was no South by Southwest, and music venues everywhere shut down in March.

The situation is extremely dire for music venues. Their ‘first-to-close, last-to-reopen’ business model finds them with no revenue and bills mounting. The National Independent Venues Alliance (NIVA), a newly formed organization lobbying Congress for financial relief, has enlisted many Austin venues (including Barracuda) as members.

Without government aid, NIVA estimates 90% of independent venues will run out of money in the next six months, half of them well before that. I asked McNeely if aid would have staved off Barracuda’s closing.

March 19th, 2020. Zach Volta, chef at Casino El Camino, spray paints the boarded window on the front of the venue. Julia Reihs/KUT

“I support NIVA, any kind of advocacy on behalf of creative spaces is desperately needed. But there was no point where I thought that I could rely on that. I can’t explain to the debt collectors that we’re holding out for government funding.”

As for ‘limited capacity’ openings, McNeely says that doesn’t really work for music venues, either.

“It doesn’t at all. I also own parts of other businesses, restaurants and bars, and it does make sense that we can we can open up somewhat safely in a spread out environment. But with a music venue, we’re hosting a special event where people go to see artists. We can’t really monitor and ask people to stand six feet apart. And have artists perform with masks. It’s just a lot more challenging.”

“Before this pandemic crisis happened, we were in the middle of another crisis, which is affordability,” explains McNeely. “And it’s not just an affordability issue in the city of Austin. It’s everywhere in every major city in America. And I think until city governments are willing to look at that issue, then it’s going to be incredibly difficult for music venues to operate profitably. There’s a way for music venues to change the business model and have other revenue streams to support. But for the music venue in downtown Austin that has four or five touring shows a month, it’s going to be a huge challenge to be profitable.”

As of today, COVID-19 cases are up 42% in Travis County, largely attributed to relaxed social distancing. Barracuda is a real loss, but it will not be the last. The clock is ticking for venue owners all over, and especially here in a place we call the Live Music Capital of the World. What is Austin without its clubs?

City, state and federal officials need to act immediately to do any and all they can to aid and preserve these businesses. Communities, city blocks should adopt clubs and help them with fundraisers. We have to save these businesses. Our talented artists depend on them. And our very identity is at stake.

Have ideas? Join the discussion on the KUTX Facebook page.

Support KUTX’s ability to bring you closer to the music.

Donate Today